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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Great post Seth.
I was there on the day the King died. I was glad I had some black clothes with me as It allowed me to show respect. I hear things are slowly coming back to normal but I will bring some black clothes when I return in January.
Thank you this post Seth. The timing was perfect.
Leaving BKK today after 4 days in Phuket and 3 in Bangkok. It has been quite eye opening.
Both my wife and I have now been thanked, on multiple occasions for wearing black. Yesterday morning we sat down within the walls at the Erawan Shrine. Our good fortune was to meet an quite elderly Thai lady whose command of English was excellent. She asked us about our time in her country and how we were perceiving things. It became quite an interaction that lasted some 30 minutes. Something she said about how the loss of her King caused me to be a little emotional and I shed a couple of tears.
She also suggested a few things we might want to do and we decided that one of them was perfect for our afternoon.
She guided us to a tuk-tuk and told the “pilot” our destination and fare.
Her parting words to us were to so humbling. She thanked us again for wearing black but she also thanked me for showing my respect, for her Kings death and her country, with my tears. I about lost it. She hugged my wife, shook my hand and then disappeared into the masses.
To say this moment has made a difference to our life is an understatement. Her words and grace are indelibly stamped within us.
Those are the sorts of experiences I LOVE about travel. Glad you had one on this trip.
Thanks so much. I am going there in December for my first visit, and was wondering about how to behave and what I would find.
What about the islands in the south? Business as usual or have things been toned down there too?
The Thai place a premium on courtesy and respect . If you wear black clothing or a black bow or armband it will be noticed and appreciated . Always remember that almost all Thai absolutely revere King Bhumibol (pronounced poom e pon ). So speak softly .
DO NOT wear red and don’t talk about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn .
Be prepared to meet some good hearted people .
“Upon learning his rider was American the analogy became obvious to him: This was akin to September 11, 2001.”
Such a ridiculous comparison. The death of one man, who has contributed to the culture of coups in Thailand by endorsing military junta governments, including the most recent one that displaced a democratically-elected govt, is no comparison to a cowardly attacked in which thousands of innocents died in the twin towers and on planes, where so many were forced to watch in horror as men and women jumped down from those towers knowing their certain deaths, but rather not facing it in a wall of incoming flames.
Be respectful please.We the people just lost the greatest king in history and you there are bitching why are we sad without a thought.Is that a way to respect other people in this oh so great country of your?
Ridiculous to call him the “greatest king in history”. Everyone has a right to an opinion.
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