|Thai King Bhumibol (Rama IX) in 1985, honoring military veterans in Bangkok. He died Oct. 13, 2016.|
An American by birth, Thai King Rama IX was the longest-serving monarch
in the world when he died in 2016. Most Thais alive today were born under the
70-year-reign of King Bhumibol, Rama IX. He came into the world in
while his father was attending
in 1927. Thanks to this man, I met my wife through the royal family. Harvard
Most Westerners were introduced to the current Chakri Dynasty through the movie “The King and I,” where Yul Brynner portrayed Rama IV, King Mongkut, when
The 1956 film won Brynner an Oscar, and the actor became the international face
Monarchy, also winning two Tony Awards for the stage version.
Ironically, the movie was officially banned in
conservative Royal Household considered Brynner’s portrayal a little too
frivolous; including scenes of the King frolicking with his children’s English
tutor. Nonetheless, Brynner was popular in Thailand, where his death in 1985 saddened
the Thai nation, all the way to the Royal Palace. A couple months earlier Queen
Sirikit had seen one of Brynner’s last stage performances of “The King and I” on
I first saw Rama IX in 1985 (above photo), at a public appearance honoring Thai veterans. Living in
helps one understand the deep reverence for His Royal Highness, who has provided a calming
influence during times of natural disasters, political turmoil, and ordinary
hardship. The royal family has raised living standards for impoverished
citizens with programs to promote clean water and conservation, agricultural,
scientific and medical advances.
Through all his fame and admiration, he was always close to the people; one of his favorite things was jazz music. Rama IX was a saxophonist and used to broadcast radio jazz programs from the palace. In 1960 he was photographed in
York playing sax in a jazz quartet with Benny Goodman
on clarinet, Gene Krupa at the drums and Urbie Green with his trombone. He also
liked the simplicity of driving a car.
|The commemorative 70 baht note honors King Bhumibol, Rama IX.|
Rama IX’s son, and crown prince, would be heir to the throne. He was a fighter pilot in the Thai Air Force and occasionally made appearances representing the royal family. In 1987, a number of journalists based in
were invited to join him for an extraordinary overnight visit to an upcountry
royal palace. This was not considered a news event, but more of an opportunity
for a get-to-know meeting with the future king. I sent in my RSVP as the CBS
News representative and considered it a privilege.
Reporters gathered at the airport and clambered aboard a military aircraft for the short flight to Sakhon Nakhon. We would overnight at a guesthouse on the palace grounds, join the crown price for dinner and return the next day. The C-130 cargo plane was configured for passengers; with seats facing each other. As I strapped in, I noticed the media contingent included some fresh faces I was not familiar with, among them, a pretty, young reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun sitting across from me. The Japanese newspaper had a bureau in
Bangkok and Wanna was
their Thai reporter.
At the evening event, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn made the Thai and international guests feel comfortable. Dinner was informal. The discussion steered clear of controversy; I did ask him about a recent incident when his aircraft blew a tire on landing and he shared the story. He had just flown over parts of
and observed the country’s worst drought in a decade. His father, Rama IX, had
initiated a royal project to turn a near-desert region into a greenbelt,
involving improved irrigation and deepening reservoirs.
I had glanced and smiled at Wanna a couple more times before we returned to
when a traditional courtship began. During this time, we covered some stories
together, including military coups, when the elder King Bhumibol ultimately
stepped in to end the chaos. All Thais respected the infallible voice of Rama
IX, who was viewed as above politics. He literally saved the country on multiple
It takes time for an outsider to fathom the inspiration and impact that King Bhumibol had on his nation for seven decades. During my 10 years of residence in
I saw it repeatedly; from the photos of the king in every household, to
audiences standing for the national anthem at movie theaters prior to every
His Majesty personally handed diplomas to graduating college students; Wanna has a photo of the very moment when she received her certificate upon graduation from
generations, the respect for the royal family has been passed down from parents
to children. There are severe laws that forbid defamation of
the royal family. Thammasat
That invitation to dinner with the crown prince turned out to be an auspicious moment; seven years later Wanna and I were married, cementing a personal link with
royal family. When the beloved Rama IX died last year, his son inherited
the throne and the crown prince who brought us together 30 years ago is now King Rama X.
Video of Thais singing Thai Royal Anthem