Mourning the death of Rama IX

I had read reports of the death of Thailand’s king Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX in mid-October when we were in the middle of planning our trip to Bangkok. Once we were assured that tourism would be undisturbed, I put it out of my mind. We spent a week out of touch with news in Myanmar before we arrived in Bangkok.

The Grand Palace was the first thing on our minds. We arrived on a sweltering hot morning and joined the tail of a long queue. My mind was a blank. By the time we reached the gates of the palace, I was on the verge of heat exhaustion, and was clearly not thinking clearly. It was only late in the day that I realized that the crowds of Thai people dressed in black (in the featured photo) must be mourners.

Ritual objects mourning the dead king in the Grand Palace, Bangkok

The Family tells me that I was incredibly slow that morning. While we wandered through the temple of the Emerald Buddha I drank water from bottles of water with blacks bands on them which were handed out free in kiosks manned by women in black. The side galleries with paintings depicting the story of the Ramayana were lined with people in black patiently queueing to enter a different part of the palace. From inside a large pavilion we could hear a rhythmic chant which we had no difficulty in recognizing as a religious ritual. Then we saw the odd collection of objects whose photo you see above. The rusty gears of my mind engaged briefly and I realized that this must be part of the king’s funeral. The flame, the cow, the horse, the cooking pots, are ritual objects, some of which are used in modern Hindu funerals in India, others in older Hindu funeral rituals.

Part of the palace was closed off. This was when I finally connected the dots. When we exited the palace and found food being served on the roads, we knew what it was for. We tasted a little of what we could see. The rice and curries and sweets were not what we would recognize as Thai food, but they were wonderful and quite appropriate to the extreme weather.

Through the rest of our stay we would encounter other signs of the month-long state mourning. We’d timed our stay to coincide with the November’s full moon, the supermoon. Normally there would be a celebration at this time. This year it was cancelled. The next day we walked into the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The space inside is a wonderfully adaptable gallery, as you can see in the photo alongside. Apart from an interesting group show in the lobby, the whole space was taken up by an exhibition of photos taken by the late king. I learnt later that King Bhumibol had been interested in photography since his teenage years.

The day had raised my curiosity about Thai royalty. I sat by bar in the rooftop pool of my hotel that evening and read a little of recent Thai history. I was impressed by the political skill of the late king, who in 66 years as head of state is said to have used the successive military coups to consolidate his position. Rama VII had been forced to create a constitution in 1932, sealing the process of modernization begun during the reign of the historical king (Rama IV) made famous by Yul Brynner. The slow marginalization of the king in the previous half century seems to have been cleverly checked and reversed by Rama IX.

Really dot alt dot Thailand

From Yangon to Bangkok: a couple of hours’ flight seemed to take us through one century. Yangon holds on to glorious memories of the high noon of the British Raj: the early twentieth century. Bangkok is a expressway from the airport which lands you in a snarl of stopped traffic: the early twenty-first century. Myanmar is a country struggling to build a tourism industry. Thailand is the tenth most visited country in the world.


We tried hard to do something different. Right in the middle of downtown, between tall malls full of the few tourists who are not in the famous beaches of Thailand is a very nice art space called the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre. We walked into a lovely group exhibition of black and white seascapes on the ground floor (a couple of examples in the photo above). Every tourism poster from Thailand tells us of the immense photographic talent that the country has. This was a quick summary of that talent: beautiful photos by a dozen or so men and women. I bought the catalogue, and seriously considered buying a large print.

We took the escalator up. The open galleries overlooking the central atrium were showing a retrospective of the life of the late king of Thailand. The country was still in the official mourning period, and the new king had not yet taken office. The series of galleries reminds you a little of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, except that you have to take an escalator between floors. At one end of each floor, near the escalators was a cluster of shops: art, food and more generalized shopping. The fourth floor has a wonderful ice cream studio (to coin a new phrase) which I’ve written about before. BACC is a wonderful space, and I would love to go back.

Magical mystery food

The plate you see above arrived at the table where The Family and I eagerly waited for the treat. The fried smell of tonkatsu wafted off the plate. Although I’m a fan of most Japanese food, I don’t usually have tonkatsu. The deep-fried pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage is something I can often get in other countries. But here, I’d gone into a shop and after some discussion with The Family, chosen this over a steak.

An in-flight magazine introduced me to the work of chef Prima Chakrabandhu Na Ayudhya. I read this with great interest, and then showed it to The Family. I noted that she has an outlet in the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) which was on my list of things to do in our short stay in Bangkok. Once there, we took the escalators up to the fourth floor eatery called Icedeas.

Icrecream platter from Icedeas

Yes, as you can see from the photo above, it was an ice-cream. The Japanese melon flavoured slices were covered with fried bread to fool your nose as well as your eye. The shredded cabbage was a mint candy. The soya sauce is chocolate. Icedeas loves to play with the presentation. My niece took a look at my photos and said "It looks savoury. How confusing." We loved the confusion. We would have loved it even more if it had come as a surprise at the end of a good meal.