Monday, August 7, 2017

Back in Bangkok

Written by Karen.

It was interesting times in Bangkok.  Before we left Bangkok for Indonesia, the King of Thailand had been in poor health.  During the time we were visiting Indonesia, the King had passed away.  As we were flying back into Bangkok, it was not clear just how Thailand would respond to the King’s death.  

Over the past several years, there had been quite a bit of social and political unrest and the King had been instrumental in keeping the peace.  From our observations, the Thai’s genuinely cared - even loved - their King.  This would be new territory for Thailand as this King had served for the past 70 years, and had been the longest reining monarch in Thai history.  

We were interested in seeing how things would change in this new reality of having a different king.

Right away, we noticed the differences.  It was literally black-and-white.  Black-and-white bunting lined most of the buildings and was stretched along fences for city blocks.  The Thai authorities proclaimed that Thailand would adhere to a year-long mourning period, and also asked that the tourists be quiet and respectful during this period of mourning.  

We dug through our backpacks to find our black tee-shirts to respect the call to wear black clothing.  As we wandered the streets, we noticed most people - whether local or tourist - were wearing black to honor the King’s memory and respect the period of mourning.  If, for some reason, you didn’t have anything black to wear, there were large baskets full of black ribbons located throughout the city that were free and could be pinned on your shirt. 

Another difference we noticed right away was how silent the city of Bangkok became.  The streets were still full of people, but it looked like a black, rippling, quiet stream on both sides of the street.  There wasn’t the color or cheerful words exchanged that we had seen and heard before.  It was sobering.  I tried to imagine a large city - like Los Angeles - going silent, and failed.  

We paid attention to the huge billboards publicly honoring the King’s memory, and movies of the King’s life playing on an endless loop.  On the public transportation, it was unusually silent in the cars.  Nobody spoke to one another.  The only sounds that I could hear was the somber music that came to represent the King’s passing, or the movies that showed the King’s life.  When people weren’t looking at their smart phones, they were looking very seriously up at the movies that played over and over again.  

I wondered if people really felt this incredible loss as deeply as it seemed, or whether people felt like they had to publicly mourn because it was their patriotic duty?  We had seen and read about people being judged very harshly if they didn’t wear enough black, or didn’t seem to mourn deeply enough, or if they laughed too loudly in public.  

I had seen in the media a Thai woman being dragged from her business and forced to kneel in front of a picture of the King at the local police station.  Her neighbors who surrounded her were loud with their faces twisted in anger; they believed that she wasn’t mourning enough.  I was haunted by the look of fear on the Thai woman’s face.  She stumbled as she was pushed towards the picture of the King.  She kept kneeling and bowing, I suppose hoping that at some point she will have proved that she was indeed one of them:  She was also a mourner.  

I often wondered about that woman.  What would she do next?  Could she still live in her neighborhood?  Would she want to live in her neighborhood after her neighbors so harshly turned on her?  Could she go somewhere else and feel safe?  It seemed like a very public expulsion of sorts.  

We went to the Grand Palace in downtown Bangkok on the first day it was open to the public for mourning.  People had traveled for miles and miles to go to the Grand Palace.  Entire streets were set up with white tents and chairs for the mourners to go and pay their respects.  It was a striking scene.  

There were thousands of people wearing black, or black-and-white, sitting in white chairs under white tents, most carrying a large picture of the King in front of them.  The streams of black-and-white bunting looped up and down the streets, creating a sort of barrier to keep the lines straight.

Despite the heat and the immense crowds, the Grand Palace grounds were quiet, respectful and sad.  We saw women with tears running down their faces as they clutched their picture of the King tightly to their breasts as they slowly walked towards the Grand Palace viewing area.  

I felt their sadness and I mourned with them.  I could empathize with them.  Their country was going to be different.  Things would necessarily have to change.  It was a period of uncertainty and sadness. Life for them was not going to be the same.  

I never came to some sort of equilibrium about the spectrum of raw emotions that I saw during those first few weeks after the King passed away.  I saw moments of extreme kindness and I saw and heard about the harshness of judgements if someone stepped outside of what someone else considered to be out-of-bounds.  

I saw a woman open up her small food stall and hand out free soup to those who had traveled so far to come pay their respects.  We, along with others, received bottles of cold water from the Department of the Thai Navy.  I watched people help each other across the streets.  I saw a man wipe the tears from a younger woman’s face as they both gripped the edges of a portrait of the King.  

I suppose it is two sides of the same coin.  We humans have such a huge capacity for kindness and compassion, but also have a great capacity for destructive behavior.  It was indeed interesting times in Bangkok this visit. 

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