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.
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.