Bangkok’s Grand Palace during a time of mourning

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Mourners at the Grand Palace

We left the condo at 7:15am on the day we chose to visit the top site in Bangkok, the Grand Palace. Everything I’d read said to get there at least 15 minutes prior to the 8:30am opening time to avoid crowds and to beat the worst of the heat. We arrived at our neighborhood Sathorn Pier just in time to catch a commuter boat to the Tha Chang pier which is the Grand Palace stop. Since everything went so smoothly, we arrived much earlier than we’d planned, exiting the covered market that abuts the Tha Chang pier at 7:45am. Although we had more time than we needed, it turned out to be an interesting experience to be there so early.

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On the morning commuter boat to Tha Chang: River plants and left-overs from the previous night’s Loi Krathong floating offerings
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Just off the Tha Chang pier: A monk blessing those who gave him morning alms

Instead of going straight to the main entrance, we turned right along the same path we’d followed the previous day to see if free water was still on offer (provided for mourners traveling to the capitol to pay their respects, but also offered to tourists and other visitors). We were running low on water at the condo and planned to pick some up after our palace visit. Sure enough, the tables were still set up and food and water already on offer. We accepted a cold bottle for the days tour, then headed back to make our way to the main palace gate.

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Contents of a free boxed lunch we were given near the Grand Palace: rice, fried chicken, and larb gai (a minced chicken salad)

The street in front of the palace is closed off to all but official traffic and security check points set up. After passing through scanner stations and metal detectors, we walked nearly a block to reach the main gate where white-uniformed guards stood watch. A few tourists had already gathered and more trickled in as we waited. Still, it wasn’t too a large crowd and boded well for our visit.

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Tourists waiting for the Grand Palace to open

Soldiers formed rows just inside the gate and eventually two marched in a sort of goose-step towards the two guards at their posts outside. We watched as they performed a changing-of-the-guard routine that included a prolonged adjusting of the new guard’s uniforms by the retiring guards. Collars were straightened, hems of jackets tugged, epaulettes adjusted.

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Changing of the guard begins

Soon after the changing of the guard, the first of many waves of mourners were led through the main gate. They all wore black and many carried photographs of the recently-deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej clutched to their chests. The king was much-loved by his people and they have poured into the capitol to pay their respects. I read that visitors to the Grand Palace are being limited to 10,000 per day. The mourners we saw all wore name tags, presumably related to this limit and part of an organization system going on somewhere out of our sight.

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Mourners dresssed in black entering the Grand Palace main gate, many holding photos of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Yet another huge wave of mourners being led into a side gate of the Grand Palace

It was incredibly touching to see the real grief displayed by the Thai people.  All over Thailand, we encountered large tributes and displays of photographs of the long-reigning kind. The photos depicted him at seemingly every stage of his life: young man, avid photographer, in middle- and old-age, playing his saxophone, in full royal regalia, visiting a memorial with sweat dripping from his nose, in military uniform comforting a hospital patient and on and on. Black and white bunting draped walls and buildings everywhere. Black clothes are de rigeur now for Thais and are prominently on display in clothing shops and stalls. If a work or military uniform is not black, people wear black arm bands or black ribbons pinned to their shirts and dresses. Videos played on display screens on skyscrapers in Bangkok, in parks, on subway screens. David and I saw one woman nearly brought to tears as she watched a film of the king on a subway car screen. The genuineness of the general grief is unmistakable.

After the morning waves of mourners were inside the palace compound, we tourists were admitted. I hurried through security while David pulled on his over-pants and I ended up buying the first tickets of the day. At 500 baht ($14.30) apiece, these are some of the most expensive entrance tickets to be found in Thailand. The tickets include access to Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha Temple), The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion and Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile, which are located within the Grand Palace compound, and to Vimanmek Mansion Museum on Ratchawithi Road. At least, the tickets usually include all this.

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What the ticket usually covers

A notice at the ticket booth inside the palace compound informed us that the Emerald Buddha Temple was closed for the day. This was a real disappointment since we’d seen emerald Buddha temples in Chiang Khong and Chiang Mai and even a replica of the statue in Chiang Mai. We were looking forward to finally seeing the real thing. Oh well, we chalked it up to more out-of-the-ordinariness due to the mourning period, and our minor disappointment seemed trivial in comparison to the grief around us. Still, this meant we made a fairly quick sweep through the area of the compound around Wat Phra Kaew. The temple and structures surrounding it were magnificent and, of course, over-the-top in their ornateness.

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Chedi, Royal Pantheon and other structures within the Temple of the Emerald Buddha complex
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Cleaning the Emerald Buddha Temple
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Royal Pantheon

High-ceilinged open galleries run all around this portion of the palace compound and they were filled with the thousands of mourners we’d watched enter the palace earlier. They fanned themselves in the heat, but waited patiently for their turn to file past the king’s bier.

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Hordes of Thais wait in the hot open corridors of the Grand Palace complex for the chance to pay final respects to their king

It was still fairly early in the morning when we exited the area around the Emerald Buddha Temple to view the Grand Palace itself. We encountered another large group of mourners outside, but the Grand Palace is not open to tourists. Well, OK. We’d budgeted a lot more time for this visit and there was no more to see here. So, we moved on to the The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion only to be told the decorations portion was also closed. The Coins Pavilion is an unimpressive little museum and we made a quick sweep through displays on the second floor of Thai coins through the ages, spending most of our time standing in front of the two air conditioning vents that actually blew cold air. Downstairs, yet another tribute to the dead king took up the majority of the small space.

Hmm. There was nothing left to do, but head back towards the main gate of the palace compound–now mobbed with later-arriving tourists–to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile. It didn’t sound all that intriguing, but we had the tickets and the building looked nice…and air conditioned. The museum turned out to be a surprise hit. It housed two main exhibits: the first on khon, a very stylized traditional form of Thai dance; and the second, a display of clothing worn by Queen Sirikit and created by famed French designer, Balmain.

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Crowds of tourists just inside the Grand Palace main gate later in the morning

Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed inside the main exhibits, so I can’t provide any here. Both exhibits were fascinating, though. Queen Sirikit devoted much effort to reviving the khon form of dance, which had died out. Costumes worn by khon dancers and patterned after royal garb had to be recreated from old written descriptions. In the beginning of this revival, silk from China was used, but with Queen Sirikit’s encouragement, the silk industry was revived in Thailand and Thai silk is now used. The characters in khon are celestial beings, demons, monkeys and humans. The dancers wear masks and elaborate headdresses and jewelry. They mime action while a chorus sings the plot of stories based on Ramakien, the Thai version of Ramayana, the Indian epic. The museum displays not only costumes and masks, but also has rare video footage of old khon productions along with modern film slowing the slow process of dressing each actor. Dressing involves intricate folding of copious amounts of cloth, layers of both clothing and jewelry, and even sewing the dancers into their costumes.

The display of Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe beginning in the 1960’s reminded me very much of an exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes I’d seen at the Musée de la Mode in Paris. Jewel-toned suits with three-quarter sleeve jackets and pillbox hats gave way to sequinned cocktail dresses and gorgeous formals. Queen Sirikit wanted Thai elements and fabrics blended into western-style dresses. The effect was unique and beautiful. Period photographs and videos of the King and his petite and pretty Queen on trips to the west accompanied the exhibit.

We made one final stop at the museum, where photos were allowed. This was billed as an activity room, but turned out to be primarily a space where visitors could dress up in faux khon costumes and pose for photos. As the first to visit for the day, we had the full attention of the bored young woman in charge of this room and were soon hustled into costumes and coached in “classic” khon poses. The laughable results are below for your viewing amusement:

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Leaving the museum and the Grand Palace compound, we crossed the street in search of more free water. En route, I was stopped by a reporter for a Thai television station who asked to interview me. His questions, like those of the students who interviewed me at Hellfire Pass, had to with what I thought of Thailand, “how the death of the king effected me,” and whether I wanted to return to Thailand. I think the questions and the concern had to do with whether I, as a tourist, was put off or influenced by the mourning going on around me. All I could say was that I loved Thailand, my heart was touched by the grief of the Thai people, and that, yes, I’d love to come back.

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Comments and questions are welcome!