The year-long Thailand mourning period began after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, died peacefully on October 13, 2016. He was 88 years old.
There are a few things to know about traveling to Thailand during this sad time for the country.
King Bhumibol ruled Thailand for 70 years and was the world’s longest-reigning monarch. You can’t go very far in Thailand without seeing giant images celebrating the late king’s many accomplishments. Although business goes on in Thailand, the impact of the king’s death is still reverberating through daily life for many people.
Traveling in Thailand After the King’s Death
Don’t cancel your plans to visit Thailand! Although the experience may differ slightly from what you had planned, don’t miss a chance to witness history or enjoy the top destination in Southeast Asia.
If you intend to go near the Grand Palace to pay respects, wear all black. Right now is the time to avoid vibrant colors and making noise. Even Google Thailand changed its site to black and white to acknowledge the king's passing. Try to show utmost respect and pay extra attention to the usual dos and don’ts in Thailand.
Observe respectful temple etiquette when visiting wats (temples) in Thailand.
From the sparse announcements made by stunned authorities, this is what is currently known about the national mourning period in Thailand:
- No parties or music at bars for 30 days.
- Alcohol sales are still allowed but only for quiet sitting. Local authorities ask that good times remain “behind closed doors.”
- Muay Thai matches in Bangkok have been canceled for 30 days.
- Hotels, airports, and public transportation are operating as usual.
- Markets and shopping malls are open as usual.
- The night market and weekend markets in Chiang Mai are still open despite rumors of closure.
- Most of the temples in Thailand are open as usual. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok is closed temporarily.
- There are road closures in Bangkok around the Grand Palace. Traffic is even worse than usual; allow lots of extra time for making connections.
- Government employees will wear dark clothes for one year.
- Security has been heightened in some public places.
- The October 2016 Full Moon Party in Haad Rin is canceled but the November 2016 one is on. See dates for future Full Moon Parties.
- The Scorpions’ 50th Anniversary World Tour is canceled.
If you have tours booked in Thailand, check with the tour operators for any potential itinerary changes. Finding accommodation in Bangkok should not too much of a problem. See TripAdvisor's best deals in Bangkok.
Is Tourism in Thailand Affected?
Tourism in Thailand accounted for 19.3 percent of the country’s GDP in 2014. In 2015, arrivals of foreign travelers increased over 20 percent to nearly 30 million visitors; the increase was mostly driven by an influx of Chinese package tourists.
Clearly, tourism is vital to Thailand’s already strained economy, so leaders are scrambling to find a balance between respectful mourning and not putting off foreign visitors. The wish of authorities is that “business proceed as usual” but with subdued noise and celebrations. Although there have been few official announcements, the general sentiment is that festivals will proceed but in a more quiet, traditional way.
Update: In late 2016, the government announced that they will change the dates for major public holidays to honor the new King of Thailand. Dates such as Coronation Day (May 5) and the King's Birthday (December 5) will still be observed, however, the public holidays will be updated to reflect the new king's dates.
Will Loy Krathong 2016 be Canceled?
Loy Krathong 2016 in Chiang Mai will proceed on November 14 but without the music or celebration. Certainly don’t expect the usual street parade and parties. Large fireworks displays will most likely be canceled.
There will be less of the popular-and-mesmerizing sky lanterns (actually a part of the Yi Peng festival that coincides with Loy Krathong) inside of the city. Instead, there may be more emphasis on quietly floating krathongs (small boats with candles) in honor of the late king.
Loy Krathong 2016 in Pattaya is officially canceled at this time.
Will Songkran 2017 Be Canceled?
Songkran 2017 (the Thai new year and water festival) will begin April 13, however, there’s a chance that the usual public stages and street dance parties in Chiang Mai will be more toned down.
Although the world’s largest waterfight may be a little more tame than usual, the festival is still the biggest in Thailand — don’t cancel your plans! Every Buddha in Chiang Mai will be carried through Thapae Gate to be washed. Thai families take some time off of work to hold cookouts and spend time together. Don’t miss it!
The King of Thailand’s Birthday 2016 Celebration
The King of Thailand’s birthday has always been celebrated on December 5 with candlelit vigils. This year, Thais turned out in black for mass mourning in the streets. Exercise patience and show sympathy; staff in tourist-oriented businesses understandably may not be as focused or interested in work.
The King’s Birthday festival on December 5 is also considered celebrated as Father’s Day in Thailand.
What to Wear During the Thailand Mourning Period
The government has officially asked foreign visitors to “wear sombre and respectful clothing when in public.” Although you shouldn’t wear clothing that depicts religious themes anyway, be extra conservative during the mourning period. Thailand is famous for patience and generosity, why abuse it?
Unfortunately, this request for subdued clothing eliminates many of the mainstays in backpacker wardrobes. For now, hold off on wearing those flowery Songkran shirts, vibrant sleeveless shirts from the Full Moon Party or Half Moon Party, and “Sure” brand shirts that often depict themes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Those obnoxious T-shirts for sale along Khao San Road depicting sexual or violent themes probably aren’t a good choice, either.
Amid reports of the public shaming of Thais who didn't immediately switch to black clothing, the government has called for tolerance. Not everyone can afford mourning clothing. To make matters worse, shops can’t keep up with the demand for black garments, and opportunists have increased prices.
Although dark colors are preferable, if your only black T-shirt features Metallica’s Injustice for All, zombies, skulls, or other morbid themes, better to just wear something with color instead.
Will Tourists Be Called Out for Not Wearing Black?
Wearing subdued clothing is a good idea, although you most definitely won’t be publicly shamed for not doing so. No matter your feelings about authority or the monarchy, lots of local people are grieving — many aren’t just going through the motions; tears are falling.
Mannequins in Bangkok are adorned in black. Black dye has been distributed in some places so that people in a pinch can color white garments. Again, tourists won’t be expected to wear black clothing every day, but use discretion.
If you don’t have black but wish to show condolences over the king’s passing, the government has suggested wearing a black armband on your left arm or a black ribbon on the left side of your chest.
Swimwear is still acceptable to wear on beaches, but cover yourself after leaving the beach.
What Not to Say During the Thailand Mourning Period
The mourning period in Thailand is going to cause economic distress for many locals who can already barely make ends meet. The Stock Exchange of Thailand and the Thai baht have both taken a hit. Even seemingly benign comments could cause sadness:
- “Of course the bus is late, this is Thailand.”
- “This [insert object] is so cheap. That’s only 50 cents!”
- “I can’t believe [insert business/event] is closed/canceled.”
- “The baht is down so much; I get 35 baht for one dollar!”
- Questions or commentary about Thailand’s soon-to-be king, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, should be handled delicately. Better yet, don’t even bring up the subject.
Before complaining to staff at your hotel or restaurant, be sensitive to the fact that they may be mourning and distracted.
An Easy Way to Get in Trouble
No matter with whom you are speaking, don’t make jokes or criticize the monarchy — especially now. Thailand’s draconian Lese Majesty laws are strict and have been more stringently enforced following the 2014 coup.
In 2015, a 27-year-old Thai man was arrested and faces up to 32 years in prison for simply “liking” an edited image of the king posted on Facebook. Many more people have been arrested or investigated since.
No special allowances are made for foreign visitors. In 2014, the NGO Freedom House gave Thailand a rating of “Not Free” (Thailand ranked #52 out of 65 countries) for internet freedom. Bloggers and social media influencers have been arrested. Be careful about what you post and from where you post it!
Political Instability in Thailand
The king’s death certainly won’t contribute to stability in Thailand. But per the ruling military government, general elections are still scheduled for late 2017.
King Bhumibol has witnessed more than 10 coups since taking the throne in 1946 at the age of 18. The king was often a common denominator between opposing political factions. Many people loved him and saw him as a symbol of stability during the many prime minister and constitution changeovers.
The Thai people’s resilience and ability to weather tough times is legendary and inspiring. Thailand is still a safe country to visit, and you should not cancel your vacation plans. That being said, it’s common sense to avoid large gatherings of protesters, or any large gathering where tension and emotions run high.
Grabbing a few interesting pics for social media just isn’t worth the risk. Even if seemingly peaceful at first, mobs can get out of hand with little notice. In 2010, an Italian journalist and a Japanese journalist were shot and killed while photographing clashes between protesters and the military on two different dates.