If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to witness a truly grand public spectacle on a scale so big it warrants coverage from The Discovery Channel, BBC and other major media outlets, today is the day to be in Thailand. Sadly, I’m guessing hardly anyone reading this in the USA knows anything about it. Culminating a year-long mourning period, Thailand will cremate the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej tonight at 10 PM local time in a $90 million ceremony that’s been dubbed the largest and most spectacular event of its kind in history. Taking ten months to build, a huge 164 foot high royal pyre and pavilion decorated with nine gilded spires, a great white umbrella, and statues of the king’s favorite pet dogs awaits the coffin where they’ll place the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynastay . Dating back to 1782, the monarchy of Thailand transformed into a constitutional monarchy in 1932 but unlike the rest of the planet, the late king generated a level of respect and reverence normally long gone from civilized societies.
Although obviously a somber event, living in Thailand allows expats a fascinating view of a culture steeped with tradition and a reverence unlike anywhere else on earth. Despite modern infrastructure, a thriving modern capital city and an economy boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates anywhere on the planet, the event is so important to Thai people, the nation is literally shut down today except for airports and hospitals. Also known as Rama IX, the late king was the world’s largest reigning royal and easily the most loved in modern times. Remembering how much coverage followed the death of Princess Diana, I’ve always marveled at the personal relationship Thai people have with the king. As the head of state, the king helped shape the nation through political coups, economic hardships and unlike the tabloid like fascination people have with The Queen of England and the British monarchy, the late king effected genuine change for the Thai people with thousands of unique village based community development programs that highlight various self-sustaining missions from reforestation to agricultural production.
Contrasting Thailand’s rather liberal immigration programs, there’s a no tolerance policy when it comes to criticizing, disparaging or even speaking negatively about the king. As the first nation to threaten Facebook with a ban due to a few hundred posts found on a Thai server considered inappropriate, it’s the most taboo subject I can think of in any nation and they clearly communicate this to both expats and visitors. Still living in Penang when the late king passed last year, we’re unable to pass on what it felt like to live here but we’ve seen lots of posts on Facebook groups from farnags asking what’s appropriate for today and how they might take part in or witness the local ceremony here in Chiang Mai. Obviously smaller than the grandiose ceremonies taking place in Bangkok, they’re still anticipating as many as 100,000 mourners at a local ceremony at the Convention Center. Virtually every major business including 7-Eleven, Tesco, Big C Supermarkets and all movie theaters are closed today and if you think that’s no big deal in a consumer driven developing economy, try to remember the America of yesteryear when Christmas Day meant staying home with family and Thanksgiving Day didn’t include running to the big box stores instead of eating turkey.
While all people including visitors and expats are welcome to attend the ceremonies, Diane and I feel it’s a day for the Thai people and we’ll respect that by staying home today. Those in attendance should be dressed entirely in black and no jeans, short sleeves or sandals. Given the tropical climate, we’ve long tossed everything remotely connected to long sleeves and real shoes and given that we have no cable subscription, we can’t watch the ceremonies or ongoing 24 hour coverage on every station but we encourage anyone unfamiliar with this whole event to do some online research. Leading an amazingly colorful life, here’s something most Americans don’t know. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his father was enrolled in the public health program at Harvard University, which is why Bhumibol was the only monarch to be born in the United States. Amazingly interesting, his life story reads like no other historical figure I’ve ever known and for anyone sick of reading about ignorant tweets from a man-child that ascended to the presidency of a once great nation with help from the Russians, we suggest learning what a real leader’s life story reads like.
As for the expat community here in Chiang Mai, I’ve seen a lot of horribly insensitive and culturally inappropriate asinine comments on Facebook from wondering what time the bars open tonight to how late the mall will stay open. And given a dumbed down world dominated by social media where a sitting president insults private citizens, women and immigrants on Twitter, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. While there are thousands of respectful western expats like us living here for the cultural experience, there’s a handful of idiots that dominate social media and other meet up opportunities. With nothing better to do than listen to themselves talk, complain about everything Thai and insult other expats, I’d say that’s my biggest disappointment living here compared to Malaysia. But the blog helps channel my thoughts in a more positive way (albeit honestly) and with rainy season wrapping up in November, we’re looking forward to welcoming our first visitor next month followed by the first trip out of Chiang Mai. Hitting the beaches of Koh Lanta in mid November, we’re hoping for some tropical sunshine and lower humidity.
Offering our heartfelt condolences to the Thai people we’ve come to love in a short period, we hope everyone mourns the passing of one of the world’s greatest public figures whatever way they choose and we’re proud to live where tolerance is the norm. I’m hoping this post inspires a few westerners around the world to embrace today’s amazing events and pass it on to your elected officials. Clearly the vile piece of shit sitting in The White House won’t care so it’s up to the decent people lucky enough to live in free societies to look outside CNN’s ratings driven agenda and realize there’s a whole great world out there. Cheers from Chiang Mai, Thailand.