CategoriesExpat Life · Op-Ed

The Death of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and What it Means for You

Earlier today, I saw a headline from a Daily Mail article which, while I can’t recall the exact wording, said something along the lines of “British tourists are annoyed that the death of the Thai king has ruined their holiday”. Now, I don’t expect much thought for…well, for anyone not British, to be frank…out of the Daily Mail, but this is a new low.

Incidentally, the reason why I can’t just nip to their website and find the exact wording of the headline is that the Daily Mail has been banned in Thailand (not as a result of this, but from earlier indiscretions) and their website is blocked. I only read the headline from a screenshot on Facebook and I don’t remember who posted it.

Anyway, this was such a staggeringly dumb and insensitive headline that I felt the need to explain a few things to those not fortunate enough to reside in Thailand.

The Thai Monarchy

The first thing you need to realise is how significant the Thai monarchy is in the everyday life of the Thai people. In the UK, the Queen is just a face on the back of your coinage and an occasional embarrassment on the news when Prince Philip says something stupid again. In Thailand, they are practically gods.

Think of how your parents and grandparents described what the attitude to the monarchy used to be like (if they’ve never told you, go ask now). Everyone used to stand up for the national anthem being played at the end of movies and even at the end of scheduled programming on TV. People used to lie about their age to sign up to fight in wars on their behalf. “Fighting for King and Country” isn’t just a tired old cliché – that was the level of respect and pride that the British royal family used to illicit in people.

In that regard, Thailand is very much like the UK was in the early 1900s. The anthem is played on every radio and TV station at 8am and 6pm. Just recently, I was getting off the skytrain in Bangkok at around 6pm and suddenly everyone around me in the busy station stopped moving. The final strains of the anthem could just about be heard and, once they had died away, everyone carried on moving again. The anthem is played at the start of every movie in the cinema and, without fail, everyone stands for it. It is so ingrained, even in me, that I once went to see a movie and I was the only person in the theatre and I still stood!

A Lifetime

To be fair to them, that level of respect has absolutely been earned. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej spent a lot of his time, money and effort getting to know his people, addressing their needs, benefitting those worst off and generally doing absolutely everything to improve his country and the lives of his people. His queen consort, Queen Sirikit, did the same. He did it for a long time, too, being the longest reigning monarch with over 70 years on the throne when he died at the age of 88 on 13th October 2016.

Think about that number: 70 years! The average life expectancy of a Thai person is only 74.19 years (71.9 years for a man, 78 years for a woman)! That means that the vast majority of the present population of Thailand was born during the reign of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He has been a part of every person’s life for the vast majority of their lives, if not the entirety of it. Is it any wonder that his death has had such an impact on the country? That the grieving process is so extreme?


For readers of the Daily Mail, said grieving process consists purely of every bar and nightclub in the country being closed so that they can’t get a drink. Frankly, if your holiday experience can be ruined by an inability to buy alcohol, there is something seriously wrong with your priorities. However, the point that I am actually trying to make is that there is much more to it.

I went into work the day after the King’s death was announced and the atmosphere was completely different. Even I, as an expatriate, could feel the sadness and shared in it. It wasn’t just the fact that everyone was wearing almost entirely black attire. It was like the life had been ripped out of everyone; like a part of them had died with their King. The Land of Smiles was no longer smiling.

Since then, my Facebook newsfeed has turned monochrome as all of my Thai friends and many of my fellow expats set their profile picture black-and-white or, in some cases (my own included), just a pure black image. Google’s and YouTube’s logos (localised for Thailand) have done the same. Hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Thais have travelled to Bangkok to visit the Grand Palace to pay their last respects. No one really knows what is happening or what is going to happen next. This event is entirely unprecedented and, in spite of the fact that his health had been declining for about a year before that sad day, no one was really prepared for it.

This, again, might seem hard to grasp for someone who hasn’t grown up in the same kind of environment, so consider this an analogue: On 31st August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died. The UK effectively ground to a halt for at least a month afterwards, if not longer. To this day, nearly 20 years after, people still talk about her and how sad her passing was. She wasn’t even technically royalty anymore when she died, but she was well respected by much of the population. Even that doesn’t come close to how sad the King’s death has made people here.

Expats React

I saw another headline – this time from Coconuts – a couple of days ago, which caught my attention. It was describing the reaction of the over 200,000 foreigners living in Thailand (about 0.3 per cent of the country’s total population) and it said something really fascinating:

“I have been surprised by the expat reaction. Either more people than I thought have genuine feelings of affection for the King, or they feel compelled to project that image.”

It would be impossible for me to deny that the image must have something to do with it. The lèse-majesté laws punishing criticism of the monarchy in Thailand are famous and notably prevented the BBC’s correspondent in Bangkok at the time of the King’s death from speculating too much on…well, anything, actually. When I first moved to Thailand, I was emphatically informed that the two things Thais respect above all else are Buddhism and the King. Insult or joke about either and you’re in deep trouble.

However, to suggest that it was all about projecting that image (combined with self-preservation) would be very wrong. As I said earlier, I genuinely shared in the grief. I didn’t expect to at all. I don’t have that national pride in such a great monarch; don’t have that innate respect and regard. What I have is a lot of very dear Thai friends and I shared in their sadness. I also have a little bit of knowledge about what the King has done for his country. He was a good man – the kind the world can ill-afford to lose.

What it means for you?

Thailand, of course, is a very popular tourist destination. It is a common misconception that the country’s economy depends on tourism when it is actually only the fourth biggest industry here, after automobiles (11 per cent), financial services (9 per cent) and electrical appliances (8 per cent). However, the grieving period will naturally impact some tourists hoping to travel here.

I can sort of sympathise with the frustration of someone who has worked and slaved for 50 weeks to save up for two weeks in paradise, only to find that the country has all but shut down. However, complaining to the newspapers about it – particularly once you have realised the root cause of that shut-down – is a whole new level of pitiful.

There are those who have already booked their trips, cannot cancel at this late stage, and are understandably worried about the impact on their trip. For them, I would advise checking this site for updates on what to expect. However, in general terms:

  • Bars, clubs and pretty much any entertainment venue will be closed until approximately 10th October 2016, because no one is in the mood to party.
  • Major festivals as special events have been cancelled for 30 days (until 12th November 2016). Yes, that does include the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Some festivals are still going ahead, but will be heavily subdued.
  • Pretty much everyone will be wearing subdued colours (mostly black) for that period. While it has not been demanded that tourists comply with this, it would be appreciated.
  • The country is still safe, the beaches are still lovely, the weather is getting better as we approach the high season. Thailand is still Thailand.

No one is exactly sure what will happen next because, as I said, this event is pretty much unprecedented. However, it is my educated guess that the majority of these unusual circumstances will have passed by mid-November and things will be back to at least a semblance of normal. If you have booked your trip for during the high season (December to March), you have nothing to worry about. If you booked your trip for this 30 days of mourning…well, suck it up and show a bit of respect for the passing of a genuinely great King.

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Ben has been an expatriate since he was 21, a writer since he was about 10 and a photographer since he was 12. Degema Travel is the culmination of that experience.

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