Warm Beer in Bangkok
“I shouldn’t have worn this YOLO shirt, eh?”
We looked down at my friend’s neon yellow tank top, then up at the mass of black-clad mourners crowding Bangkok’s streets. Lina had arrived the night before, only hours after King Bhumibol, Thailand’s much-revered monarch, had passed away. I’d been in the country for a week, staying on Sukhumvit Soi 4, one of the city’s red light districts. Being from a cynical generation in urban Canada, the concept of a genuinely beloved head of state was alien to us. We weren’t actively trying to be assholes; it was accidental.
Lina turned her shirt inside out and we carried on. A cab driver laughed at us when we asked for a ride towards Khao San Road and the area of the Grand Palace. At first we didn’t understand, but as we progressed westward it became clear. Traffic slowed to a crawl and the roads filled with pedestrians, Thais heading towards the Grand Palace where the first of the funeral proceedings would be held. The only shops doing any business were vendors selling black clothing; we’d later find out that the government had requested that all citizens wear black for a full month of mourning, and people were scrambling to fill their wardrobe.
We quietly picked at some fried chicken, purchased from a street vendor wearing a black t-shirt with a glittery Michael Jackson photo on it. The streets were silent despite the crowds, and the collective hush affected us. The contrast with the exuberant, humming city I’d experienced the previous week was stark. I attempted to describe the colorful vibrance of that Bangkok to Lina, but fell short, and we drifted into silence as we hiked west in a sea of black. Foreign news reports would later suggest that the country had been stricken with a wailing grief, but during our two-hour walk in that crowd of thousands we didn’t witness any such drama. People were subdued and reflective, sharing a sense of genuine, communal loss that was palpable even to us, but front-page-news hysterics were absent.
Passing the Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road, we veered north away from the mob. The patios of Khao San Road and Rambuttri Alley were mostly empty; we were unaware that a ban on alcohol sales had been declared for the period of the funeral that afternoon. In our ignorance we flopped down in the shade of one of the few open venues and requested two large Chang lagers.
“Only in a bucket,” the waiter told us, leaning in conspiratorially.
“No no, bottles please, not a bucket.”
He shook his head. “Only in a bucket.”
We looked at each other, confused, exhausted and sweating profusely in the sodden 90-degree heat.
“Ok, two buckets of Chang.”
The waiter smiled amiably and brought our drinks, and that’s how we ended up drinking warm, flat Chang from colorful beach buckets while Bangkok quietly mourned.