His Royal Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand was often described as a “father figure.” He came to the throne in 1932, making him the world’s longest reigning monarch at time of death two months ago, Oct. 13.
The royal role was largely ceremonial, with few official political duties, which allowed the King to serve as a unifier in troubled times. As Al Jazeera recently summarized, during his reign, Thailand witnessed 19 coup attempts, including another government overthrow in 2014.
For Thailand’s people, the King served as a source of calm and beacon through those uncertain times. To say he was beloved is an understatement.
Why is this important for visitors during this high tourism season? Context is key to understanding a destination and culture, especially during times of change. On Oct. 14, Thailand began an official one-year mourning period, including an initial 30-days of civic acknowledgement.
For the next year, public as well as private life in the country will be impacted. From the mountains of Chang Dao to the beaches of Phuket, tourism providers are receiving questions from visitors about how travel will be affected.
Misinformation has spread rapidly. And, while it’s true that Thailand will be a different country for travelers during this time, the degree of difference depends largely on your specific destination, desired activities, and expectations.
Here’s what is true and false:
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Shortly after the King’s passing, some travelers tweeted complaints about canceled full moon parties and ruined vacations. Festivals and high profile concerts were canceled during the first 30 days due to a government limit on entertainment venues and activities.
As of Nov. 14, organizers were back in action, although everyone expects festivities to be more subdued, with many imposing earlier than usual end times.
Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) says, “most traditional, religious, cultural events and festivals; such as Loi Krathong, Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year, and Songkran will continue as planned, although the celebrations may be adjusted as a mark of respect.”
“All events and celebrations are going ahead and tourists will be seen as true friends of Thailand in these eventful times,” says the agency’s governor, Yuthasak Supasorn.
For questions about a specific event, ask your hotel or guesthouse, but don’t be surprised by vague responses. Everyone is waiting to see how events unfold.
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Khun Jatya, owner of The House of Phraya Jasaen, a popular guesthouse in Bangkok’s historic Sathorn neighborhood, says visitors may notice Thai people dressed in black or somber colors, adding that people are genuinely heartbroken.
There is no official expectation when it comes to visitors; however, TAT recommends wearing respectful clothing when in public.
What is considered respectable? A good rule of thumb in public places is to follow the dress code for visiting temples: no exposed shoulders and knees.
When guests ask Wicha Cavaliero, owner of Chiang Dao Nest in the country’s north, she says, “wearing a black ribbon on normal clothes is also a simple way of showing respect. These are being given out free of charge in many places.” TAT says ribbons are also available upon entry at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Can you wear a bikini on the beach? Of course. Most tourist hotspots, especially popular beaches, will be business—and dress—as usual.
Flights, trains and buses are running as usual, with the addition of more ground services and shuttles to accommodate Thais traveling to and from Bangkok’s Grand Palace, site of the national memorial.
During the 100-day Royal Funeral Rites, TAT says the “general public are allowed to pay respect and write messages of condolence” daily at the palace’s Sala Sahathai Samakhom Pavilion.
Visitors should be aware that transportation may be more crowded during weekends with more locals traveling to the memorial.
Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace were closed following the King’s passing, but reopened Nov. 1.
Other temples in Bangkok and throughout the country remain open to visitors, although hours may be adjusted and dress code less lenient.
When visiting the Grand Palace, TAT advises visitors to wear “somber-colored attire,” specifying for men: a shirt or T-shirt, long dark colored trousers or jeans, and covering footwear. For ladies, the suggestion is a blouse or T-shirt that covers the shoulders, long skirt or dress, and covering footwear.
Entry points at most temples usually keep sarongs on hand for those not properly covered, but there is no guarantee during this time.
International tourists can visit the Grand Palace during Royal Funeral Rites and tune in to a national broadcast of 100-day prayers, which began Oct. 17.
Thailand thrives on tourism and, in all but the rarest of occasions, tour operators are proceeding as usual. Contact individual agencies for specifics.
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California-based traveler Jeremy Dee was surprised recently when he tried to purchase wine at a high-end shop in Bangkok. The owner, who said his family was close to the King, refused to sell bottles on display as a show of respect.
As with this independent shop, individual proprietors may choose not to sell alcohol but, for the most part, stores, bars and restaurants—especially those geared to tourists—are open and serving as usual.
Even before the King’s passing, visitors had to be mindful when talking about the royal family. According to the U.S. Department of State, “Thais hold the King and the royal family in the highest regard, and it is a serious criminal offense in Thailand to make critical or defamatory comments about them.”
Referring to this crime as lèse majesté, the State Department’s website warns offenses are punishable by a prison sentence of three to 15 years, with comments made online potentially incurring additional time.
Be cautious and offer condolences, not commentary.
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Expect to see memorials on display everywhere from shops to street carts and billboards to broadcasts. Dee says the number and scale of memorials in Bangkok and Phuket surprised him. “There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of memorial displays in tribute to the King,” he says.
Memorials usually consist of a framed image of the King, flowers and offerings. Always ask before taking photos of personal memorials.
Before the King’s passing, 2016 was shaping up to be one of Thailand’s busiest years for tourism, with an expected 33 million visitors. As Financial Times recently reported, with tourism accounting for approximately 10 percent of the country’s economy, a decline in visitors would have a significant impact.
Visiting during this time is a meaningful way to support locals involved in the tourism industry, especially when spreading purchases over a range of providers.
This is always true for visiting Thailand (and most other countries, for that matter). While travel should not be guided by fear, caution is important.
Visitors should be aware and alert to political demonstrations and large gatherings that can quickly turn dangerous. Along with country’s sense of loss comes an intense amount of anxiety for what the future holds.
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As Cavaliero keenly observes, “People are genuinely very sad, including me. However, us Thai people very rarely display signs of grief or sadness publicly … There is an overwhelmingly positive attitude amongst the people, inspired by the King’s life and service to the country.”
She says Thai people like to smile and laugh. “Just give them a smile, and you are sure to get a smile back.”
For travelers hoping for a unique cultural experience, you will witness a culture in the midst of social change. For party-seekers, you will surely find your groove and experience great nightlife, just possibly at a lower volume with less competition on the dance floor.
And for everyone who enters with a spirit of respect during this extraordinary time, Thailand and her people are sure to reveal the beauty and uniqueness that keeps drawing many of us back, time after time.
Jess Simpson is a writer chasing a dream of slow travel in a fast world. She hopes you will follow the journey on Facebook and Instagram.