Friday, January 27, 2017

An Auspicious Life Moment

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 Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father was attending Harvard Medical School in 1927. Thanks to this man, I met my wife through the royal family.

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 Thailand was still Siam. The 1956 film won Brynner an Oscar, and the actor became the international face of Thailand’s Monarchy, also winning two Tony Awards for the stage version.

Ironically, the movie was officially banned in Thailand. The 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 Broadway.

I first saw Rama IX in 1985 (above photo), at a public appearance honoring Thai veterans. Living in Thailand 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 New 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.
I happened to be at the Grand Palace with visitors one time when King Bhumibol appeared. Built in 1782, the walled palace complex, with the venerated Emerald Buddha, is a major tourist attraction and admirers had crammed into all of the pathways and open spaces hoping to get a look at His Majesty. He moved through the crowd with a scepter, dipping it into a vase of holy water, and splashing the assembled disciples bowing down on the ground before him. He approached me, and with a flick of his wrist, I received the full measure of holy water across my face and torso. It was a direct hit and I have been blessed with good fortune ever since.

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 Bangkok 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 Thailand 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 Bangkok, 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 occasions.

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 Thailand, 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 showing.

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 Thammasat University. For 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.

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 Thailand’s 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


  1. Nice story with a happy ending. The first picture of the Continental Plaza looks like one in Saigon that we just walked by a couple days ago. Is this Bangkok or is there another one in Saigon? Great to be home getting de-jet lagged! Garry

  2. There is only one Continental. The blog photo is from 1969 before the famous sidewalk cafe was enclosed.