Natalie Garro, 129 TCCS
I’ve spent the last few days trying to find the most appropriate words to explain what it meant to attend the funeral of the late King of Thailand.
Peace Corps Thailand Group 129 arrived in Thailand just a few short months after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or King Rama IX. I still remember receiving the email informing us of the King’s death, about one year ago. The email advised us to bring primarily black clothing to Thailand, as the mourning period for the late King would last – and, indeed, has lasted – over one full year: about half of the duration of our service. I have worn black nearly every day since I arrived in Thailand – almost 10 months ago – to honor King Bhumibol’s memory.
Before I departed for Peace Corps, I did a bit of reading and watched a documentary overviewing the King’s remarkable time on the throne. An accomplished musician, a proponent of environmental conservation, and a man dedicated to the well-being of his citizens above all else, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is known fondly as, “The People’s King.” This much has always been clear; King Rama IX was not only respected as the King, he was loved and cherished by the citizens of Thailand, and this becomes ever-more evident as one speaks to more and more Thai people.
As the one-year anniversary of King Bhumibol’s death approached – and the dates for the funeral were released – we discovered that our Language Mobile (Peace Corps’ ongoing Thai Language Training, which had been scheduled before the government released the funeral dates) happened to fall over the 4 days surrounding the funeral: the day preceding, the day of, and the 2 days following the ceremony. Our Thai language aajaans (teachers) – who are some of the most important people to us in Thailand – spent these days not only graciously teaching us Thai (despite the significance of these days), but also took us to the funeral. They instructed us on appropriate dress and behavior, they waited in line until 1AM (alongside many of us volunteers) to pay their respects to the late King, and they still woke up to teach 8 hours of language sessions to a room full of sleepy volunteers the next day.
It was an absolute privilege to attend the ceremony alongside some of the phenomenal human beings who have been with us since our first day in Thailand, and I will never be able to express the depth of gratitude I – and my fellow volunteers – feel toward our teachers, especially after experiencing this unique event side-by-side.
All of that being said, I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of King Bhumibol’s funeral.
For one day, Thailand stood still. The entire country poured into their respective, designated mourning locations to pay respect to their late King.
The funeral itself was humbling on a whole other level. Thousands – literally thousands – of people were there. Food was served, water and mosquito repellant distributed, and, despite the hundreds of chairs set up to offer some relief over the hours, there were still entire hours spent standing in line to Wai (bow to) the image of the late King and the burning (ceremonial) funeral pyre. We waited in line for some 8 hours before arriving to the place where we placed our flowers, curtseyed/ bowed, and then went home.
The performances honoring the King continued for the entirety of the funeral. The singers and dancers, outfitted in glistening traditional Thai clothing, performed traditional dances and sang traditional songs.
No one blinked an eye at the duration of our wait. The patience was palpable. This wasn’t a funeral one could “decide” to attend. Attending seemed as natural to the Thai people as attending the funeral of one’s own father. Despite the immaculate ceremony of the proceedings, despite the (literal) military organization of the lines, despite being surrounded by countless people – their bodies draped in black and marching dutifully forward – the procession did not lose the uncanny feeling of being incredibly personal to each individual present. Children attended in their school uniforms. Fidgety toddlers, up long past their bedtime, eventually dozed on their parents’ shoulders as the hours ticked by. And there we were, in the midst of this massive grief, understanding this part of what it means to be Thai only to the extent of what we’ve been able to learn in the 10 months we’ve lived among these complex people. We walked steadily forward with our aajaans. And we said our goodbyes. And I expect I will never experience such personal grief for the leader of a country again.
What would it be like, to be so loved by so many? I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t expect I will again, within this lifetime.