We unknowingly arrived in Bangkok, Thailand at a strange time. Unbeknownst to us, it was the month of the King of Thailand’s funeral. The much loved King Rama IX had passed away a year before and the entire month of October was proclaimed to be a month of mourning, leading up to the five-day-long funeral starting on the 25th. For the past year the most socially appropriate color to wear was black, and October was the “month of black” where that’s all most people wore. Many entertainment events had been canceled, the clubs and bars were supposed to close early, and all celebrations were postponed including the world famous Ko Phangan Full Moon Party. Foreigners were still arriving in droves, disappointed at the lack of activities upon showing up.So we spent the month at work. Zach trying to find a job and Carrie helping out Yim Yam Hostel & Garden with marketing and events. Things were slow, but it was nice to have time to implement the volunteer program and the daily activities. We checked out a few temples and it was fun riding around on tuk tuks, motorized rickshaws that zip though traffic as the wind blows through your hair. We used an app called Tuk Tuk Hop (Check out our post about it) which is kinda like Uber for tuk tuks but you get unlimited rides for the day. The temples were very crowded and it was hot and humid so by afternoon we were completely exhausted. The Grand Palace was closed to foreigners with thousands of Thai people waiting in line to pay their last respects to their King. A giant Royal Crematorium had been built nearby, and was to be the site of much of the funeral proceedings.
All of the shops were selling colorful elephant pants (Carrie’s favorite) but we bought more black outfits. We wanted to blend in and be respectful. In Thai culture, respect is everything. From the warm smiles, to the wai (hands placed together at the heart), to the use of krup and ka (males and females respectively say these words at the end of every sentence to be polite) – no confrontation is the key to success. Every morning and evening the National Anthem of Thailand plays throughout the streets over invisible speakers and everyone hurrying to or from work stops and waits respectfully until the song finishes. The Anthem also plays before movies in the cinema, so everyone stands, not wanting to be the one out of line. The younger generations seemed to care a little less about the funeral but for the older Thai people, who had spent their entire lives under his reign, the King of Thailand’s funeral signified an enormous change. For better or worse, change is always scary, and the apprehension was thick in the air.
The farang (foreigners) were still coming, and were surprised when they arrived. They wore their elephant pants and walked down the street drinking Chang beer. They asked which club was best for late night, not understanding the midnight liquor cutoff. Of course some places were still open late, but they payed steeply for this luxury whenever the local police force came through for their nightly kickbacks. Many people showed up at Ko Phangan, ready to rage all night for the Full Moon Party and many holidays were ruined or relocated to Cambodia. We tried to explain to our hostel guests about the local customs such as not staring at the King’s photos and never putting your foot on money if you drop it on the ground (because his face is on all the currency). We suggested to travelers to wear black and at least try to be respectful.
The King of Thailand’s Funeral took over the television for nearly a month. First they played a documentary on repeat showcasing the King’s successes, then the entire five day funeral was broadcast all day on every station. Besides the black clothes and decorations, the city of Bangkok was covered in marigold flowers, because the color yellow was the official color of the King’s birthday. The marigolds filled up empty spaces like seas of yellow, contrasting with the masses of black. Life would return to normal, but only after the King could be laid to rest. The funeral involved dancing, marching, orchestras, and dignitaries from across the world attended. All businesses closed, even 7 Eleven which never closes, for the day of the cremation. Restaurants gave away free food to passers by and all the Thai people came together in a show of community that was extremely humbling.
I remember a farmer in Chiang Mai who had invited us into his home to share some fruit. After cutting the delicious passionfruit, he cleared us a spot on the table. He moved his photo of the King to the other end, making sure it was straight and centered. “We are sad our King is gone,” he said in Thai with a tear in his eye. After the King of Thailand’s funeral it was socially appropriate to mourn for one more week. Soon the clubs started to reopen, red dresses were pulled out of storage, and the giant billboard LCD screens changed from a picture of King Rama IX to 7-Eleven advertisements. The shopping malls changed to upbeat music, and the Kings symphony, which had played on the metro and restarted at every stop, was also replaced with advertising. The general mood of depression started to subside and laughter crept back into the streets. The King of Thailand’s funeral was a long and tedious process, but we were glad to have witnessed it. We saw real sadness in the people, and it really changed my opinion of the King. He accomplished great things in his reign and the programs he started were well liked by many. Thailand will miss King Rama, but life must go on.
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