Regardless of the differences and disparities across Thai society, King Bhumibol was a solitary constant, a beacon of hope for Thais rich and poor, young and old, rural farmers and urban residents alike. The late King’s selflessness, generosity and compassion will always be remembered. In this article we will look at some of the key events in King Bhumibol’s long and prosperous life as Father of the Thai nation, beginning with his birth in 1927.
On Monday, December 5, 1927, a young baby boy was born at Cambridge Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The parents were a young Thai couple known in the US as Mr and Mrs Songkla Mahidol, a medical student and a nursing student respectively.
But in Siam, Mr Mahidol was known as Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, Prince of Songkla, and half-brother to King Prajadhipok, Rama VII. His wife was Mom Sangwan, a commoner who had won a nursing scholarship from Queen Savang Vadhana, the Queen Grandmother. The infant Prince Bhumibol had two older siblings, Princess Galyani Vadhana, who was born in London, and Prince Ananda Mahidol, who was born in Germany.
By July the following year, the Mahidol family left Boston, travelling home via London and Lausanne. At the end of 1928 the family arrived in Bangkok where Queen Savang Vadhana had arranged Srapathum Palace be set up as their family home.
Even from an early age, Prince Bhumibol showed himself to be precocious and lively, with interests ranging from sports, music, science and technology to carpentry and the arts. The bespectacled young prince displayed agility in various sports, including skiing, badminton and water sports.
But it was in the field of technology where Prince Bhumibol excelled, especially mechanics and electronics. At the age of 10, he was able to build his own radio with metal coils he won at a school raffle.
Music was another leisure activity for the young Mahidols. While Princess Galyani Vadhana played the piano, Prince Bhumibol started learning to play the accordion, but later switched to the saxophone. Upon completing high school, Prince Bhumibol received a baccalaureate majoring in French literature, Latin and Greek. He applied to study science at the University of Lausanne.
Photography was one of Prince Bhumibol’s passions during this period; but the prince also began composing jazz numbers in collaboration with Prince Chakrabandhu, who had been a regular at the musical soirees at Villa Vadhana in Lausanne. Most of the King’s much-loved compositions were composed during this time, from Candlelight Blues and Love at Sundown, to Falling Rain and H.M. Blues.
The day Prince Bhumibol turned 18, on December 5, 1945, the Mahidol family arrived back in Bangkok, landing at Don Muang International Airport in a British Air Force plane. During this trip, King Ananda Mahidol made his first visit to Bangkok’s Chinatown, with Prince Bhumibol acting as his brother’s official photographer.
Tragically, King Ananda Mahidol was mysteriously killed by a gunshot to the head on June 9, 1946. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Prince Bhumibol found himself King.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej threw himself into his studies after returning to the University of Lausanne, planning to return to Thailand in 1948 for his brother’s cremation. But just as fate had brought unexpected tragedy to him earlier, fate now brought an unexpected romance into the picture.
The King had previously met Mom Rachawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the Thai ambassador to London, Prince Nakkhatra Mangala Kitiyakara, but romance did not develop until the King was involved in a serious car accident which resulted in the loss of his sight in his right eye. The King’s convalescence in Lausanne was made all the more bearable with the constant presence of MR Sirikit.
On August 12, 1949, the day MR Sirikit turned 17, the couple announced their engagement. In February 1950, the couple returned to Thailand. The joy of the royal romance was overshadowed by the solemnity of the task at hand – the Royal Cremation of King Ananda Mahidol, took place on March 29.
A month later, on April 28, the Royal Wedding took place at Srapatum Palace, presided over by Queen Savang Vadhana, the Queen Grandmother. This was followed a week later by the Coronation at the Grand Palace, during which he swore: “We shall reign with righteousness, for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people.”
Not long after, the royal couple departed once again for Switzerland where the King resumed his medical treatments, and finally returned to Thailand permanently after the birth of their first child, HRH Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, in 1951.
The King’s task now was to establish a role for the constitutional monarchy, in a country that had not seen a king in permanent residence since 1935 when King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, abdicated.
Acting as his staunch supporter and setting the tone for the new King’s vision for his country was none other than his mother, who had always instilled in him a sense of selflessness, and the values of helping others less fortunate.
During the early years of his reign, the King was already finding ways to help improve the livelihood of his people. When the Royal Family moved from Amporn Palace to Chitralada Villa, Dusit Palace, the palace grounds gradually became an experimental ground for various projects that was funded through the King’s own private purse.
Realising that his people were suffering from malnutrition, he experimented with fish breeds so that the rural poor could have an easy source of protein. The best of breeds were presented to government officials and farmers for further breeding.
From this grew the Royal Chitralada Projects, which aim to serve as models for the agriculture sector. This would soon include demonstration forestry, experimental rice fields, biogas production, crop planting, a dairy farm, milk centre, experimental rice mill, rice husk grinding and compressing plant, fruit juice plant, the Suan Dusit powdered milk plant, milk-pellet plant, cheese plant and alcohol distillation plant for fuel research.
The family soon grew, with the addition of HRH Prince Vajiralongkorn in 1952, HRH Princess Sirindhorn in 1955, and HRH Princess Chulabhorn in 1957. In 1955, Their Majesties made their first visit to Thailand’s impoverished northeastern region, the first monarch of the House of Chakri to do so.
In December 1955, the Queen Grandmother, Queen Savang Vadhana, passed away at the age of 93, and following her cremation in the following year, King Bhumibol entered the monkhood according to Thai tradition. The ordination took place in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha on October 22, 1956, and the King, now known by his monastic nomenclature as Bhumibalo Bhikku, resided at Pan Ya Villa, Wat Bowon Niwet.
The fourth decade of the King’s life was marked by a series of state visits that put Thailand on the global stage. In all, Their Majesties visited more than 25 countries in Asia, Australasia, Europe and America, with the bulk of the visits being concentrated in this decade.
As part of his plan to help his people, King Bhumibol started dedicating himself to agricultural experiments to improve the well-being of his people. Another means to release the pressure from his responsibilities was sailing and building dinghies. His first boat, a two-man Enterprise design built in 1964, was called Rajpatan (Royal Design). It was in this boat that he beat the Duke of Edinburgh in a race from Pattaya to Koh Larn.
As he moved into his 50s the King’s development projects were fully formulated, particularly with the full support of the new prime minister, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who was head of government for eight years, and Dr Sumet Tantivejkul, who gave up a diplomatic career to help the King on his Royal Development Projects.
Despite severe bouts of illness, His Majesty worked harder than ever, extending his upcountry visits long into the night, and often working through the night studying and analysing data to find the best course of action while his entourage rested.
His understanding of localised problems came from listening to the villagers. “Villagers are your teachers,” King Bhumibol explained. “You must learn from them first, about their way of life and culture, and then use your knowledge to complement the work, and in advising them.”
The Royal Projects helped hill tribe villagers replace opium crops with commercially viable crops. In 1979, the first of many “Living Museums” was opened at Khao Hin Son, Chachoengsao province, as a research and development centre. The key principle of this and subsequent Living Museums was the restoration of ecological balance that would allow the local people to work on the land using folk know-how and become self-supporting.
This principle of self-reliance and moderation was constantly brought up in King Bhumibol’s speeches during the 1970s, and formed the basis of what was to become known as “Sufficiency Economy” and “New Theory” in the 1990s.
On July 2, 1988, King Bhumibol celebrated another milestone. At 42 years and 23 days on the throne, his reign had now surpassed that of the previously longest reigning Thai monarch, King Chulalongkorn. The following year, on November 13, 1989, King Bhumibol became the longest reigning monarch alive.
As he entered his 70s and with health and age taking a toll, King Bhumibol was obliged to call a halt to his travels upcountry which had featured so prominently throughout his reign. Yet he was hardly at leisure, working constantly whether he was resting within the palace confines or at Siriraj Hospital, where he spent much of his later years under close medical supervision.
Thailand was the centre of focus in the international community in 2006 as the country celebrated the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s Accession to the Throne.
King Bhumibol’s health then suffered setbacks as a deep fever required the King to be hospitalised at Siriraj Hospital in September 2009, beginning a lengthy stay that would last for four years.
The year 2011 should have been another year of celebrations, as King Bhumibol reached an auspicious milestone, his seventh cycle (84th) birthday. However, King Bhumibol’s frail health, and his concern for the plight of his people as a result of the floods, was apparent in his Grand Audience at the Grand Palace when he appeared in a wheelchair, and gave a speech.
While still in hospital, King Bhumibol held meetings with the prime minister and members of the Strategic Formulation Committee for Water Resource Management (SCWRM) who reported to the King on the progress of flood control measures, while King Bhumibol would offer his suggestions, as he has always done. Deforestation and greed was partly to blame for the great floods, King Bhumibol cautioned.
Finally, King Bhumibol left Siriraj Hospital for Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin and it was here, for the first time during the long reign, that King Bhumibol’s birthday ceremonies were held in December 2013, instead of at the Grand Palace or Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok, which had always been the tradition.
Sadly, his health deteriorated again and he returned to Siriraj Hospital on October 3, 2014. His doctor continued to treat King Bhumibol for a range of maladies over the following two years. His health later worsened due to a liver infection and his condition remained unstable. King Bhumibol died at the hospital on October 13, 2016 at 15:52pm, the devastating news was announced by the Bureau of the Royal Household later that day.
The death of King Bhumibol cast Thailand into a period of deep mourning as the people expressed their love for their revered King and Father of the nation. The Royal Cremation Ceremony on October 26, 2017, will mark the end of a year of official mourning for the late King Bhumibol and as his body is committed to the flames he will ascend to Mount Meru and take up his rightful place in the abode of gods and deities.
This text is condensed version of an article that appeared in the Bangkok Post