When in October 2016, Thailand announced His Majesty Phra Bat Somdech Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Borommanathbobitra had died, the country entered a year of mourning. Thus, from the day I arrived in Krung Thep Mahanakon...
a.k.a. Bangkok, I was surrounded by citizens in black, portraits of King Rama IX draped in black bunting, and a general impression of heaviness that comes from an entire people losing their beloved king and father who'd reigned for seven decades.
So October 26, 2017--the day of his cremation--was an extraordinary event. Consider that the last time they put a king to rest, Harry Truman was U.S. President. Consider that, in the time since King Rama IX ascended the throne, between 11 and 15 coups d'étated in Thailand (and consider when you have so many coups you can't get a completely accurate number from the wiki...).
Consider that all the 7-11's in Bangkok closed for the ceremony.
Understandably, I wanted to experience it. I had no chance of getting close to the six military parades, the concerts, or many of the events on which the country spent approximately 3 billion THB--more than 240,000 Thais lined up for hours and days to get those choice "seats" (in many cases, spots on the sidewalk to kneel upon). But as I hit the streets that night, dressed in all black like The Omen and per requirements, hours before the actual cremation ceremony at 22:00 (Bangkok is a nighttime town, and Thailand likes the military clock), I immediately saw examples of what makes this place special. What makes the people here same as back home, but different.
The biggest was the way people take care of each other. In a country where per capita GDP is just $5,000 US, you could understand people using this as an opportunity to profit, to get a little ahead, especially off of farang like me. Hell, Americans do it to each other during hurricanes so surely I'll pay mightily to be part of this, right?
No. Shuttle buses, public toilets, water, coffee, food--everything was free. Shops, food stands and tents, even people--random citizens--standing beside queues, handing out baggies of fried rice and spoons. All to make merit, to do some kindness in honor of a King who showed so much to his people.
In some cases kindness was even forced upon me. Example: I encountered a group passing out cold bottled water. I already had water, but I was sweating (hello Bangkok). He offered. I showed him my lukewarm bottle and waved him off. He was having none of it, came into my path, and pushed it into my hand.
I was better for it, too. Khap khun khrap.
And as the night rolled on, as we bounced through crowds, looking and listening; as we caught a glimpse of King Rama X's all-Mercedes motorcade; as I even got to make my own offering of a sandalwood flower, I felt around me a sense of relief and release. That in the air, the tension and pain and discontent so many in this country have felt was rising to the heavens with their beloved departed King.
Does Thailand still have problems? You bet--just like every country and mine is no different. And I think the Thai tendency to deem harmony sacrosanct can mask problems and create new ones. But I also see how the love and community Thais feel for one another, and the sense of unity that comes from having a Good King who served with true dedication to his people, can heal wounds and prevent new ones.
I wish we were a little more the same back home right now.