A nation grieves

Explaining the affection of the Thai people for their fallen king is difficult. They have been mourning for a year and on Thursday their beloved king will be cremated. The ceremonies will cost about $90 million, and I’m not sure that even includes the cost of the new buildings and parks that have been created.

To be sure, King Bhumibol was good for and to his people during his 70-year reign. He is responsible for much of what is good, and modern, in Thailand. He is responsible, for example, in not only convincing mountain hilltribes to forsake opium farming for cash crops like coffee, but also is personally demonstrating to them how to plant and nurture their crops, and providing the actual seedlings to get started.

The Thai media is consumed with the cremation and funeral, to the point some media has stopped posting news about anything else. And all Thai TV stations are offering only information about the king and the ceremonies. Here’s a taste from one Thai newspaper:

The volunteer spirit

More than 2 million Thais registered to serve as volunteers during the royal cremation period, carrying out several unpaid tasks, at Sanam Luang and elsewhere, from venue preparation, catering, public information services and funeral flower distribution to first aid and traffic safety. Here are some of them who talk about their duties and their pride in serving King Bhumibol one last time.

Sumit Tharangsi, 74

‘Where are you going?” asked 74-year-old Sumit to a female tourist waiting for a bus outside the Lottery Office on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. When she said she was heading to MBK, the man automatically replied with a hand signal saying “15”, denoting the bus route she had to take.

“I’ve been doing this for over 200 days,” said Sumit, a security guard from Phayao province in the northern part of Thailand. He has been serving as a volunteer – giving people directions at a bus stop – since last year.

“People always want to know how to get to places,” he added. “Both farangs and Thais, many are still confused over which bus they should take.”

And whenever he spotted a clueless soul around the bus stop, he would always approach them, asking where they wanted to go.

“I even got yelled at sometimes,” he said, but still with a smile on his face. He brushed off people’s negativity with ease. “Some people got annoyed at me, I guess. Some said they didn’t need any help. But I didn’t think much of it. I know why I’m here and I’m happy to assist everyone.

“People did ask a lot why I’m doing this. I’m not even getting paid. But I like it. It’s a peace to my own mind. I’m doing this for the king, and I’ll be here until the end of the month.”

Pornsuree Konanta, 44

Right after King Bhumibol’s passing, Pornsuree didn’t have much time for personal expression of gratitude and grief. Last October, the communications and social investment manager for Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production had to channel it instead into hard work for her company by co-ordinating her team’s efforts to supply volunteer motorcyclists in Sanam Luang with cards that allowed them to fill up their tanks for free.

In the months that followed, she nonetheless returned to the royal palace to pay her respects to the late king and soon wished to do volunteer work of her own. An avid cyclist, she signed up to patrol the area on bike and provide help to the people gathered there.

“My work starts around 8pm, when I survey the roads around the royal palace to spot any unusual activity,” she said.

Pornsuree is also a representative from the Culture Ministry and often assists tourists passing by, informing them about correct attire and behavior during the mourning period.

After completing her surveillance rounds, she regains her post near the exit of the Royal Palace in service to the people who have come to pay tribute to King Bhumibol’s remains.

Pornsuree can often be seen with a walkie talkie, organizing queues for the tuk-tuk services or buses and giving information about the best routes to take in order to leave the busy neighborhood.

“No matter how tired I am from my work day, I always regain strength when I am volunteering,” she added.

Seeing people from all walks of life dedicate themselves to the late king and efforts ahead of the royal cremation ceremony makes her proud, although the toughest task is yet to come.

On the day of the ceremony itself, Pornsuree and other volunteers will be working.

“Although I wish this day would never come, I will work tirelessly,” she said. “King Bhumibol taught us what sacrificing our own comfort for others means. He was a wonderful example, never wishing for anything in return.”

Boonchai Nipatpun, 60

Life as a volunteer interpreter and information provider in Sanam Luang area is not always met with kind words, according to Boonchai – a Thai retiree who has lived in Los Angeles for three decades. He’s been doing this job since last November, Boonchai said he and his friends have faced some threats from local swindlers.

“It’s just unfixable,” he said from his post outside Phra Chan Alley. “There are many swindlers here, fooling and cheating money off of tourists, and also making threats to volunteers who try to help. They only think of their own short-term gain, not the long-term effect of ruining the country’s tourism industry and image.”

While there is much information provided to Thai citizens and those who wish to come to pay respect to the king, there’s limited information available for tourists who come to see the palace and the temples in the area, said Boonchai. And with minimal information, tourists easily fall prey to petty scams that offer to take them to see Bangkok attractions at a high price.

“The staff are really in need of help to manage and relay information to tourists. Some roads are blocked and some places are now off-limits, and people are not aware of that.

“Many people are still confused about what we’re doing here,” he added. “People don’t get why we love the king so much, or why many would camp out on the streets for hours, come rain or shine. They want to know why. And when they see us, they are really happy to finally get the information they seek.”

Jerdsiri Bambudtook, 80

Walking around Sanam Luang in the beating sun and rain hardly seems like the kind of work fit for an 80-year-old, but that didn’t stop Jerdsiri from doing her part for the king. A public relations volunteer responsible for informing citizens of etiquette when paying their respects, Jerdsiri takes to her work with the vigor to match anyone a quarter of her age.

“I’ve been volunteering since late last year, even before they set up this official volunteer program in June. Ever since they began letting people into Sanam Luang to pay respects to the king’s remains, I’ve been coming here every day to help pick up trash or hand out food and drinks to other volunteers.”

A retired government employee from the Ministry of Finance, Jerdsiri said she feels an obligation to help people in their time of mourning. Working six-hour shifts, where she walks around the Sanam Luang area and advises people, Jerdsiri said that she has never been happier and prouder to work for the king again, to serve his people and his nation.

“I was always very touched by the king’s concern for literally every citizen under his reign. He knew every single square foot of Thailand, down to the smallest rivers and hills. Some of us live right next to these rivers without ever knowing their names, but the king, sitting in his palace, did. No other monarch in the world could claim that. We were truly blessed to have him.”

Piyawat Sooksri, 44

Outside the volunteer center at Thammasat University, Piyawat sat perching on his motorcycle. The sun was blazing hot that afternoon, but still he sat there. Occasionally, people would approach him for a free lift, in which he would take them to their designated destinations without charging a single baht and head back to his same spot. The process was repeated over and over throughout the day.

“People usually ask me to take them to the boat pier, or to the bus stop,” said Piyawat, who has been volunteering around Sanam Luang since October last year.

“I often come here every few days whenever I’m free. I normally sell clothes at a night market, so I’m free during the daytime. Most people with a motorbike would come at night after work, like 300-400 of them, but only a few would be free to come during the day. So there aren’t too many free rides available in the afternoon for people who come to Sanam Luang.”

Piyawat said he normally has a clothing shop near Kasetsart University’s Kamphaengsaen Campus in Nakhon Pathom. For this month, he is renting a house in Charoen Nakhon district of Bangkok with his wife and friend to help with things around Sanam Luang.

He went silent for a long time after being asked why he would go to such lengths just to help others.

“I didn’t know what else to do for the king,” he finally answered. “He did so much for us over the course of 70 years. Now I’m doing what I can and what I’m capable of. It’s my way of repaying his kindness.”

Jongom Sae-Tiew, 54

‘Not even the Bangkok heat can stop the stream of loyal Thais making their way toward the gates of the royal palace. But that doesn’t mean they can’t use a little help along the way,” said volunteer nurse Jongom Sae-Tiew, as she passed out smelling incense to passers-by near Thammasat Tha Phra Chan.

As a Bangkok-native living near Din Daeng, Jongom has been volunteering around Sanam Luang since day one, cleaning up the streets and sidewalks after the stream of mourners who came to leave their signatures, then later those who came to pay their respects to the king’s remains. When the volunteer network began recruiting people for their medical team in June, she signed right up, seeing it as an opportunity to apply her experience to help others even more.

“I noticed over a few days that a lot of people were fainting from the heat and from dehydration, so I decided to sit here and pass out incense to people walking by. The king was a large part of why I became a nurse in the first place, so I thought it was fitting to use those skills now in service to him.”

Like many other Thais, the king’s modesty, honesty and selflessness were an integral model for Jongom’s life, both personally and professionally.

“The best way for all Thai people to repay his kindness is to live by his example. Even the simple act of volunteering to help your fellow Thais can make a difference. It’s going to be hard for me the closer it gets to the cremation ceremony, but I’ll be here volunteering until the end.”

Pongsatorn Siriwoharn, 48

“I’ve lived a rough life, doing the wrong things with the wrong kind of people,” said Pongsatorn, as he cheerily helped a trio of elderly women cross the road.

“One day, it just dawned on me that I’ve been doing it all wrong. You can have all the money in the world, all the nicest clothes and cars, but it’s simple things like a grateful smile from someone you’ve helped that truly makes life worth living. And you can’t really buy that anywhere.”

Pongsatorn currently volunteers in the network’s transportation team, responsible for regulating traffic and giving directions to passers-by. For him, the opportunity to volunteer makes him feel closer to the king, who he feels is the ultimate volunteer, one who has worked tirelessly and thankfully for Thai people all his life.

“I heard that a lot of ‘volunteers’ never actually showed up. Some people seem to think that there would be some sort of allowance or pay for volunteering, which is absurd. Everyone who is here is here because they want to help, to do good things for the king, like he’s done for us all that time.

“Even when there were those who took what he did for granted, or even disliked him for whatever reason, the king never ceased to work toward bettering the country for his people.”

Jerd aka “Revolutionary 2507”

With his singular attire, Jerd is hard to miss among the black-clad crowds of Sanam Luang. His volunteer scarf is tied around a military jacket, his hat and clothes are spangled with dozens of pins and symbols — among them, the communist hammer and sickle, a peace-bringing dove carrying an olive branch.

When asked about his profession, Jerd replied “revolutionary” without blinking.

The 53-year-old man from Pathum Thani (his nickname “2507” comes from his birth year, 1964) explained that he is volunteering to help Thais understand each other and bridge political divides.

Every weekend, he comes to Sanam Luang and sits at a bus stop in front of Thammasat University’s Tha Phra Chan campus, donning his volunteer uniform on top of his usual gear.

“My inspiration comes from King Bhumibol himself,” Jerd said, quoting teachings of the late monarch. “He used to say that all laws can be amended, pleading for us to reason with each other rather than fight, to rely on wisdom rather than weapons.”

Every day that Jerd is working, studying or preaching to whoever will listen to him, he hopes that the future will bring equal access to betterment for every Thai.

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be in a situation where we are in a good place, but our neighbor isn’t,” he added. “King Bhumibol taught us this: development must not leave anyone behind.”

Malai Sananmuang, 68

Sitting on the side of the road, a few meters away from the policemen guarding the entrance to Sanam Luang, Malai took off one shoe and began to massage her foot. At 68 years old, the Chiang Khong native has been living on her own in Bangkok for the past four months and volunteering since day one.

“When King Bhumibol passed away, I cried non-stop for three days,” she said. “Soon, I couldn’t stand not doing anything, being so far away, so I packed my bags and here I am.”

Alone in Bangkok, Malai right away headed to the royal palace, where she paid her respects to the late monarch’s body no less than 99 times. When she heard that one could apply to become a volunteer ahead of the cremation ceremony, she didn’t hesitate a second.

“First, I helped clean the nearby klong, you wouldn’t believe what we picked up from the water – plastic, trash, a bed – and the smell!” she exclaimed, her mouth turned into a grin. “That was rather exhausting, but then they let me make sandalwood flowers for the remainder of the month.”

Malai gets up every day at 3am, to be out of the house by four and standing in line at Sanam Sua Pa with other volunteers by five. Even when work is over, she said she stays there longer than the required hours, chatting with her new friends.

“I’m not tired,” she added. “To be honest, this is quite fun – but I never forget why I’m here.”

She recalled the day in 1971 when King Bhumibol visited Chiang Khong. Malai – then in her 20s – was among the crowd that welcomed him. That day truly changed her life, she said. Therefore, she had to be a part, no matter how small, of the royal cremation ceremony. – Bangkok Post

(Personally, I will be glad when life gets back to normal, without everyone dressed in black, and with business rejuvenating once this all passes.)

About 2bagsandapack

Lifetime journalist, author, magazine editor and publisher, now semi-retired and traveling the world. My plan, after living in Costa Rica for 14 months, was to visit a new country in southern Europe every three months to experience the culture and the challenge of adapting to a new environment, while on a fixed income. That plan was sidetracked when I was offered a job in Indonesia, providing an opportunity to explore Asia. Indonesia lasted for a 4 wonderful years but I have now moved on to Hua Hin, Thailand.
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