KING PHUMIPHON THE GREAT
King Phumiphon The Great: His Legacy
King Phumiphon Adulyadej ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช stands as a monumental figure in Thailand's history, embodying the essence of leadership and enduring respect.
Born the youngest son of HRH Prince Mahidol of Songkla (son of King Rama V and Queen Savang Vadhana) and HRH Princess Srinagarindra, Phumiphon was born on December 5, 1927, at Mt. Auburn Hospital (formerly Cambridge Hospital) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, due to his father studying at Harvard University at the time.
Phumiphon's journey to the throne was as unique as his reign was lengthy. Returning to Thailand in 1928, his early years were shaped by a blend of the early death of his father, Thai royal tradition and international experiences.
One thing of note is that his original U.S. birth certificate named him simply, "Baby Songkla", a nod to his father’s title, until he was officially named by his uncle, King Rama VII. The king chose a name of Sanskrit origin; the name, Phumiphon Adulyadej, translates as "Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power". This aptly reflects the profound impact and legacy he left on Thailand.
Ascending to the throne in 1946, King Phumiphon Adulyadej became the ninth King of Thailand from the Chakri dynasty. Titled Rama IX, he was later conferred with the title King Phumiphon the Great in 2019 by his son King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X. Phumiphon reigned for an extraordinary 70 years and 126 days. This tenure not only marks him as the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history but also places him as the third-longest verified reigning sovereign monarch globally. His reign, characterised by a dedication to his people and country, saw Thailand navigate through numerous challenges, always with King Phumiphon at the helm, guiding with wisdom and compassion. His departure on October 13, 2016, marked the end of an era, but his influence and revered status remain deeply embedded in the heart of Thailand.
Born into a royal family with deep international connections, Phumiphon experienced a diverse and enriching early life. His elder sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, was born in London, England, in 1923 and his elder brother, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), was born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1925. This international beginning set the stage for Phumiphon's own global experiences in his early years.
In 1928, the young prince was brought to Thailand, after his father graduated suma cum laude from Harvard University as a medical doctor. Settling in Sapathum Palace, these years in Thailand were brief; his father passing away in 1929 when Phumiphon was not yet two years old.
At the age of five, he attended kindergarten at Mater Dei School in Bangkok, marking the start of his academic journey. The following year, the Princess Mother moved Phumiphon and his siblings to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he attended primary school at École Miremont. Here, he was immersed in a multilingual environment, studying French, German and English, reflecting the international perspective that would characterise his reign.
In 1934, Phumiphon was given his first camera, which sparked a lifelong enthusiasm for all things photographic. His brand of choice, at least in later years, was Canon.
Never one for garish displays of wealth, even though he was one of the richest monarchs in the world, often his camera was the most affordable, low budget, entry level camera. Being a true monarch for the people may have had a lot to do with that. By choosing a a camera affordable to the everyday Thai, this invariably made him a man his subjects could relate to.
A Chance Meeting
Continuing his education in Switzerland, Phumiphon attended high school at Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande at Chailly-sur Lausanne. After earning the diplome de Bachelier es Lettres from Gymnase Classique Cantonal of Lausanne, he enrolled in Lausanne University, majoring in Science. During his time in Switzerland, Phumiphon visited Thailand twice with his brother, King Ananda Mahidol. Their first return was in 1938, staying at Chitralada Villa, and the second in 1945, at the Phra Thinang Boromphiman in the Grand Palace. These visits intertwined his Swiss education with his deepening connection to his homeland, shaping his understanding of his future role as King of Thailand.
Often visiting France from Lausanne in Switzerland, it was in Paris that he first met Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the then Thai ambassador to France. She was also a great-granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn - Rama V; making her a cousin to Phumiphon. At 15 years of age, she was then studying to be a concert pianist at the music academy in Paris. They were engaged in July 1949 and married a week before Phumiphon’s coronation.
On March 25, 1950, a significant chapter unfolded in the life of His Majesty King Phumiphon Adulyadej of Thailand as he and his fiancée, MR Sirikit, journeyed back to their homeland aboard the liner Selandia. This return was marked by a poignant occasion: to attend the cremation ceremony of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol. The solemnity of this event was soon juxtaposed with a joyous milestone. On April 28, under the auspices of Queen Savang Vadhana, the royal wedding ceremony of His Majesty and MR Sirikit was held at Sapathum Palace. This auspicious day not only celebrated their union but also witnessed the elevation of MR Sirikit to Queen Sirikit, marking the beginning of a new era in the Thai monarchy and the nation's history.
Turmoil & Tragedy
Following much political turmoil and upheaval in Thailand during the 1930s, the childless King Ppra-chaa-ti-bpok (Rama VII) abdicated, which saw Phumiphon’s older brother, Prince Ananda Mahidol, ascend the throne in 1935; he was 9 years of age at the time. He was to rule through turbulent times.
In 1946, after the mysterious death by gunshot of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, Phumiphon ascended the throne to become Rama IX, though the official coronation did not take place until the 5th May 1950, due to many delays and complications with both the required ritual cremation of his older brother and also the injury to Phumiphon in a car accident in Switzerland, for which he lost the use of his right eye. In his place, his uncle Rangsit, Prince of Chainat, ruled as Prince Regent from 1946 until the coronation.
The coronation of King Phumiphon Adulyadej was an historic and grand event, steeped in ancient Thai traditions. It was held on May 5, 1950, at the Baisan Thaksin Throne Hall within the Grand Palace. In a ceremony rich with cultural and royal heritage, His Majesty assumed the full regnal name of Somdet Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitalathibet Ramathibodi Chakri Nantebodin Sayaminthrathirat Boromnatbophit. This momentous occasion was marked by his first royal decree, a powerful testament to his commitment to his people. As Phumiphon recited the words, few knew how prophetic the traditional Oath of Accession would really be.
"We shall reign with righteousness for the benefits and happiness of the Siamese people."
This decree set the tone for a reign that would be characterised by dedication, compassion, and a deep sense of responsibility towards the welfare of the Thai people.
Following the coronation, King Phumiphon and Queen Sirikit returned to Lausanne, Switzerland, a place that held significant memories from their earlier life. It was here, at Mon Choisis Hospital, on April 5, 1951, that Queen Sirikit gave birth to their first child, Princess Ubolratana. When the princess was seven months old, the royal family returned to Thailand, taking up residence at Ambara Villa in the Dusit Palace, as their permanent home, Chitralada Villa, was undergoing renovations. In the ensuing years at Ambara Villa, the royal family expanded with the birth of three more children: King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Krom Phra Srisavangavadhana. This period not only marked the beginning of King Phumiphon's reign, but also the formation of a family that would play a pivotal role in the cultural and political landscape of Thailand.
Having been educated in Lausanne, Switzerland, for much of his life, studying science and technology, law and political science, and inspired by the example of his parents, who worked steadily to improve the lives of the Thai people, the new king turned his mind to the betterment of his people’s living conditions, their needs and concerns. This sparked the initiatives known as the Royal Development Projects (RDP).
"The development of the country must be fostered in stages. It must start with the construction of infrastructure, that is, the provision of food and basic necessities for the people by methods which are economic, cautious and conforming with principles. Once the foundation is firmly established, progress can be continually, carefully and economically promoted. This approach will prevent incurring mistakes and failures, and lead to the certain and complete achievement of the objectives."
Excerpt from King Phumiphon's speech at Kasetsart University in 1974
The Development King
Numbering more than 4,700, the King's Royal Development Projects have tackled everything from cloud seeding with the Royal Rain Project, to replenishing groundwater with the Moisture Retention Dams and the building of a bridge across the Chao Phraya river to alleviate traffic congestion in Bangkok. He gave the Northern hill tribes something more beneficial to grow other than the Opium poppy. During a visit to Doi Pui in 1969, the King learned of a variety of peach tree that could provide the local farmers with a higher income than the Opium poppy. His Majesty realised that alternative agriculture, including fruit trees as a major component, could be used to replace Opium and would generate higher incomes, solving the problems of poverty, Opium production and deforestation at the same time. Other high-value crops such as strawberries, coffee, macadamia nuts, flowers and various fresh vegetables have also revolutionised the agricultural practices in these regions, but also provided a stable and sustainable source of income for tribal and rural farmers. The success of these programs was so profound that areas once dominated by opium production, notably the notorious Golden Triangle, were transformed into productive agricultural zones. This shift played a pivotal role in diminishing the region's association with the drug trade and contributed significantly to the reduction of drug addiction both within and outside Thailand. Today, the Golden Triangle stands as a popular tourist destination, a testament to the positive impact of the Royal Development Projects.
The effectiveness of the Royal Development Projects can largely be attributed to their meticulous management system, spearheaded by King Phumiphon himself. His Majesty's approach was not simply one of issuing directives or making hasty decisions; instead, he employed a strategy which involved a collaborative effort with various groups. The process began with thorough research and data analysis, supplemented by insights His Majesty gained through direct interactions with local communities. This was followed by consultations with academics and officials, ensuring that each project was grounded in practicality and had the highest chances of success. Once this comprehensive planning stage was completed, the initiatives were handed over to the government for implementation. This methodical and participatory approach not only ensured the success of each project but also demonstrated King Phumiphon's deep commitment to the welfare of his people and the sustainable development of Thailand.
“I agree with the government that this first multipurpose project in our country is the beginning of developing the new economy to expand far and wide.
Presently, water is essential for life, water and electricity promote progress in life. When the number of population has increased rapidly, water and electricity has to meet the demand sufficiently”
And All That Jazz
King Phumiphon was not just a monarch but also a remarkably talented jazz musician and composer. His passion for music, particularly jazz, was a defining aspect of his multifaceted personality. This musical journey, believed to be inspired by his father, Mahidol Adulyadej, started with a focus on classical music but soon transitioned to jazz, a genre that resonated with Phumiphon due to its improvisational nature. It is due to his love for jazz that the genre is now so popular in Thailand.
King Phumiphon's musical influence extended beyond composition to include live performances. He played with notable jazz legends like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Stan Getz and Lionel Hampton, showcasing his remarkable skills on the global stage. In fact, American jazz great, Lionel Hampton, described the His Majesty as “simply the coolest king in the land” after seeing his talent on the saxophone. As well as saxophone he also played clarinet, trumpet and piano and had even put together his own palace band.
A Musical Tribute
King Phumiphon Adulyadej of Thailand left a lasting imprint on the country's cultural landscape, notably in elevating jazz to one of the Kingdom's most beloved musical genres. His passion for music, particularly jazz, was not just a personal pursuit but became a significant part of his legacy. The King's musical talent was profound, evidenced by the 45 royal compositions he created, which stand as a testament to his dedication to the art. His affinity for New Orleans jazz, the original style that blossomed in the Crescent City, was particularly influential in shaping Thailand's jazz scene. This influence was further amplified when King Phumiphon extended a special invitation to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from Louisiana to perform in Thailand. Their performances, alongside King Phumiphon's own band, the Au Sau Friday Band, brought authentic New Orleans jazz rhythms to the Thai audience, fostering a deep appreciation for this music style.
King Phumiphon's contribution to jazz in Thailand went beyond performances and compositions; it was about a shared experience and a promise. He had once promised his Au Sau Friday Band a trip to New Orleans to experience jazz in its birthplace, a dream unfulfilled due to his continued dedication to his country and subsequent illness. In an extraordinary display of loyalty and respect for their monarch, the band members, led by Dr. Pathorn Srikaranonda, decided to bring New Orleans to King Phumiphon. In November 2010, they coordinated with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to perform on a boat in the middle of the Chao Phraya River. This unique concert, transforming the River of Kings into a semblance of the Crescent City, was performed for the monarch as he watched from the pier of Siriraj Hospital. This poignant moment was not just a musical tribute, but a powerful reflection of the deep loyalty and affection King Phumiphon inspired among his people and his profound influence in making jazz an integral part of Thailand's cultural identity.
End Of An Era
The passing of King Phumiphon Adulyadej on October 13, 2016, marked the end of an era in Thailand, a moment deeply etched in the nation's collective memory. A statement from Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he had been receiving medical care, announced, "His Majesty has passed away at Siriraj Hospital peacefully", noting the time of his departure at 15:52.
At the age of 88, King Phumiphon, a deeply revered figure, had been in declining health for several years, leading to a significant reduction in his public appearances. Despite his frailty, he remained a symbol of stability and continuity in a country that had experienced its fair share of political upheavals, including cycles of turmoil and multiple coups. His death not only signified the loss of a beloved monarch but also the end of a stabilizing era in Thai history.
The Mourning Begins
As the news of King Phumiphon's death spread, a profound sense of grief enveloped Thailand. Thousands of people, united in their sorrow, gathered outside the Bangkok hospital to mourn their departed king. The streets were filled with individuals clad in yellow or pink, colors symbolising their respect and devotion to the late monarch, many holding his pictures as a tribute to his enduring legacy. King Phumiphon was not just a ruler; he was Thailand's father figure, a beacon of hope and stability through the nation's most turbulent times.
In recognition of this profound loss, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, in a sombre televised address, declared that Thailand would observe a one-year period of mourning. This announcement marked the beginning of a new chapter in Thailand's history, one more uncertain and without the calming influence of a king who had been a unifying force through numerous political changes and 20 constitutions. King Phumiphon's death was not just the passing of a monarch; it was the turning of a page in the rich tapestry of Thai history.
Phra Mae-ru Maat
Phra Mae-ru Maat, the royal crematorium built for the cremation of King Phumiphon Adulyadej, was a stunning embodiment of ancient royal traditions and architectural magnificence. Designed specifically for the solemn occasion of the king's funeral rites, the structure stood at an imposing height of 50 meters. It was constructed on a three-tiered, square-shaped base, each side measuring 60 meters wide, with a staircase on each of its four sides. The crematorium featured nine structures in the style of Busabok, which are elaborate pavilion thrones. The principal Busabok, positioned atop the uppermost tier of the base, was particularly awe-inspiring with its seven-tiered, spired roof, sheltering the Phra Chittakathan, the sacred catafalque for the royal urn made of sandalwood. At each of the four corners of this top tier, smaller Busabok structures, known as Sang, were placed for monks to sit and pray. The remaining four Busabok, each with a five-tiered roof, were located on the second layer of the base, completing the nine symbolic structures.
The construction of Phra Mae-ru Maat was completed in time for the October 26 funeral. The temporary structure was inaugurated by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on November 2, 2017 and opened to the public for a brief period until November 30, 2017. The design of Phra Mae-ru Maat drew inspiration from traditional beliefs about the earth and the universe, reflected in its spired roof and the surrounding fence. Measuring 50.49 meters from its base to the top, the crematorium was a blend of traditional wood craftsmanship and modern steel structuring. Adding to its spiritual and mythical significance, the "heavenly pond" at the four directions of the base and sculptures of auspicious animals like elephants, horses, cows, and lions, as well as mythical creatures from the Himmaphan Forest, adorned its base. This intricately designed structure not only served as a fitting tribute to the late King, but also stood as a testament to the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Thailand.
The Royal Cremation
The cremation ceremony at the Phra Mae-ru Maat, the funeral pyre for royalty, signifies in Buddhist cosmology that the deceased King has returned to Mount Sumeru, where he came from before being born as a human. A "universe" concept in Buddhism cosmology, including Mount Sumeru, is portrayed in the crematorium, as expressed in its architecture and component parts. It also includes the Sattaboripan mountain ranges and areas where deities, demons, garudas and nagas live. It also includes the Himmapan forest, where Vidyadhara, Gandharvas, Kinnarah and other creatures stay. The four sides of the Phra Mae-ru Maat represent the four continents surrounding Mount Sumeru. Mount Sumeru is believed to be the centre of the universe based on Brahma and Buddhism principles. It is the place where various kinds of gods and deities are thought to be present. At the top of Mount Sumeru, a Tavatimsa heaven sits, ruled by deities with Indra as the supreme leader.
The funeral of King Phumiphon Adulyadej took place on 26 October, 2017. Over 5,500 people signed up to volunteer to serve during the cremation days. To encourage greater public participation, several Thai provincial capitals had also been building replica crematoriums to serve people who could not be in Bangkok to pay their last respects on the day of cremation.
Televised live in Thailand and broadcast around the world, the funeral proceedings comprised six elaborate processions; the first procession - Phra Yannamas Sam Lam Khan - took the king’s remains from Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to Wat Phra Chetuphon; the second procession - Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot - took the remains from there to just outside the royal crematorium; the third procession - Ratcharot Puen Yai - after the remains are carried into the crematorium, the procession circles the crematorium three times in a counter-clockwise direction. Once the cremation is performed, the fourth procession - Rajendrayan - took the royal urn from the royal crematorium to the Grand Palace; the fifth procession - Rajendrayan Noi - the royal urn was then moved from the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to Phra Wiman on the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall; the sixth and final procession - The Cavalry - the cavalry unit conveyed the royal limousine carrying the royal ashes container from Phra Si Rattana Chedi in Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram via Viset Chaisri Gate to Wat Rachabopit and Wat Bowonniwet Vihara.
Widely considered to have been the world's hardest working monarch, King Phumiphon Adulyadej was awarded countless awards. For a full list of those awards, please click here.
In 2006, in recognition of His Majesty the King’s numerous royal projects and his unwavering commitment to improving the lives of his people, the United Nations chose the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his reign to award His Majesty the United Nations Development Programme’s first-ever Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award. Personally presented by UN Secretary-General H.E. Kofi Annan on May 26, 2006; this distinction brought global recognition for His Majesty’s extraordinary achievements, dedication and compassion.
The King's Legacy
In 2007, King Phumiphon Adulyadej of Thailand was honoured with prestigious accolades from the International Federation of Inventors’ Association (IFIA), based in Budapest, in recognition of his remarkable contributions to innovation and sustainable development. The IFIA Cup 2007 was awarded to His Majesty for the invention of the Chai Pattana wheel, an ingenious device designed for water treatment, demonstrating his commitment to environmental conservation and resource management. Furthermore, the IFIA also bestowed upon King Phumiphon its Genius Medal, a tribute to his Self-Sufficiency Philosophy and the New Theory. This theory, a testament to His Majesty's deep understanding and respect for traditional Thai wisdom, revolves around revitalizing farming techniques. It advocates for minimal resource utilization while striving for enhanced agricultural productivity, showcasing King Phumiphon's visionary approach to sustainable agriculture and rural development. These prestigious international awards not only recognized King Phumiphon's innovative spirit but also highlighted his profound impact on improving the livelihoods of his people and his enduring legacy in sustainable development practices.
His Majesty’s life-long devotion to advancing and refining Thailand’s agricultural sector and promoting sustainability have resulted in a significant improvement in the welfare of the Thai people and provided a beacon of inspiration for the rest of the world. The list of successful projects is endless.
Throughout his reign, King Phumiphon Adulyadej consistently upheld his promise to tirelessly work towards alleviating the hardships of all people in Thailand, irrespective of their race or religion, continually unifying and fortifying the nation. Here was a man that gave of himself and worked tirelessly to make the lot of his people better than it had been. He is a man most befitting of the title...
“Father of the Nation”