Samui Wining & Dining
Man and Monarch
Few monarchs can match the philanthropy of His Majesty
King Bhumibol Adulyadej or the love shown to him by all his subjects.

 

Man and MonarchHe’s a talented musician who has not only appeared with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson but also ran his own jazz orchestra and made weekly radio broadcasts. He designed sailboats and at one time was a competitive sailor, being awarded a gold medal in the ‘Fourth Southeast Asian Peninsular Games’ in 1967 (this was all the more remarkable when you consider he lost the sight of his right eye after a road accident in 1948). He’s an inventor and holds patents for a waste water aerator and two rain-making devices. He’s a dedicated photographer, with an ongoing exhibition of his work at the HRH Princess Arun Wadi Residential Hall in Bangkok. He’s also a painter, translator and author. He’s a gifted and exceptional man by anybody’s standards. His family nickname is simply ‘Lek’, even though his American birth certificate actually states ‘Baby Songkhla’! But this incredible man is more-usually titled ‘His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’. He’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state. And he’s been the King of Thailand since 9th June, 1946.

 

It’s no coincidence that December 5th is Father’s Day in Thailand. Because it’s also the birthday of the nation’s much-loved and revered spiritual ‘father’, King Bhumibol, who this year celebrates his 84th birthday. And on this special day, you’ll see public displays of esteem for him everywhere, from simple yellow flags, right through to larger-than-life hand-painted portraits, often floodlit and bedecked with garlands of flowers. But what you won’t see are all the things that the Thai people humbly practice in their homes in his honour. They’ll do good deeds and refrain from bad ones, in the hope of absorbing some of their monarch’s spirit of benevolence and self-control. In schools across the country, children will be planting trees or collecting roadside rubbish. Even Bangkok’s notorious tuk-tuk drivers have been known to band together en masse to donate blood for the occasion.

 

If you’re a visitor to Thailand, you’ll probably be a little awed when you realise the extent to which this ruler is venerated; there’s nothing at all to match it in the Western world. King Bhumibol is a living legend and it’s true to say that no other Thai king has ever evoked such passion and loyalty in all his subjects. However, the story of this extraordinary man begins not in Thailand, but in America.

 

It was on December 5th, 1927, when 27-year-old Mom Sangwan Mahidol gave birth to her second son. The place was Cambridge Hospital, Massachusetts, and the father was 35-year-old Prince Mahidol of Songkhla. The Prince cabled his mother, Queen Savang Vadhana, to inform her of the birth. He asked if her husband, King Rama VII, would confer a name upon him. A telegram came back from Thailand stating that the king had bestowed upon ‘Baby Songkhla’ the name of ‘Bhumibala Aduladeja’ (later changed to ‘Bhumibol Adulyadej’; meaning ‘Strength of the Land with Incomparable Power’).

 

At this time, Thailand (then known as Siam) was the only country in Indo-China to have not been colonised and Prince Mahidol had no expectations of succeeding to the throne. He went abroad to pursue an education in a field that he thought would most benefit his country and its people; a public health degree at Harvard University. His wife, Mom Sangwan, was a ‘commoner’ whom he married in 1920, and who then went on to gain a degree in nursing and economics.

 

To cut a complicated story short, the depression that gripped America in the1930s spread throughout the world and Thailand’s economy plunged to an unprecedented low. There was political upheaval and a coup d’etat in Thailand. On March 2nd 1934, King Rama VII abdicated. Prince Bhumibol’s older brother, Prince Ananda, at the age of seven became the new king. The brothers, now in Switzerland, continued their education returning to Thailand for a period in 1938 and again in 1945. But, six months later, the young King Ananda mysteriously died and, on June 9th 1946, Prince Bhumibol was crowned King of Thailand. Shortly afterwards he married Mom Rajawong Sirikit Kitiyakara (the daughter of His Highness Prince Chandaburi Suranath, the Thai ambassador to France) who was later to bear him three daughters and a son.

 

He remained abroad to finish his education before returning to Thailand in 1951, when he began visits to his subjects almost straight away. He was the first Thai king who wanted to see every inch of his kingdom. Where there were no roads, he used helicopters; where helicopters couldn’t land he went by jeep, horse or even hiked there on foot. He travelled with medical teams and surveyors and was always to be seen with a map in his hands, making notes.

 

He personally established ‘The Royal Project Foundation’. Where impoverished and illiterate farmers were cropping opium poppies he introduced and subsidised alternatives (and built schools) – guaranteeing the same income from these new crops as from the opium. He introduced grants for vineyards and wine production. Today the regions above Chiang Mai are renowned for their potatoes, strawberries and coffee, and the epithet ‘Golden Triangle’ has almost faded into history.

 

It’s almost impossible to explain the extent to which the Thai people regard this man. It can’t be said that he’s some kind of ‘god’ – that’s just too simplistic. But it’s connected with hope, joy, love and the sort of respect that borders on adoration. When you see Thais in a supermarket paying with cash and carefully arranging each of the banknotes so that their King’s face is uppermost before they hand it over, then you’ll get some idea.

 

Rob De Wet

 


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