'The king?', I asked my host mum. I was pointing from the passenger seat up at a billboard-sized photograph of an elderly Thai man dressed in crisp white military uniform. I knew he was important because every few hundred yards a new photograph of him framed in gold would appear as we zoomed down the highway.
'Yes,' she replied, smiling earnestly. 'King Rama. Very important for Thai people.'
'Oh. We have a queen back home.'
'Yes? You love her?'
'Meh,' I shrugged. 'She's alright.'
Last week marked the end of a year of mourning in Thailand since King Bhumibol, Rama IX, died last October aged 88. It sounds incredible that a nation of 69 million could sincerely mourn the loss of a man most will have never met, but in Thailand respect for hierarchy is drilled into its people from birth.
Thais don't just shrug their monarch off with indifference. To do so could be interpreted as an insult, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The royal anthem is played before every film and performance in the country, something I learned at a showing of 'Transformers' when suddenly the king's face appeared on the screen and everyone else in the room dutifully stood to attention and broke into song. After recovering from the initial confusion I scrambled to my feet, but had I refused to stand and someone had taken offence, I could easily have been arrested, 'farang' – foreigner – or not.
In his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol was an anchor for his country as it went through more than 20 prime ministers and as many military coups. He was revered as a demigod and seen as an influential figure in abating the threat of communism during the cold war and navigating his country through the disruption caused by the Vietnam war.
When he died, many of the people I met in the Land of Smiles changed their Facebook profile photos to black as a sign of grief and posted statuses that, loosely translated, say, 'Show your grief and bow to your majesty,' and 'Show our children that we once had a king who was more than a king.' With this in mind, it's unsurprising that the country poured 3bn baht (£70m) into an extravagant five-day funeral.
As a 'farang' deeply suspicious of hierarchy and raised on the belief that respect is earned, not given, the devotion Thai people offered freely and unconditionally to their king fascinated me. While I was there, I was subject to a nationwide curfew that was imposed following a period of anti-government protests. It seemed incongruous that this divine symbol of unity could preside over such a divided country, but when I asked my host mum if the coup concerned her, she smiled and shrugged to indicate that she had grown used to these spasms of unrest.
The country's new monarch is mired in scandal. Thrice married, covered in tattoos and having spent most of his adult life in Europe, Rama X does not embody the same virtues of integrity and self-discipline as his father, but he will be respected no less. Thai law will ensure that. But if the new king hopes to maintain a traditional monarchy in a country where tensions are mounting between democrats and monarchists, he's going to have to earn the uncontested devotion of his people too.
King Bhumibol's funeral is representative of some of the things I love most about Thais – their warmth, their reverence, their capacity to love wholly and unconditionally – but in the back of my mind I can't help but feel that this lavish display is a distraction from the uncertainty that lies ahead.