Prince Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua Bhumibol Adulayej was born on December 5 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Prince Mahidol of Songkla, half-brother and heir of the last absolute monarch of Thailand, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the younger son of King Chulachomklao (Rama V, reigned 1868-1910).
The Chakri dynasty into which he was born dates back to 1782. Prince Bhumibol’s great-grandfather King Mongkut (King Chomklao, reigned 1851-1868) was splendidly, if inaccurately, brought to life in Anna and the King of Siam and, later, The King and I.
Prince Bhumibol’s father, Prince Mahidol, had married a Siamese commoner and studied to be a doctor. At the time of the birth of Prince Bhumibol, he was studying public health and medicine at Harvard and his wife was studying nursing and economics at Simmons College close by.
Prince Bhumibol was the youngest of the family’s three children, having an elder brother and sister. At the time of his birth, he was several steps removed from succession to the Thai throne, and his elder brother, Prince Ananda, had precedence.
Prince Mahidol died in 1928, when his son was a year old, and the family returned to Thailand where, as a young boy, Prince Bhumibol briefly attended Mater Dei Primary School. But in 1933, following a military coup, King Prajadhipok ordered the family to move to Lausanne, Switzerland. There the Prince attended the Ecole Miremont and the Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande, Chailly sur Lausanne. Later he enrolled at the Gymnase de Lausanne.
While the family were living in Switzerland, political changes in Thailand started the chain of events that would eventually elevate the young Prince Bhumibol to the throne.
In 1932, following the coup, King Prajadhipok agreed a new constitution that would replace Thailand’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, and in 1935 he abdicated the throne in favour of his nephew, Prince Ananda, then 10 years old. The two young princes visited Thailand briefly in 1938-39.
During the greater part of the Second World War, Thailand was controlled by a pro-Japanese puppet government, so that Princes Ananda and Bhumibol did not return there until late 1945, when Prince Ananda went to Bangkok for his coronation.
Buddhist monks arrive at Bangkok's Grand Palace
Buddhist monks arrive at Bangkok's Grand Palace to commemorate King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 70th anniversary on the throne in 2016 CREDIT: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS
Before the ceremony could be performed, however, on the morning of June 9 1946 Prince Ananda was found in bed with a bullet in his skull and a revolver by his side. Despite a seven-year murder trial and the execution of three junior palace staff, there has never been a satisfactory explanation of why he died, and the death was officially ruled an accident. A book which suggested that Ananda killed himself because he had been forbidden to marry a Swiss girlfriend was banned in Thailand.
As King Ananda’s brother, Prince Bhumibol was named his successor by Act of Parliament. Two months later, after the legislature had appointed a two-man regency council to rule pending his coming of age, he returned to Switzerland to complete his education.
The young King had planned to become an architect and had enrolled at the University of Lausanne to study Engineering. Following his brother’s death, however, he changed his course to Law and Political Science.
When King Bhumibol attained his majority in December 1946, the Siamese government allocated several hundred thousand dollars for the ceremonial cremation of the remains of King Ananda, a necessary preliminary to the coronation of his successor who was required by religious custom to light the funeral pyre. Unsettled conditions in 1947 following a coup d’état forced a postponement, and court astrologers settled on March 2 1949 as the most auspicious date.
But in October 1948, King Bhumibol was seriously injured in a motor accident in Lausanne which left him blind in one eye and paralysed half his face. Both cremation and coronation had to be postponed once more.
By the time of his coronation, the King had married Princess Mom Rachawong Sirikit Kitiyakara, a great-granddaughter of a former king and thus a distant cousin. In the 1960s she would be described as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world.
King Bhumipol had first met Princess Sirikit in Paris, where her father was serving as ambassador. She was 15 years old and training to be a concert pianist. While in hospital recovering from the motor accident, King Bhumibol asked to see her and they soon became engaged.
Their wedding, on April 28 1950, was described by The New York Times as “the shortest, simplest royal wedding ever held in the land of gilded elephants and white umbrellas”. The ceremony was performed by the King’s ageing grandmother, Queen Sawang Vadhana.
The Queen and King Bhumibol Adulyadej
The Queen and King Bhumibol Adulyadej review the Thai Royal Honor Guard at Bangkok's military airport in 1996. CREDIT: AP
A week later, on May 5 1950, the formal coronation rites took place in the Baisal Daksin Throne Hall in the Grand Palace. It was the first coronation ceremony of a Thai sovereign to rule under the system of constitutional monarchy.
The royal couple spent their honeymoon at Hua Hin beach in southern Thailand before they returned to Switzerland, where the King completed his studies. They returned to Thailand in 1951.
In 1956 King Bhumibol followed Thailand’s spiritual tradition of entering the Buddhist monkhood of Sangkha for 15 days to practice meditation. He was ordained by the Supreme Patriarch on October 22 at the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace.
King Bhumibol remained sensitive to the way in which Thailand is perceived by the outside world. As well as making numerous state visits, he often employed his powers of clemency to secure the release of westerners held in the country’s jails.
He always liked to keep abreast of the latest developments in science and culture. He was an accomplished painter and photographer, and was the first member of the Thai royal family to be granted a patent for an invention. The registered patent is for the Chai Pattana Aerator Model RX 2, an apparatus for water treatment which can be seen operating in many polluted waterways in Thailand.
King Bhumibol was also a writer and musician. He translated several works of literature into Thai. He also composed a number of pop songs, including HM Blues and a little number called Oh I Say! One of his compositions, a beguine entitled Blue Night (with lyrics by the royal chamberlain) was incorporated in the 1950 Broadway revue Peep Show.