For many millions of Thais, King Bhumibol the Great who died aged 88 on October 13 after a lengthy illness, was the only king they had ever known, writes BLAISE HOPKINSON
Today, Thailand is in mourning. Flags are half-mast, most wear black, events have been cancelled and even the notorious sex industry has put a veil over the red light. Revered by all levels of Thai society, from humble Isaan peasant to entitled Bangkok elite, the departed king drew such respect and devotion, few dared to speak ill of him or his Chakri dynasty.
My first glimpse of the fabled king was in 1992 after I first arrived to work in Thailand. On my way to a meeting on the only expressway I was pulled off the road and made to wait for what seemed like hours. I didn’t have a mobile phone then and could only guess what was causing the ruckus. But, finally, a massive motorcade sped past and sitting alone in the back of a giant light creamy yellow Rolls-Royce Phantom was the king.
It struck me then that in no other country would the entire capital city come to a standstill for a monarch. But, in Thailand, things have always been a little different.
King Bhumibol’s reign saw out some 30 prime ministers, innumerable coups and attempts thereof, economic prosperity and fiscal collapse, drought and deluge.
The monarch remained a constant in a rapidly changing world. His wisdom, particularly about rain making and water management, brought him close to the people. Yet he was also a giant on the world stage. I recall Margaret Thatcher in Asia on a speaking tour after losing Number 10, like a little child on the morning of her audience with the king. She had stocked up at silk emporium Jim Thompson in anticipation of the meeting and insisted on a detailed briefing about what to do and say. She even wanted to know if a curtsey was required.
Such was the aura of King Bhumibol that after the audience, the Iron Lady was positively girlish with excitement.When I asked her what they had talked about she could barely remember, such was her unbridled delight.
Working in a Thai office is full of quirks, but the one consistent theme has been the reverence for the king. One colleague was such a devotee he even legally changed his birthday to December 5, the birthday of King Bhumiphol. Every office has a portrait of the king and Queen Sirikit in pride of place.
Now, King Bhumibol the Great has gone. Yes, millions of tourists are still visiting, the Bangkok traffic is still nightmarish, and the military regime retains its iron fist, yet something tangible has changed.
There is no laughter. There are few smiles. Most wear a black ribbon. Nobody will discuss the succession – a taboo subject if ever there was one in Thailand. Posters and banners everywhere, proclaim the king’s greatness.
From the moment you arrive at Suvarnabhumi airport the palliative comfort of mourning greets you. Above the immigration desks screens depict the dead king’s portrait. Some delicate photo-shopping gives the normally expressionless monarch a Hollywood air.
But there are mouths to feed, commerce to be effected and life goes on. At my local market the traders are selling tacky royal memorabilia. Downtown, the tour buses are still full of gawking Chinese tourists on zero-dollar excursions, the touts are still at it and the insane traffic still has to contend with the end of rainy season deluges.
The controversial heir has asked for time to mourn with his people. But, for now, a year or more of mourning precedes what will likely be a very grand funeral and cremation late next year followed by the coronation.
King Bhumipol the Great (a title bestowed in 1987) – king of Thailand for 70 years. The king is dead, long live the king.by