As Americans, we are used to our presidents leading our nation for a maximum of eight years. Whatever we may think of them, we know they will be replaced on a regular basis. Imagine if the same person ruled our nation for 70 years. How would we react if that person suddenly died?
Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died Oct. 13 at age 88 after reigning over the nation since 1946. Not only is Thailand unique for having had the world’s longest reigning monarch, but the display of mourning due to the king’s death is also a unique experience.
Americans have recently experienced the deaths of well-known celebrities such as Arnold Palmer, Gene Wilder and Muhammad Ali, and are well aware of the outpouring of grief that follows such high-profile deaths. However, Americans would be blown away by the reaction of the Thai people to the death of the king.
One week after Adulyadej’s death, I traveled to Bangkok to visit a friend. Even though he had ruled for seven decades, I had never heard Adulyadej’s name until his death.
Upon my arrival in Bangkok, I checked in at Lebua, the hotel where I would be staying, and headed to the Starbucks downstairs. I grabbed a newspaper next to the register after ordering my coffee. It was just the regular daily Bangkok Post with a front page article featuring the Thai King. In fact, every newspaper I saw for two weeks had a story about the king on the front page. I handed the cashier roughly 400 Baht and she let me know that the paper I wanted could not be purchased. I kindly asked why, and she responded by saying, “The King’s death.”
I asked if I could buy a different paper with coverage of the king. Apparently, that was not available for sale to me either. That seemed to be a frequent response over the course of my trip. I just wanted a souvenir. Maybe it was because I was a foreigner. Maybe they felt it was some violation of respect. I never did find out — or get my souvenir.
After grabbing my coffee, I headed down to the Central Embassy Mall.
Looking out the window of the taxi, I noticed black and white drapery hanging from nearly every fence and light pole. It was beautiful, but strange décor for a city.
When I arrived at Central Embassy Mall, hundreds of window displays, one after another, had mannequins dressed in black and white clothes in response to the King’s death. Black and white are the colors that Thais are using to express their grief.
At the ground level of the mall, a set of paintings and other artwork were set up displaying the face of the king.
After a while, I decided to travel to the top floor of the mall to the movie theater. Before watching a movie, the Thai audience always stands to sing the national anthem. But after the death of the king, the tradition expanded to not only singing the anthem, but also to standing for a cinema song and photo slideshow dedicated to the king. The photos were monochrome and broadcast footage of the king’s life.
The same footage was being broadcasted across Thai television stations in black and white. Front pages of the papers and news websites display the same black and white photos featured in the slideshow.
In addition to the black and white displays throughout the city’s capital and the memorabilia of Adulyadej, nearly everyone in the city is wearing black and white. Colored clothing in stores have been removed and the government even has inspectors to make sure stores do not artificially inflate the prices on the black and white merchandise.
Visitors have been advised to alter their wardrobe accordingly, although the guidelines are relaxed in tourist destinations. Even Bangkok’s famous red-light district is nearly empty.
The period of mourning has been declared to last a year.
An entire year to mourn a leader that very few Thais had a personal relationship with seems strange, but given that Adulyadej is the only king most Thais have known in their lives, maybe it is understandable.
According to Thai people, Adulyadej created peace, helped further develop the country and influenced cooperation among all people of the world.
In this contentious election season, Americans can only hope for a leader as influential — and as loved — as the former Thai King.