The sight of Thai people en masse in a state of mourning, clad in black and white swarming the area around the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, lining up day and night to pay respect to late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great (or King Rama IX), may be something astounding to visitors. Renowned as the world’s longest reigning monarch in recent history, the late King Bhumibol is greatly admired by his subjects. Therefore, seeing grown adults sobbing for his passing isn’t something strange among Thais who hold His Majesty dear to our hearts.
Monarchy, as one of the three main institutions of the nation, is represented by the royal blue colour in the middle of the Thai flag, gluing the other parts together. Kingship is not taken lightly in Thai and many Asian civilizations. It is not only deemed at the highest reverence, but also the hardest position one can ever imagine. Although lèse-majesté law is often referred to when speaking about Thai royalty, Thai people discreetly talk about them both in public and in private—certainly with warts and all.
If a king, who is seen as both the “living god” according to the Devaraja doctrine and the “father of the country”, does not behave rightly and perform his royal responsibilities, Thais are also ready to criticise him too. However, King Bhumibol exceeded beyond his call of duty and that’s why Thai people lament the end of his era.
When speaking about royalty, a special royal vocabulary is used. However, with HM King Bhumibol’s down-to-earth character, I would like to keep it as simple as possible. We have seen him and other royal family members on the royal news every night on TV conducting all sorts of duties. Most of us have the King’s portraits on the wall, but only a few of us have personally met him. One of his activities is bestowing the diplomas to the university graduates. For only a split second, students come face-to-face with His Majesty. It is more than symbolic—it’s a lifelong impression. He wants each and every one of these students to do their best after the graduation, mirroring how hard he worked every day to ensure that his subjects were happy.
Born in the US from a father who was a medical doctor and a mother who was a nurse, it’s no wonder that HM was interested in science. After his father died, his mother, Princess Srinagarindra, kept him humble and didn’t spoil him with privileges. Before HM’s passing, a doctor asked him why he always trusted the nurses to take care of him. He said that he was raised by a nurse.
When he grew up in Switzerland, he had to mow the lawn to earn some pocket money. As his elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol (or King Rama XIII), returned to Thailand to hold the position, he was called Chao Fah Waen or the “Bespectacled Prince.” But then through unfortunate circumstances, the throne was thrust upon him. He went back to study political science and law to reinvent himself, as he said. Then he came back to reinvent Thailand.
As a king in a constitutional monarchy, King Bhumibol had no direct power in politics so he directed his power into the country—the land to be exact. His name means “the strength of the land”, so he harnessed its energy through his experiments and projects. At the Chitralada Royal Palace, he had several plots of rice fields for experimentations as well as other agricultural projects. Of course, they didn’t work out right away, but through trial and error, and his perseverance, he made many of these projects viable and applicable to farmers and villagers. Ancient civilizations were borne out of controlling the use of water—as seen in Roman aqueducts and Khmer barays—and King Bhumibol achieved similar results in his many irrigational projects. He made artificial “royal rain” from “fluffing” the clouds with chemicals. He “teased” and treated acidic soil to make it more arable. He “captured” the water through “monkey cheek” dykes, built dams, cleaned water with aerators, generated electricity from hydropower, and even diverted floods.
Since the happiness of his subjects was his priority, one of his mottos for Thai people says “eat well and live well.” To that end he waged war on poverty, malnutrition, and drugs. He developed royal projects all over the country, mainly in agriculture and small industries for farmers to grow well-yielding rice crops. He trekked the hills of the north to see the hill tribes and asked them to switch from growing opium to high-priced fruits and flowers. He travelled to the borders where the soldiers patrol to boost their morale. After several international tours with Queen Sirikit, he stayed in Thailand to take care of his people, and for 50 years he didn’t go abroad.
In his innumerable speeches and New Year cards, he gave inspiring advice and taught Thai people how to behave and live our best lives. His words are always cherished. He will forever remain in our hearts and mind.