It was during this visit by King Bhumibol that he recommended to his staff that villagers be referred to as Thai Mai or new Thai instead of sea people.
One villager, Mr Ngeem Damrongkasorn, 71, told The Phuket News, “I remember the king’s visit very well. I was 12 or 13 years old and had just returned from school when I saw people gathering to greet His Majesty.
“I was so excited to get to see the king, and he came so close to us and spoke to many. He asked us how we lived, but at that time nobody in the village could speak Thai so we had to rely on a translator to help us communicate.
“King Bhumibol then went to the beach which is now the disputed area of land near our place of worship,” he said.
“I recall one of His Majesty’s guards introducing us as sea people, but he interrupted him and said ‘don’t say that, we should refer to these villagers as new Thai’. We were all so proud of his comment and praised him for the love and kindness he showed towards us,” he added.
Mr Ngeem went on to explain that in the past sea gypsies were nomads with no nationality, but it was His Majesty who helped villagers have equal rights to Thai people and that included younger members going to school, villagers being issued with ID cards, and having a family named bestowed by him.
“After we heard the that His Majesty had died our hearts and souls cried out for his. We are in great grief,” Mr Ngeem said.
“For me, I will always remember the king’s words and teachings. He taught us to be good and moral,” he added.
Ms Hya Miden, 75, and her husband Nang Miden, 78, were also present during that visit in 1959 and were teenagers at the time.
Ms Hya said, “There were about 30 families that came out to greet His Majesty that day which was unusual because many were afraid of visitors.
“Sea gypsies were always frightening of authorities, but we were so delighted to see the king.
“Of course we are sad that he is no longer with us, but we are proud that we had a chance to meet King Bhumibol once in our lifetime,” she said.
Meanwhile, representative from the Rawai sea gypsy community led a group of villagers to attend a condolence ceremony at Rawai Municipality where many people, led by Mayor Aroon Solos, gathered in front of a portrait of King Bhumibol.
Mayor Aroon said, “We were all devastated when the Royal House announced the passing of the king on October 13. It is the day that we never thought would happen or never wanted to hear. His passing is a tremendous loss to all Thais across the Kingdom.
“King Bhumibol visited residents in Rawai on March 10, 1959. He is the king that we loved and adored. During the 70 years he ruled this land, he was the centre of Thai people. He always sought the best for his people and wanted happiness for all.
“Even though his reign has come to an end, his love and kindness for his people will continue to shine in our hearts,” he said.