Friday, October 21, 2016

The King Has Died

Thais at Siriraj Hospital in Thonburi react to news that Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, has died. 

The day most Thais knew was coming and dreading at the same time arrived last week. After a prolonged illness, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, died. Millions of Thais across the Kingdom are in mourning, missing the only monarch most of them have known. 
A woman reacts to news of the King's death. 

The King is deeply revered by the Thais. He reigned for a little over 70 years, becoming King when Thailand was still shattered by World War 2. (Thailand suffered through a brutal Japanese occupation during the war and American and British planes bombed Bangkok and military targets throughout Thailand during the war.) Thailand's neighbors, all of them, were entering dangerous phases of civil war and anti-colonial insurgencies. It would have been very easy for that violence to spill over into Thailand. 

But Thailand persevered and became an island of stability and economic development in very stormy post war seas. 
Mourners at the hospital. 

The King made it his mission to see to his subjects' needs. He made regular journeys to upcountry Thailand, places that the Bangkok elite ignored. Thailand (then Siam) was a constitutional monarchy when the King inherited the throne - the absolute monarchy was deposed by a coup in 1932 - and the King had little official power. He couldn't tell officials how to govern, he had to lead by example. And the Thai people responded to that.

We were in Bali when news broke that the King's health was "unstable." We discussed our options and decided to return to Bangkok because I felt like I needed to be in Bangkok when the King died. 

We got back to Bangkok Wednesday night. I went to Siriraj Hospital early Thursday morning and photographed people praying for His Majesty. The King has lived in Siriraj for most of the last six years I've spent a lot of time at the hospital the last four years (since moving to Thailand) photographing people signing get well wishes and praying for the King. But this time it all felt different. 

In the past, there was always a sense that he would recover. That optimism was missing this time. About 7PM the Royal Household (which oversees matters related to the monarchy) issued a press release that at 3:52PM on Thursday, October 13, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, had died. As news rippled through the crowd people erupted in cried of anguish. People chanted "Long the King" while they clutched portraits of His Majesty. They hugged each other, comforting themselves in a moment of collective grief. Some people fainted. It was not like anything I had ever experienced. 
Friday morning, after the King's death Thursday, people gathered at the Grand Palace with pictures of their beloved Monarch. 

The mourning process started almost immediately. I went to Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace Friday morning. There was a large crowd of people, most carrying portraits of the King, waiting to get into the Palace to pay respects. The King was 88 years old and had reigned for 70 years. He was the only King most Thais knew. 
A woman weeps at the wall of the Grand Palace. 

The Royal succession has been in places for years. At some point in the near future, the King's son, HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will become King. The exact date is not known yet and depends on the mourning process. The Crown Prince said he will be ascend to the throne after he helps the Thai people mourn his beloved father's death.
The area around the Palace and Sanam Luang is crowded with mourners. 

The Thai government has been critical of western news agencies for under reporting the total number of mourners. It's hard to estimate the size of the crowd because the mourning is being done over a large area in a congested part of the city. But Friday afternoon it was so crowded it was nearly impossible to walk through the crowd. The government said 500,000 people came down to the area around the palace.

What is inescapable is that people everywhere in Thailand are mourning His Majesty's death. From Sanam Luang and the Palace to temples in rural villages, millions of Thais are mourning the death of the King.  
Thais file into the Grand Palace to sign condolences for the King.

It's hard to explain this kind of reverence to Americans. There is nothing in our national psyche that can compare. I've traveled throughout Thailand, from Bangkok to small villages on the Burmese or Lao borders. To impoverished hamlets in Isan. And all have one thing in common. In every home and shop, restaurant, bus station or train station, in many taxies and buses, a portrait of the King is prominently displayed.
A mourner prays for the King on Sanam Luang, the Royal Ceremonial Ground. 
Royal Thai Police watch a crowd of mourners at the palace walls.

There are more photos related to the King's death in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.