Thursday, 13 October 2016.
I’ll always remember where I was when I heard the king was dead.
It was late afternoon and I was at home finishing preparations for work the following day. I worked as a kindergarten teacher at a private school in Pathum Thani province, around twenty kilometers as the crow flies north of where King Bumibol, Rama IX and the reigning king of over seventy years, expired and left this world.
The first thing I wondered was if work would be canceled. I figured it would, of course not by my dictatorial boss’s choosing, but rather a directive of the government-in-mourning. I promptly checked my Line account (the preferred method of online communication in the country). As expected, there was a lot of activity on the teachers’ Line group, mostly the predictable sad-face or crying emojis, but nothing about work’s cancellation. I ultimately decided not to bring it up.
If the Thai teachers weren’t going to take the initiative, I certainly didn’t dare.
Going to Work:
And so I went to work as usual the following morning. Everything about that day was a stark contrast to what I’d become accustomed to as every-day life in the area. I noticed the first discrepancies before I’d even left my condo. The large portrait of the King, which stood nearby the property’s spirit house, had been removed.
My morning routine was to take the bus to the nearby BigC supermarket, then walk the final 800 metres to the school. The tension in the air was palpable, the collective mood beyond somber. Nearly everyone was wearing black…. and I mean nearly everyone, over 90 percent of passers-by. I wondered why I hadn’t gotten the cue and hoped they weren’t expecting me to show up at work in an all-black ensemble.
In Thai culture, it is frowned upon to show negative emotions in public. Thailand is commonly known as ‘The Land of Smiles’, and rightfully so. If Thai people feel sad or depressed, they are discouraged from showing these emotions publicly. However, on this particular morning nobody was hiding the fact they were quite depressed.
The atmosphere was in such stark contrast to normal, it almost felt I was in the Twilight Zone.
I continued to observe the unusual activity as I puffed my morning smoke, until I finally stubbed it out and resumed my walk.
King Bumibol, Rama IX of Thailand:
It’s probably impossible for a ‘farang’ like myself to entirely understand the nearly universal reverence in which Thai people hold towards Bumibol, the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. But I understood well enough that he was highly respected through all regions and among all sectors of Thai society.
It’s not that Bumibol was a dictator or absolute monarch. Nor was he simply a figurehead. On the contrary, the King was brilliant in knowing just how much input to give in the governance of his country, while at the same time not overstepping his authority.
Throughout its history, Thailand has endured an insane amount of political instability, an amount which surely would have crippled countless other nations. Thailand has withstood dozens of military coups or coup attempts. In between, it has teetered back and forth between military juntas and democratically elected governments. The country has suffered through scores of extreme crisis and instability. Many believed the force which had held the country together through these difficult periods was the King himself.
He was richer than the British royal family and had ruled longer than Queen Elizabeth.
He was the only ruling monarch that nearly every living Thai had ever known. He was widely revered, thought of as a sort of “father” to everyone in the nation. No matter where you found yourself in the country, it wouldn’t take long to pass one of his murals on the street or behind the counters of a shop. He was also thought of as a sort of divine figure. It was not uncommon to see shrines of him or his ancestors in Buddhist temples or near spirit houses throughout the country.
Suddenly, he was no more.
Everyone had known about his declining health for years. Nobody denied the inevitable was imminently approaching. Still, there was no way to adequately prepare the passing of such a universally perceived great man. The country was deeply rattled.
Arriving at School:
When I arrived at work, the mood was obviously somber. All of the Thai teachers were wearing complete ensembles of black… black shoes and socks, black dresses or suit-pants, black shirts.
“Well that figures, I didn’t get the memo as usual.” I sullenly thought, just hoping my boss wouldn’t blame me for it.
I looked over and saw my co-worker Creed, a Brit and the only other farang (Westerner) who worked there. He was wearing a white shirt. I breathed a sigh of relief, at least he hadn’t gotten the memo, either.
Creed and I congregated together and exchanged our takes of the situation. We started speculating about Maha Vajiralongkorn, the deceased king’s eldest son and heir apparent. Wildly unpopular among Thai people, his imminent take-over only increased the collective unease. Soon, we warned each other to be careful discussing them, fearful of the infamous laws against saying anything negative about the royal family. We grew silent and resumed observing our Thai colleagues.
The school was run by an uppity Thai family…. the boss and his wife were co-directors. Their daughter Fasai, who was about my age and spoke English far better than her parents, did most interacting with us foreigners. It was rare to see all three bosses on the same day because they ran several other schools in the area. But on this morning, they all sped up around the same time, screeched their luxury cars to a halt and frantically rushed inside; clearly they were in full-crisis mode.
Families were arriving, the parents dutifully dropping off their children. Most parents smiled and tried to appear as their usual selves, but a few of them didn’t bother putting on the fake face.
Several had red or puffy eyes, clearly it had been a rough night and they had been crying.
The children, of course, had no idea what was going on. Most were their usual playful selves, though some had been dressed in black by their identically black-clad parents. Being a Thai kindergarten, the children were only toddlers between two to four years old, too young to understand the urgency of the situation.
We were hastily notified school would be getting out early. Yay! We only had to conduct classes until 11am, then see the kids off. I wished this had happened on Wednesday, so I wouldn’t have had to have taught English club after school, but I wisely kept such selfish musings to myself. I didn’t want to piss anyone off today, they had plenty of other worries to deal with.
The School Day:
The day progressed as normal until eleven o’clock came around. We herded the kids off when their parents arrived. Knowing our bosses were not the kind of folks to let us leave early under any circumstances, I wondered just what they’d have in store for us.
We found out immediately after the kids were gone. Everyone was called into the teachers’ meeting room for an urgent, hastily-called meeting. I was actually looking forward to it.
Most of the meeting was in Thai, a language I can understand to a certain extent but am certainly not fluent in. Still it was intriguing just observing the atmosphere. The whole deal was clearly about the King’s death and I was beside myself with curiosity.
I had no idea how everyone was going to handle this crisis, and neither did the Thai people themselves.
Creed and I watched as the meeting commenced. There was a long ‘tribute of silence’ to the King, where everyone lined up side-by-side and put their heads down for a minute or so. Then the bosses gave every Thai teacher, and even Creed and myself, a chance to say what was on their minds. It quickly became emotional and several Thais openly wept. Like I mentioned earlier, this behavior is extremely rare and uncharacteristic in the Land of Smiles. After several lengthy dialogues in Thai, they finally explained a bit to us farangs.
They informed us we must wear black every day for the next several months. I’d long-hated the fact they made me wear an uncomfortable suit and tie (to play around with 3-year-olds!!) twice a week, so I was overcome with relief after they said black T-shirts were fine. Then I realized I didn’t have any black shirts and I’d have to go buy (spend money on!!) some. Oh well.
They told us there would probably be several days off in the near future, but nothing was certain at the moment so we’d have to stand by. Also they told us Father’s Day may be abruptly changed. In Thailand, they celebrate both Father’s and Mother’s day on the birthdays of the King and Queen. We were told we may have to change our lessons regarding these holidays on short notice.
Finally the meeting concluded, but my work was just beginning.
I was instructed to immediately take down everything related to King Bumibol, all around the grounds. There were yellow (the color of the King) flags and banners draped all around the ten foot-high fences surrounding the entire school. They had been firmly secured by tying cut-up metal prongs together.
It was over 30 degrees outside, and I had to climb to the tops of the fences and uncurl the rusty metal prongs to loosen and remove the flags and banners. It was a difficult job and I was soon drenched in sweat, but I felt a fledgling sense of pride that I was involved (however small) with this vital moment in Thai history. After I finally cut all the flags and banners down, I next had to remove the King’s images on several bulletin boards. Mercifully, they let me go after that, still an hour before my usual departure time.
Finally free of work (and the weekend was beginning!), I headed over to the BigC before going home. I really just wanted to gauge the vibe of the place, discern whether the mood had changed, improved or declined since that morning.
There were far fewer people than usual in the shopping center. Nearly all shoppers and even employees were wearing black, but other than that there wasn’t anything extremely out-of-the-ordinary. They were already putting up black and white banners throughout the store, and setting up black tables near the entrances and exits. Though they weren’t complete, it looked like it was going to be some sort of memorial shrine.
Later that night, Anna and I went to Make Me Wine, our favorite pizza place. I was pleasantly surprised it was open. Usually jam-packed with live music on Friday nights, on this evening it was like a ghost town. At least we got our pizza fast.
Fuck it, I felt like drinking after all the day’s drama. After our meal, we walked to the 7-11 across the street to buy some booze, only to find the liquor section had been closed off “In Mourning of the Passing of our Beloved King Bumibol.” Fair enough. I noticed that alcohol wouldn’t be sold, at larger chain stores at least, for several weeks.
As we walked home for the night, I felt a strong wave of unease stemming from the fact that at that moment, nobody had any idea what was going to happen next, either within the royal family or the political situation.
Was a crisis coming? Nobody was certain. There was a strong sense of unease, sadness, and dread which hung in the air for days and weeks. I knew the King would sorely be missed, and hoped it would all work out for the best….
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more articles about the aftermath of the King’s death, and what it was like to be in Thailand during that time!