The death of King Bhumibol: A tourist’s account of a poignant moment in Thai history

Thai people hold candles outside The Grand Palace to commemorate the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Pic: AP

ON the Thursday morning I arrived in Bangkok, everything still seemed somewhat peachy, if only the air was plagued by a mild unease about recent news reports. News had spread about Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his “unstable” health condition.

When news of his death broke out later that evening, I was sitting down to dinner at Chinatown. Security was heavy; policemen were abundant and guarding the area in droves; and traffic cones were peppered in busy areas for crowd management.

Many locals in the area who worked in restaurants and manned street stalls – most of whom, at this point, seemed unsuspecting of the tragedy – served the tourists as they usually would. The char of roasted chestnuts filled the air, and as any other day, smiles too did.

On the way back, I stopped by a favorite stall of mine in a residential area in Sukhumvit for mango sticky rice; the lady who manned the stall chatted furiously on her mobile phone, balanced in the crook of her neck as she sliced mango. During the taxi ride back to the hotel, the driver advised me to wear black the following day.

On Friday morning, I rummaged through my bag for something even remotely black to wear (I failed), and headed out to the much talked-about Krua Apsorn. Fittingly, the owner rose to fame after a few of her signature dishes were claimed to be favorites of the Thai royal family.

Mannequins display black clothing for sale at a shopping mall in Bangkok. Pic: AP

Diners at the restaurant had their eyes glued to the black-and-white footage of the King looped on the suspended television. The footage would switch to news reports of locals gathered at The Grand Palace, some of whom were seen crying, clutching on to portraits of their revered leader.

Outside the restaurant, official buses rumbled by, carrying solemn policemen and army personnel. I would later learn that they were traveling towards the Palace to prepare for the procession to lead the King’s body from Siriraj Hospital.

After the meal, I decided to hail a ride to the Palace but the many taxi drivers I flagged down seemed genuinely stunned when I mentioned the Palace. “Traffic a lot; ma’am walk,” they said of the four-kilometer journey away.

A good 20 minutes later, I climbed into a tuk-tuk and the driver demanded an exorbitant fare, to which I agreed. He also said he could only drop me off as far as Khao San Road, approximately two kilometers before the Palace. The journey was long and humid, owing to the black-clad throng of mourners headed in the same direction.

During the journey, the driver spoke fondly of the King. Locals on bike-taxis were also distributing portraits of the kingdom’s most revered monarch to passers-by and those stuck in traffic. The portraits were mostly of the King in his younger, more robust days. The tuk-tuk driver propped his portrait up against the windscreen, and bought strung jasmine flowers from a street vendor before he held them up in a prayer stance.

Military officers try to control Thai people gathered to pay their last respects during the royal procession. Pic: AP

Once I approached Khao San Road, the streets were a sea of black-shirted Thais holding up portraits. The crowd tried to clamour to the front of the flock the best they could, but the sheer number of people coupled with the scorching heat didn’t make it easy.

Many people took photos; some threw out picnic mats to wait out the procession; while parents hoisted their kids on their shoulders. Because of a fear of disrespect from my non-black outfit, I squeezed my way out of the crowd.

That night, operations in the hotel and in the city took place as usual, save for many of the bars that ran discreetly. Along Sathorn Road, while most bars were shut, those that chose to operate did so with little fanfare, and without façade lights.

Back at the hotel, all entertainment on room televisions were switched out with documentaries about the King, and a note was placed on my table seeking guests’ understanding. The hotel bar and weekend buffets were also cancelled to commemorate the mourning.

At the end of my trip, the mood in the city perked up even if only slightly. Large malls like Central World and Siam Paragon were abuzz with shoppers, and many shops dressed their storefront mannequins in black.

The Thai Royal Guard march outside The Grand Palace prior to a religious ceremony. Pic: AP

Hotel staff, taxi drivers, market vendors, restaurant staff and the other locals I faced over the weekend seemed to strive for normalcy the best they could – by constantly smiling and seeking for my understanding.

One of the hotel staff I met with apologized for the “mellowing” of activity, and came close to tears when he spoke of how the King had helped the country in his prime. It’s difficult to find the words when fronted with attempts of the locals to simultaneously portray both grace and grief.

As much as I’m grateful to have witnessed such a momentous occasion in Thai history, I feel underserving to intrude what’s an extremely trying time for the Kingdom. In respect of a man the Thais held so dearly, this trip to Bangkok has most certainly been an eventful one.

To all our readers traveling to Thailand as tourists, please respect the anguish that’s washed over the country, and try your best to keep a low profile. And to all our Thai readers grieving during this difficult period, much courage and strength to you.