San Diego's Thai community mourns the king's passing.
San Diego’s Thai community mourns the king’s passing. Photo by Jantima Danford

By Leonard Novarro

A display of books or memories of a visit to a special project…hearing the strains of “Quando, Quando, Quando” emanating from a saxophone played by royalty on stage…watching the leader of 67 million people hunkered down, tilling the soil while planting a rose — all of these are memories shared by three people reflecting on the death of the world’s longest-reigning monarch. And, guaranteed — there are a million more such memories out there.

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That’s symptomatic of the veneration and love those of Thai descent — here and in Thailand — have for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Oct. 13 after 70 years of ruling the southeast Asian nation. The country, in mourning for the next 100 days, began dressing mostly in black. Thais living in San Diego County, as elsewhere in California, have also mourned publicly.

“When I heard the news I was so heartbroken. I remembered so many things and how much the king meant to my family,” said Jantima Danford, former president of the Thai American Association of San Diego and treasurer of the Asian Pacific American Coalition of San Diego, showing part of her collection of books by and about the king. Danford was selected by the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles in 2010 to view one of the king’s projects in northeast Thailand promoting self-sufficiency among the population. To her amazement, she discovered that one of its beneficiaries was her own father.

Rosalynn Carmen, president of the Asian Heritage Society of San Diego, recalled visiting the royal palace in Bangkok as a 12-year-old with her mother, representing the Red Cross, while the king was entertaining hundreds of orphans. Without fanfare, he, an avid jazz fan, took to the stage to give his rendition of the quaint Italian favorite, “Quando.” Her mother, Renoo, years earlier, also recalled how she watched the king till the soil with locals in northern Thailand as part of a project to stimulate a crop-growing program.

“What resonates with us is what we also heard from our fathers and grandfathers — how he traveled the country, working together with the people,” said Kittipong Prapattong, the director of the Los Angeles office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “He is not supposed to do that. He is the king, but he did.” Added colleague Yurawat Tuvanuti: “He is the people’s king. He dedicated his life to the Thai people.”

However, it is precisely this kind of veneration that could be putting a dour face on the “land of smiles,” as Thailand is known. And with it, tourism. While a lot of activity has been subdued and some businesses and attractions closed, the Thai government issued a statement advising tourists and visitors to respect the period of mourning by dressing down in subdued colors.

But rather than be discouraged, tourists may want to take advantage of the situation, said Prapattong, the tourism director. “Officially, I would like to encourage people to cherish this historical moment with the Thai people. There has been nothing like it in 70 years. We have to accept this. It’s a sad moment, but we encourage people to see how much we love our king. It’s a beautiful story.”

Stories, in fact, will become the vogue in selling Thailand, according to Prapattong, who envisions more catering to millennials. “They are surpassing the numbers of Boomers this year. They are the trend leaders.”

But unlike older touristy generations preferring five-star hotels and routine places to visit, this new generation prefers mixing with the local population and sharing their lives and interests. “They are the people who know how to use smart phones and share with the world what they are seeing. You have to focus on this group,” he added.

To do that, storytelling will play an important role. “We will be promoting stories that link to a destination,” he said. “Every place in Thailand has a story. Every single dish of Thai food has a story behind it. We don’t sell Thai food, but we sell the beautiful story behind that, as well. Noodles made from rice — you can see the fields in Thailand, how people are living. We want to share that story…going deeper into the community.”

And the biggest story right now is the king.

Still, said Prapattong: “there are beaches, friendly people, the mountains, the elephants — all the things people associate with Thailand.”

Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society.