Thais were filled with concern this week after the untypically candid press releases from the Palace stated that His Majesty The King’s health was unstable. Thousands flocked to Siriraj Hospital where His Majesty was being treated to show their support and pray for his good health. For many it was the only thing on their mind. Bangkok was on edge.
At 4 PM this past Thursday, Andrew McGregor Marshall, a controversial Scottish journalist and keen follower of Thai politics – who happens to be barred from entering Thailand – tweeted the bad news that the country dreaded, His Majesty The King had passed away. The city had been awash with rumours. Now someone was saying it had happened. Word spread but in the absence of an official announcement, most did not know what to believe.
A flurry of activity across social media indicated the Prime Minister would address the nation at 5:00 PM. 5:00 PM became 5:30 PM. Then 6:00 PM. When 6:30 PM came and went, Thais were beside themselves with worry. All over the country, people were glued to TVs, fearing the worst.
I was sitting in a popular Sukhumvit Road eatery following everything online. The TVs were tuned in to a local station where a Japanese cartoon played, the audio dubbed in Thai. There was no official comment.
Foreigners were anxious. Thais were beside themselves. For many Thais it was the longest wait of their life.
Around 6:30 PM people were becoming impatient and the tone on social media changed. Frustration set in and bickering broke out. In the age of social media, every corner of the Kingdom is connected. People were in a frenzy.
It was not just Thailand where the rumour mill was going wild. A Kiwi friend emailed at 4:07 AM saying he had heard the rumour and wanted to know if I had heard. Readers were emailing saying they had heard the terrible news. Still there was no official announcement.
It would later be revealed that those who would prepare the official announcement had become overcome with emotion, and that had contributed to the delay in said announcement being made.
Line accounts, the preferred way in 2016 for many Thais to communicate, were going nuts. Everyone wanted to know what was going on.
While no official announcement had been made about His Majesty, announcements were being made thick and fast about events being cancelled, the list getting longer by the minute. It was also said that an emergency meeting had been called for the NLA (National Legislative Assembly). Still no announcement came.
The public wanted nothing more than for the Prime Minister or an official government spokesman to say that errant figures had made untrue comments and that His Majesty was recovering in hospital. Such an announcement would not come.
The tension was extreme; some Thais posting to social media that they were suicidal.
At 6:57 PM the announcement was broadcast on national TV. His Majesty had passed away peacefully at Siriraj Hospital a few hours earlier.
From the first floor on Sukhumvit, I heard the unmistakable and unnerving sounds of an older Thai woman wail in pain.
The live feed on some social media channels from outside Siriraj Hospital showed heart-wrenching scenes, many Thais breaking down at the news.
Through a grubby window, I looked outside on to Sukhumvit. Twilight had become night. People were walking. The traffic was jammed. But it wasn’t just another night in Bangkok. Everyone was on their phone, talking about what had just been announced or reading about it.
Within seconds – yes, seconds – of the announcement being made in Thailand, the story broke all around the world as major news services from the BBC to CNN to popular newspaper websites ran it as their lead story. They’d obviously been aware of it and the moment it was officially announced the story was published. Tributes flowed from around the world.
This would be one of those historical events that you would always remember where you were when you heard the news.
Not long after 7:00 PM, the Prime Minister addressed the nation. He stood strong and explained that while this was an extremely sad day for all Thai people and the passing of His Majesty would long be mourned, at the same time life in Thailand had to go on. That is what His Majesty would have wanted.
Television channels canceled all regular programming and round the clock footage was broadcast of His Majesty’s life.
Many turned to social media. Already, videos had been posted to Facebook showing the reaction of those on the skytrain, passengers packed in peak hour trains breaking down and weeping at the news.
You’d hear the occasional cry of grief, never clear if it was from the immediate neighbourhood or someone’s electronic device. Photos flooded social media, many taking selfies of their grief-stricken selves, tears and all.
Seeing so many people so deeply distressed was moving, unsettling and upsetting.
Later, I would take a long walk through downtown. Traffic was as per usual for the hour, bumper to bumper, but the atmosphere on the streets was subdued. Most were buried in their mobile phone, even more so than usual.
Cutting through shopping malls and office buildings, bright lights revealed swollen eyes and tear-streaked faces.
It was the older people who were the most distressed, much less able to control and contain their emotions. Younger folks were harder to read.
Official announcements flowed thick and fast. There would be a mourning period, officially set at 1 year. People were requested to refrain from joyous activities for 30 days.
The comments of expats who had long speculated what this fateful day would bring proved to be nonsensical.
There were no safety issues whatsoever. There was no run on supermarkets, and banks did not close. While many events of a joyous nature were cancelled, bars were not expressly forbidden from trading. Some closed as a mark of respect.
The Thais have shown themselves to be most pragmatic, elegantly balancing the respect required for such an occasion with the need to go on with their lives. The country has largely continued to operate as usual.
On Friday the streets were a sea of black, the first day of many to come as a respectful dress code was almost universally observed.
The Thais are famous for living life and pursuing anything that is fun, but for the time being things are somewhat restrained. Many events have been cancelled, the idea being that this is not the time for festivities or joyous occasions.
When I wrote the first draft of this column on Friday, I was going to end it at this point with the following 3 paragraphs:
If you have plans to visit Thailand to party, I’m of the feeling that this is probably not the time for that. Some foreign visitors do things in Thailand that they would not do at home, at times engaging in behaviour that is not admired by most Thais, but is generally tolerated nonetheless. My feeling is that this is not the time for partying in Thailand. Give the Thais some space. Let them grieve.
If you’re visiting for the culture, the food and the sights, go ahead, but for those looking to party, I’d consider rescheduling your visit for a later date. Many Thais are in mourning and this is not the time to party, be unruly or boisterous.
Thailand is grieving. At the same time, Thailand is resilient. Things will return to how they were. Just give the country a little time.
On Saturday the atmosphere changed again. I now question whether this message is appropriate and would simply say that all visitors to Thailand be on their best behaviour and understand that for many Thais this is a difficult period.
I spent Saturday afternoon at Siam Square, catching a movie and exploring a favourite old neighbourhood. It was a sea of black, most everyone observing a respectful dress code. There were fewer people about than you’d expect on what was a sunny Saturday, but the mood wasn’t as somber as I had expected.
There were smiles and laughter but it was somewhat muted. Popular restaurants had queues outside. Some street vendors played music rather louder than I thought would be acceptable. Young couples walked hand in hand. Despite the events of the previous 48 hours, Bangkok felt like Bangkok.
The fears some expats had of Thailand coming to a halt have been shown to be totally unfounded. This was Thailand’s Y2K.
The pain of the last few days will long linger in the hearts of Thais but at the same time the pragmatism shown, balancing remembrance and respect with the need to get on with life is to be much admired.
Your Bangkok commentator,