Like millions of Thais, however, I have seen him dozens of times. As a child, I used to run excitedly up to the road at the end of our lawn, frantically waving a mini flag, hoping for, and occasionally getting, His Majesty’s attention, as the royal motorcade swept its way to and from Phuping Palace each winter.
Those of us over the age of 35 remember a king who was very present. His daily toil on behalf of some of the country’s most unfortunate was aired daily on television – it was probably the world’s first reality show, as millions watched, for decades, the daily activities of a royal family. We saw him helping the handicapped, orphans, the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised; we followed his treks through mountains, fording streams and wiping his brows by a cooling waterfall. We saw him take detailed notes on his ever-present map; we watched him, camera in hand, ready to record snapshots of Thailand as he saw it through his lenses; we witnessed him deep into the night, holding meetings with village leaders, patiently listening to their problems and doing his best to alleviate their troubles; and we listened to his annual speech, relishing in his wisdom and reassuringly calm leadership. This was no monarch on a gilded throne; though that too, on occasion, impressed and awed.
Oddly enough, being half British, I have actually met more members of the British royal family here in Thailand than Thailand’s very own! I met Princess Diana and Prince Charles when they visited Chiang Mai in the eighties and HM the Queen at the British Embassy in the nineties. And while I have respect for Queen Elizabeth and was pleased as punch to have met her, my relationship with King Bhumibol is simply put, on another plane. He was a deeply imbedded part of every one of our lives in so many ways. We stood under his flag every morning as school children, pledging our allegiance. His pictures hung in nearly every home in Thailand, as well as in public spaces. His songs are all familiar tunes we hum to ourselves or sing on many special occasions. We get teary eyed at his photo montage as we stand up to his royal anthem before every movie we watch. But apart from these ingrained habits and rituals, many of us perhaps without knowing, benefit directly from his hard work, whether his engineering efforts, agricultural initiatives, rural development, reforestation programmes…the list goes on.
As most Thais, we knew that the reign of Rama IX would end, and we had time to prepare for it. But I must admit that I didn’t understand how viscerally his death would affect me. Like most of my fellow Thais, my respect and love for His majesty has come through the sheer hard work, dedication and wisdom of a man who led our nation through decades of challenges.
The outpouring of grief has been historic. I doubt that many men in history have ever been grieved by so many for so long.
Thailand will forever change now that Rama IX is no longer on the throne and while there are days of great uncertainty ahead, let’s try to remember the words of wisdom of our king and honour his legacy by tempering our intolerance towards one another, understanding that everyone grieves differently and ours is not to judge and condemn, but to support and unite.
Like most of the 70 million people in this kingdom, I was born under the reign of Rama IX and frankly I am all the better for it.