‘He was the soul of our nation’

Thais come to terms with loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Image Credit: Reuters
Mourners leave the procession route of a motorcade carrying the body of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok, Thailand.
Gulf News

Bangkok: The air over this city of 8.2 million was heavy on Friday.

And the hearts of each of its residents was also heavy, as the city woke up to its first day in more than seven decades where its beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej was no longer on the throne.

Large drops of rain fell from the skies, making it seem as if the humid clouds were shedding tears, mourning for the 88-year-old Thai monarch who died at a Bangkok Hospital on Thursday.

“He was our father,” Khomprimpat Sugkhatmit, a roadside vendor, told Gulf News as scores gathered at hundreds of makeshift shrines that have sprung up on the city’s crowded and chaotic footpaths. “He was the soul of our nation,” Sugkhatmit said.

Like countless others before him this Friday afternoon, he lit an incense stick at the gold-painted shrine, bedecked in the yellow ribbons synonymous with the Thai monarchy. At the centre of the shrine, a framed photograph of a format portrait of King Bhumibol stood as the remnants of dozens of burnt-out incense sticks turned to ashes and were carried away by the wind.

Sugkhatmit intoned quietly, inhaled heavily and began to cry. “He was our king,” he said, pointing his joined hands upward to those humid clouds.

Metres away, the Municipality of Bangkok has set up an information table — a tented booth of sorts — manned by police officers, to get public feedback on a plan to curtail the number of footpath vendors. The initiative is being pushed by the military government to clean up the image of the city, to make it less chaotic, and more orderly. No one stopped to ask for details as they waited in line to offer a prayer on the first day of a year of public mourning that has been declared in King Bhumibol’s memory.

On a battered red and yellow 136 bus that inched its way along Sukhumvit Road, one of the main arteries of this city, those standing passengers lurching backwards and forwards with each heavy touch of the brake, mostly wore black and looked out in silence, in quiet contemplation of what might happen to the country.

Before King Bhumibol’s death, most taxis, tuk-tuks and trucks were adorned with his portraits, surrounded by garlands and flowers. On Friday, those signs of adoration were gone, each front window missing a central console element more important that mirrors or GPS. Behind that battered red 136 bus, an orange cab kept pace inch by inch. Across its back window ran a decal: “Long live the King”.

From the Sino-Thai tower, from the Siam Commercial Bank, from every building and store, Thais gathered in small groups, wearing black or dark colours. Tourists, who had been discouraged by this city’s troubles, its political fighting, riots and bombing in recent years, had returned once more. Yesterday, they were cautioned to show respect, and to change from their loud, floral T-shirts to more sombre cloths. Those in search of the wilder side of the city’s offerings were disappointed as shuttered bars and blacked-out neon signs greeted their arrival.

At a McDonald’s restaurant, the foreground was also turned into a makeshift shrine, incongruently adjacent to a two-metre-high Ronald McDonald clown with a permanent plastic smile.

The level of grief here on these city streets is palpable, the loss of a father figure who held the nation together since coming to the throne in 1946 and one who endured through a dozen military coups. Unlike that Ronald McDonald clown, it will take months before Thais may find reason to smile. The mourning period will last a year. The loss? far longer.