It was a week before the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s funeral when I arrived in Bangkok for a conference and I did not expect that my world would turn black for the next week.
On my first morning (Oct 15) in Bangkok, I was awoken by the sounds of blasting cannons coming from the Grand Palace where the late King’s body has lain in state since his death.
I emerged from my guesthouse for a walk and was immediately overwhelmed, not only by the hundreds of people milling the streets near the Grand Palace but the fact that every single person was dressed in black. Curious tourists in their colourful sun dresses stood out from the monochrome sea of mourners as if they had sucked the colour and joy out of the people.
Also in the crowd were hundreds of volunteers who call themselves “Volunteers of Dad” (they call the King “Father”) as well as policemen, army and navy personnel manning the streets, controlling the crowd and providing bottled water to weary mourners.
Thailand had been in mourning since the ninth monarch passed away at age 88 on Oct 13, 2016. After a year of funeral preparations and allowing citizens time to pay their respects in person, the beloved King is to be cremated in an elaborate five-day Buddhist ceremony on Oct 26 at Sanam Luang Square near the Grand Palace.
The country was in a sombre mood as the funeral drew near.
I thought the nation had donned black to mark only the rehearsal of the royal funeral, but researcher Khemingka Thungkewthanakul told me that Thais had been wearing black for a year since the monarch’s passing.
“If I want to wear colour, I will wear something dark like navy blue,” she said. “I cried when my King died, he was a very good King who did a lot of good for the people,” she added.
Even websites, billboards and television networks had opted for neutral colours. Black and white banners line the walls of buildings, memorials with life-sized photos of the King are displayed on store fronts and street corners, and skyscrapers are adorned with portraits of the late King.
Party-street Khao San road, notorious for its loud bars and night-long alcohol-induced parties, tamed down to mark the significant event. Bars and clubs were not allowed to play loud music for the week leading up to the funeral, a bartender told me when I pointed at an empty stage with an abandoned drum set.
Out of Khao San road, many bars that typically close at 4am had been shutting down early at midnight.
Meanwhile outside the Grand Palace, a new business selling King Bhumibol amulets, posters, t-shirts and other commemorative items was booming. Mourners from all corners of the country arrived to the Grand Palace by the busloads and were seen taking selfies with beautiful King Bhumibol graffiti that decorated the street. Besides graffiti artists, art museums and galleries also honoured the late King with entire exhibitions dedicated to his life and times.
On my last day in Bangkok, I was stopped in my tracks to see everyone, dressed in the now familiar black, stopping by the side of a main road leading to the Grand Palace. Vehicles were cleared from the street, journalists milled around and locals kneeled by the sidewalk.
About 10 minutes later, a black motorcade rolled by and the street fell silent. As soon as it left, the street immediately sprung back into a hive of activity with motorbikes dangerously zooming down the road and people hurrying to their respective destinations.
“The Royal family was driving by,” a passer-by told me when I asked.
Thais display a sincere love and respect for the late King, one whom they witnessed actively fighting for the poor and the needy.
Thungkewthanakul, for one, says she will continue to wear black for a few weeks after the funeral. Her Facebook profile photo and cover photo, like many other Thais, features a memoriam dedicated to the late King.
“I will miss my King very much,” she said, and by the looks of it, so will the rest of Thailand.
This article first appeared on The Star Online on October 26, 2017, the day King Bhumibol was cremated. May His Majesty rest in peace.
Read more travel stories like this:
Culture Shock: A Tattoo in Egypt That I Will Never Forget
Lost In Translation: One Heck Of A Confusing Afternoon In Myanmar
The Business Of Buddhism In Sri Lanka