Vivre le Roi

Thais love their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. He’s been on the throne since 1946, longer than any other Thai monarch. Now, however, he’s in the hospital as speculation rages over whether he will be replaced by his neer-do-well son or more beloved, but less likely for succession because she’s a woman, daughter (side note: if the son ascends the throne the national color remains yellow because he was born on the same day of the week as his father; if it’s the daughter Thais need to start investing in another color).

The king’s face is everywhere. You cannot lick stamps, because his image is on them. Similarly, it’s the height of disrespect to step on a coin or bill. Every home, shop, or restaurant has at least one large photo displayed, though often an entire wall is dedicated. On the highways, long banners hang from street lamps, and at the entrance to each town his enormous visage, 10 to 15 feet high, looks out at you from gilted frames. At the Chiang Mai flower festival, his face was arranged in flowers on floats.

Through the variety of photos, we feel that we have come to know him. With his mild countenance and wire rimmed glasses, he looks less at ease in royal regalia on the throne or in military dress with a formal sword than he does posed peering intently at an open book. These are the most common photos, but occasionally there are new ones. In a cafe in Chiang Mai there was a treasure trove of older photos including one colorized shot of the Queen in a very Jackie O outfit, and another black and white shot of a younger king looking debonair in a Western style suit perched on the front of a car. His glasses haven’t changed much over the long decades of his reign.