On Monday the Minister of Tourism, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, briefed the ambassadors and other foreign diplomats on the situation in Thailand following the passing of King Bhumibol. The theme of her presentation was “Life Goes On” (download here). A couple of the ambassadors posted a few of the power point slides. Which was kind of them, but not very helpful for me. So, I tweeted that it would be nice if the Minister also briefed travel writers based in Thailand. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but as it turned out, the Minister’s sister follows me on Twitter. Apparently she told Kobkarn about what I was tweeting and she immediately invited me in for my own private briefing. Which is what I did on Wednesday. Below are some of my notes and observations.
First to say, there has been no situation like this for the last seventy years. There is no script of how to handle the grieving. I know it may sound strange as we all knew this day was coming. But, there is a Thai superstition that if you talk about it in advance, it is like you are inviting that bad event to happen. So, there was no discussion of what to do the day that the King died. Of course, everyone was in deep shock for the first three or so days. The King wasn’t your average King. He was literally the Father of the Nation and his death was a great loss to the Kingdom.
The immediate reaction was to call for a year of mourning and to cancel all of the upcoming events. But, as time passed, they realized that this wasn’t really practical or sustainable. After all, over four million Thais depend on the tourism industry and this kind of closure would hurt not only them, but the country too. And so, as the days go on, we are starting to see some of the earlier events being reinstated. However, they are being adapted to make them more appropriate for the mourning period.
The problem we have is that no-one knows how the Thais will feel two, three, or even four months down the road. What is appropriate for New Year? What is appropriate for Christmas? When the King first died they were saying, cancel for sure. Now they are saying that these events can go ahead but need to be adjusted appropriately. But, no-one can say yet what exactly that means. Like I said, no-one knows what the mood will be like in a few months. The same goes for Songkran. Will they want to celebrate by that time? They just cannot answer that question yet. And it would be wrong of us to try and push them on this.
Another problem is that not everyone will grieve in the same way. Although the government has issued guidelines on what is appropriate at the different times, not everyone will follow in the same way. For example, there is a 30 day mourning period and most people are wearing black. After that, some will choose to wear normal clothes again. The funeral rites last for 100 days and so we will probably find some people wearing black for those 100 days. Then there are people like government workers who will wear black for one year. The same goes for owners of hotels and nightclubs. Some have already turned the music on. Others will wait longer. It is up to them. That is why it is not consistent across the country.
Khun Kobkarn told me that all cultural, religious and sporting events can go ahead as normal, but they must adapt the mood and tone to respect the Thai people. So, no loud music or fireworks. The focus will now be on the cultural and religious side of the events. There will be some limitations during the first 30 days of mourning up to 13th November. After that, she expects things to get back to more like normal. However, as the funeral rites last for 100 days, until 21st January, they are asking people to celebrate in an appropriate manner. But, what exactly does this mean? As we have seen, people are going to interpret that in different ways.
WORLD CUP QUALIFIER: The international football match between Australia and Thailand is going ahead. However, the Thai FA announced strict rules like no cheering and chanting, no banners and the Thai team cannot wear their normal colourful shirts. However, that was the initial reaction. As it is outside the 30 day mourning period, it is possible the rules will be softened. After all, they would be cheering for the national team, for King and Country. The Minister said she would like to see that but it is the decision of the Thai FA.
HALLOWEEN: This is arguably a cultural event though not one from Thailand. It is an adopted tradition from elsewhere in the world. There are no bans on parties behind closed doors which means Halloween can go on as scheduled.
LOY KRATHONG: As this is a cultural event, it will go ahead as planned. Most of the activities won’t change, but there will be no concerts, fireworks or any beauty contests. However, people can float krathongs and take part in cultural activities.
CHRISTMAS: This is a religious activity and so it isn’t cancelled. Christian schools can go ahead with their normal events to celebrate the birth of Jesus. There will be Christmas decorations up in Bangkok and across the country. But, it is too early to say what this will be like. It will be up to the owners of malls and private buildings as to what is appropriate. There will be trees covered in lights for sure. But it is not clear about the colours. It was suggested that colours like gold might be good to represent the king. Christmas carols will also most likely be played. Though, if we are lucky, not so loud and not literally everywhere.
NEW YEAR COUNTDOWN: There will be a public countdown for sure. Though it is not clear yet how they will make this appropriate. It is also doubtful there will be fireworks. There will be music, but they are not sure what kind yet. However, if you attend a private countdown party in a club or hotel, then they will continue exactly the same as last year.
UPDATE: CentralWorld has announced they won’t be organizing a Countdown this year. Nor will they have beer gardens
CHINESE NEW YEAR: This is a cultural and religious event and so will continue. At this moment in time, they are saying it can go ahead and people can wear red. But they should also wear a black ribbon.
SONGKRAN: Again, this is a cultural event with religious overtones. So, this will be going ahead for sure. However, it will be adapted to be more traditional with a gentle sprinkling of water instead of wild water fights. All of the cultural sides of the festival will be emphasized and promoted. In some way, I think this might be a really good Songkran.
I hope that gives you a clearer idea of what is happening now and in the future in Thailand. There will be further updates soon and so please stay tuned (See my Situation Updates). If you are planning on coming to Thailand for a holiday, then I would say there is no reason to cancel. Everything is open as normal. This includes, shopping malls, markets and tourist attractions. The only place closed at the moment is the Grand Palace and that will re-open on 1st November 2016. As far as nightlife goes, they are open again, serving alcohol and playing music behind closed doors. Though some are closing earlier than normal. Once, the 30 day mourning period finishes in mid-November, it should be back to normal.