Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

No ordinary night in Bangkok: touching down in Thailand as the ‘Land of Smiles’ mourns beloved king

A pall was cast over the city as Thais of every class, political hue and creed began grieving the death of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2016, 11:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2016, 11:57am

Something was definitely different when shortly before midnight on Friday I trooped off Emirates Airlines Flight EK385 from Hong Kong at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok.

The exposed electrical cables and boarded-up work sites that give that slightly ramshackle and quintessentially Thai impression that the sprawling terminal building will never actually be finished was still there.

Still there also were the always welcoming “sawadee krap” statuettes and the wonderfully lilting public information announcements. But something wasn’t right and it didn’t take long for it to dawn on me what it was.

Gone were the photographs and salutations to the world’s longest-reigning monarch which adorned the halls and walls of the airport. Just a few hours after an announcement by Thailand’s Royal Household Bureau that His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej had passed away his image and that of his wife, Queen Sirikit, had gone. Never has the overused phrase “the King is dead, long live the King” resonated more.

“It’s a bit strange, even unsettling,” said Hong Kong-based French businessman, David Garnaut, a seasoned visitor to the “Land of Smiles”. “Of course, I understand why but it does jar after all these years for their images to have disappeared completely.”

While the hustle and bustle of the arrival hall provided welcome reassurance that life goes on, the surprisingly speedy taxi ride to my modest second home apartment near Bangkok’s other airport, Don Muang, underscored the realisation that this was no ordinary night in arguably Asia’s best-known metropolis.

In the hours since it was announced at 3.52pm on Thursday that the King had passed away, Thais of every class, political hue and creed began taking in and grieving the death of a man who for many, it seemed, would always be around.

Every channel on the TV in my apartment played carefully narrated documentaries of his life on a loop as my wife, Lamut, chastised me for wearing such a colourful and disrespectful shirt at this time.

“I spoke to a man in the supermarket earlier today and he started to cry,” she told me.

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Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, is the king’s named successor, but has made a surprise request to delay formally becoming the next king, according to the junta leader who appealed for citizens to accept the decision and “not cause chaos”.

Officials prepared to move the monarch’s body on Friday from the hospital where he died to the Grand Palace, a complex of glittering temples and pavilions in the heart of the capital.

Large crowds are expected to pour onto the streets for the procession from Siriraj Hospital where the king spent much of the last two years battling an array of ailments. This will be followed by weeks of rituals.