November 2016 / Words by Kevin, Illustration by Vivi
While millions of Americans have been mourning the election over the past few weeks, the Thais have also been suffering a major loss. Their beloved king of 70 years passed away in October, leaving their country just as heartbroken and uncertain about the future.
The Thai people absolutely adored their king. They thought of him as the father of Thailand, and affectionately referred to him as Dad (as I will be doing here because it’s incredibly endearing.) They say there isn’t a village in Thailand that Dad hasn’t set foot in. He was truly the people’s king, and after reigning for eight decades, his passing can be felt throughout the country. It can be seen through the endless alters, through the billboards that don black-and-white images of their once vibrant king, and through the muted clothing that locals are wearing to identify their mourning. Even the parties stopped — a hallmark of Thai tourism — to pay proper respect as the country grieves. Thailand has hardly been business as usual for the past month, and there’s good reason why.
When Katie and I arrived in Bangkok in March, one of the first things we noticed was Dad’s image everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. He was on billboards, on the walls of every restaurant, in homes, hotels, taxis, train stations, on every note of money… simply everywhere. If there was an inch of empty space, there was Dad, wearing his cute albeit dorky glasses from the 80’s, with his receding but well combed hair, sometimes standing next to Mom (his wife), maybe wearing royal clothing or the clothing of the common people, sometimes reading a newspaper, sometimes with his camera over his shoulder (he was an avid photographer), but always appearing honest and approachable.
From a foreigner’s perspective, this much iconography almost seemed cultish. In the West, we are really skeptical of those in power. Most of our remaining monarchs are seen as only having symbolic power, like a living relic to a previous time of castles, knights, dragons living in caves, and witch hunts. Quite simply put, not modern stuff. So Katie and I couldn’t figure out how one man’s image could appear everywhere without him being some kind of inauthentic cult leader or dictator (that statement alone speaks volumes about our skepticism.)
So we asked our new Thai friends (the young couple who owned our guesthouse) what the real deal was, and the way they spoke about him was inspiring. Their eyes lit up with pride, and they shared stories about all the great things he’s done for a country he loves dearly. Quickly, they won over our skeptic western hearts. It became very obvious that their king was so much more than a monarch to them. He was a good, thoughtful leader that changed modern Thailand for the better.
When he first became king in the late 1940’s, Dad had little influence because the military ran the country. So he went to the poorest people in Thailand, those who were often forgotten, where he could actually help. He gained the respect of the people from the bottom up, gaining real influence, responsibility and love from his subjects. He would visit villages throughout the country, asking people what they needed from their king — something no royals had ever done. He touched the Thai people through his good will, and when our friends spoke of Dad, the sincerity with which they told his stories made it clear how much they loved him…like a father.
Needless to say, after these beautiful stories, Katie and I became kinda weirdly obsessed with the king. Our initial skepticism at all the iconography turned into a pride of our own. Soon, we loved seeing his picture everywhere, and we loved calling him Dad like everyone else. We felt very safe knowing he was always there watching over us. Over Thailand.
But as our appreciation for the Thai King grew and grew, the sad truth was that he was basically on his deathbed. He had been quite sick for a few years, and hadn’t made any public appearances for a long time. His eventual passing was inevitable, it was just a matter of when. So when we heard the news of his death in October, we felt the impact. Our hearts went out to all the lovely Thai people we had met during our time in their country. We knew their nation was now confronted with a massive mourning period and future political uncertainty, and we felt our own little broken-hearted kinship.
I feel honored that I was able to experience Thailand during the reign of King Phrabat Somdet Phra Paramintharamaha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitalathibet Ramathibodi Chakkrinaruebodin Sayamminthrathirat Borommanatthabophit (yes, that is really his entire name.) The love his people felt for him is inspiring. I wish the best to all of our Thai friends during the next year of official mourning for their Dad.
The cover image illustration for this post was drawn by our friend Vivi, who along with her partner Bowie owns the A Day In A Life Guesthouse & Gallery in Bangkok. If you need a great place to stay while in the city or just want to check out some cool art, head over. And make sure to say hey for us 🙂