The massive sound system of a dance club is silent. But the club is far from empty. Young guests are still inside, enjoying an evening with some drinks and their friends. And maybe even something approximating dancing, though it is challenging as no one is listening to the same soundtrack. Ear buds are conspicuous as visitors listen to their own playlists rather than the thumping bass of the house system. This is just one example of the compromise defining culture in Thailand as the country mourns the loss of its King.
Overnight nearly everything changed. Just hours after the passing of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej the country entered a period of deep mourning and reflection. Generations of Thai people have known only the rule of King Bhumibol as he led the nation for more than 70 years. The country now mourn his loss; the difference in behavior and overall vibe on the street is palpable even to the occasional visitor. But solemnity is not the only emotion. Even as the people mourn there is a telling pulse, an energy that courses through the streets and all who huddle in their crowded shops and stalls.
The formal period of mourning was announced as one year from King Bhumibol’s death, an extended spell during which “celebration” is frowned upon. It more than triples the traditional 100-day period, but most indications so far suggest a gradual waning of limits throughout the period. The most strict observance is expected to last only a month. During this period concerts and other live entertainment events are nearly universally canceled. Weddings and parties are postponed. But the country is not grinding to a complete halt. Far from it, in fact. Thailand may be in mourning but it remains very much alive.
Some of the changes are obvious: black and white bunting adorns storefronts across the country. Many billboards turned black, showing photos of the King and offering condolences rather than hyping the latest electronic gadgets or fashions. Other changes are more subtle. Mannequins now dress for mourning, showing off clothes mostly in black but also in white, the traditional color of grief from a prior era. Thai people shifted wardrobes similarly. Across my three days of exploring Bangkok it is clear that black is the color of choice across the board. For those who do not dress fully in black – many because their work uniform is a different color – a black ribbon on the shoulder allows them to connect to the grieving community.
On a seedy side streets in Bangkok‘s Sukhumvit neighborhood the bars remain crowded at night. The staff is dressed in black, beer is being served and the “socializing” known in these parts continues unabated. But it is not entirely the same. The street has an eerie quiet, even with taxi and tuk tuk horns honking. The bars turned off their music systems, meeting the “toned down” guidance provided by the Prime Minister without closing completely. The women are dressed in black but still very much working the crowds and providing entertainment; things are different and still very much the same.
Further north, in the highlands around Chiang Mai, a hotelier spoke of the challenges her property faces. Guests are wondering where the live music and dance clubs are and complaining when informed that they will be closed for the month. For the My Secret Café in Town the challenge includes meeting the needs of the mourning public while also supporting its long-time musician partners. The bar features a live music night every Tuesday but that does not work during this time of mourning. Rather than cancel completely the café is compromising, hosting a dinner event where the musicians can interact with guests and share stories about their craft. Visitors remain engaged with the local culture and, perhaps more importantly, the artists have some semblance of support while their primary craft is blacklisted.
A taxi driver struggled to explain the impact of the King’s passing on the country. Language barriers were part of the challenge but even more significant was trying to process just what it means to him and his fellow countrymen. Upon learning his rider was American the analogy became obvious to him: This was akin to September 11, 2001. The common grief shared by the people borders on the level of truly cataclysmic events. Everything will be different going forward; that much is obvious. Just how different is not yet clear, but few doubt that change will be significant and permanent.
Ultimately it does not appear as though the mourning will truly disgorge the economy or even the culture of the Thai people. A dance bar that was quiet on a Friday night turned the music back on for Saturday, hoping to pull in a few extra visitors and willing to risk being shunned by the community for that move. Arguably a risky move, but one that is unlikely to have a long-term impact for a business catering mostly to tourists. And that separation is unlikely to blur anytime soon.
Tourism is a massive portion of the Thai economy. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates a 1.1 Trillion Baht (~$32bn) direct impact of tourist spending on the local economy and an indirect impact more than double that number. Political turmoil in 2014 derailed what was a rapidly growing tourism industry. It only recently showed signs of resuming that growth plan. The risk to the nation’s economy should the mourning period dissuade inbound tourism is very real. And it is a risk that did not exist 70 years ago when King Bhumibol’s reign began. How the country balances tradition and religion with the practical need to continue its economic growth will truly test the government and its ability to serve the people. And the complaints from tourists began to trickle in just days after the King’s death. Many are rightfully acknowledging these complaints as ill-timed and ignorant, but that matters less if it ultimately impacts the number of visitors and their spending.
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