On the Radar

Thai King Bhumibol: Inspiring Nations

Thailand's King Bhumibol legacy | Where My Heart Leads

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I got a different taste of Thailand. Instead of the shopping and eating, we visited some sites. I visited the huge reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (sounds like “What For?”) with intricate mother of pearl inlays and en route swung by an amazingly well-kept temple site Wat Arun.

Walking through the intricately-built and colorful Wat Arun temple grounds just a couple ferry stops from the main commercial area, I was struck by the fact that Thailand, some few hundred years ago, had preserved such wealth of culture, riches, and know-how evident from the well-kept structures and temples at the grounds of Wat Arun.

Upon further investigation, Thailand is the only South East Asian country not colonised by European powers. Thanks to their King’s determination and the unity of the country – the royal family and nobles practically emptied their cofers that they had saved over two generations to pitch in and pay up in defending their nation.

Widely travelled and an enthusiastic reformer: King Rama V (1853-1910) who defended Siam (Thailand) from colonisation.

The Upbringing of a Statesman

But my focus is King Bhumibol, the beloved King whose portrait was hung in many shops, homes and reverently displayed in public areas.

Until I saw the documentary on the late King Bhumibol on the flight back, I only knew him as a King well-loved and respected by his people, but had no idea why. King Bhumibol’s story is intriguing from the get-go. 

How come the Thai king was born in the US? He, his elder brother and sister and mother chose to live in Switzerland growing up, like commoners? 

The way King Bhumibol had to step up as King has parallels to Queen Elizabeth taking the throne. Neither King Bhumibol or Queen Elizabeth would have thought they would be heads of their countries growing up.

When King Bhumibol passed away in 2016 at age 88, he was the longest-reigning head of state ruling for seven decades. (As at July 2019, Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 67 years.) 

As a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol didn’t recide to being a figurehead. He took an instrumental part in guiding and guarding Thailand through tides of change.

Qualities of a True Statesman

He was a very different kind of King. In old footage, he has the flare of the young Johnny Depp – sporting aviators and a camera around his neck. King Bhumibol visited the far corners of his country to understand what went on.

King Bhumibol grew up mostly overseas – first in the US, then in Switzerland. His mother, a nurse by professional training, and originally a commoner, made sure her children played freely and learned about the world through play. From the documentary, it was apparent that King Bhumibol, his elder brother King Ananda and sister had a fun, carefree childhood. They climbed, they dug muddy canals, and played in water tubs and built their own toys.

The two boys were later enrolled in boarding schools in Lucerne so to instill in them a sense of self-reliance. Perhaps because the children did not grow up ‘groomed’ for something other than to be themselves, they got a chance to discover their passions and interests. 

Multi-pronged Solutions

It was from building muddy irrigation canals in their garden as kids that King Bhumibol began his lifelong interest in soil conservation and the need to be close to the land.   

He came up with many solutions for his country. Thailand was a developing country rebuilding and recovering from the devastations of WWII. The King saw that the lack of schools and education nationwide could hold the country back. He starts by funding a Schools for Hill tribe children and later a vocational training program for those who had dropped out of school because they cannot afford tuition. (The latter reminds me of Prince Charles’ Prince’s Trust program in training and placing trainees to work)

Even before Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House, King Bhumibol had converted this palace grounds as his test lab. He tested to find out which strains of rice was most suitable for Thailand’s ecological factors. He bred fish and raised dairy cows so farmers around the country can do the same (and gave out fingerlings and passed on the know-how to farmers. All so his country can become self-reliant and break free from malnutrition.

Even in the face of political turmoil, financial crisis, natural disasters, he helped diffuse the ‘ticking bombs’ with wit and diplomacy. 

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What stood out was King Bhumibol really lived to be like a Guardian of his country – as a true King would – putting forth sound initiatives for the sake of people, and to develop the country’s first self-sufficiency. Watch the short documentary, under an hour and you’ll witness how he calmly puts sense into the polarising politician’s mind and mitigates a potential civil war. 

Wat Arun in Bangkok

Final thoughts:

  • Nowadays, with many societies run by politicians and political parties hand-tied by vested interests and campaign funding – what would it take for politicians to put the welfare of the societies first?
  • Do we still have statesmen who guard the long-term welfare of their nation/cities?
  • As parents or educators, how would you nurture children with qualities that will take them far? (Tip: there was something the King’s mother was adamant with regards to his hobbies that may have helped in shaping his qualities)