It was a chilly Monday morning, December 5, 1927, when 27-year-old Mom Sangwan Mahidol gave birth to a baby boy at 8:45 am. The place was Cambridge Hospital (now Mt Auburn Hospital), in the US state of Massachusetts; the proud father was 35-year-old HRH Prince Mahidol of Songkhla.
On duty that morning was Dr W. Steward Whittemore, who would remember the Siamese boy he delivered. “He was a very good baby, indeed,” the doctor recalled to the Boston Globe in 1960. “His mother was a wonderful patient. She never complained.” Little did the good doctor know that "Baby Songkla”, as he was recorded on his birth certificate, would 18 years later become a king — let alone the world's longest living monarch 60 years after his accession to the throne.
Without pomp or ceremony, the birth of the future great king was an occasion of joy within his family of five, who lived in a modest apartment on 63 Longwood Avenue, Brookline in Boston. Three hours later, Prince Mahidol telegrammed his mother, Queen Savang Vadhana, to inform her of the birth of his second son. He asked if King Rama VII would bestow him with a name.
Nine days later, a telegram from Thailand arrived stating that King Rama VII had given Baby Songkla the name “Bhumibala Aduladeja” (later changed to "Bhumibol Adulyadej"), meaning "Strength of the Land with Incomparable Power".
At home, Baby Prince Bhumibol was welcomed by his elder sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, 6, who was born in London, and older brother Prince Ananda, 2, born in Heidelberg, Germany.
On the year of Prince Bhumibol's birth, there was nothing to suggest that within a short five years an unprecedented political upheaval in Siam would totally change the course of the Chakri Dynasty and ultimately the lives of the Mahidol family. For at that time the country was securely administered under an absolute monarchy by King Rama VII, whose grandfather, King Mongkut (1851-1868); father, King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910); and brother, King Vajiravudh (1910-1925), had resisted the threat of Western colonialism with their articulate foreign diplomacy.
In fact, Siam was the only country within the region, from the China Sea in the East to the Indian Ocean in the West, to survive the onslaught of the colonial era that stripped neighbouring countries of their sovereignty.
Though himself one of the heirs-apparent, Prince Mahidol, King Rama VII's half-brother, did not seem to expect that one day the mantle of kingship would be shifted to his family. Thus he decided to pursue an education in a field where he thought he would most benefit the country and its people: health care.
Aspiring to be a doctor, the prince abandoned a navy education in Germany for the United States to pursue a public health degree at Harvard University.
At his side was a commoner from humble origins, the former Sangwan Talapat, whom he married in 1920.
While her husband studied at Harvard University, the then Mom Sangwan pursued a degree in nursing and economics at Simmons College. In 1950, the Simmons College Review published local recollections of Prince Mahidol and Mrs Songkhla: “Bostonians were often impressed when they saw this pretty girl in Oriental costume shopping with a basket over her arm in the grocery stores at Coolidge Corner. Despite their great wealth, the Songkhlas lived in a modest kitchenette apartment at 329 Longwood Avenue. Prince Mahidol was an intern at the Boston Lying-in Hospital, where he scrubbed floors and rushed out on ambulance calls.
“He would come home in the afternoon from Harvard Medical School to help his wife with the cooking and the care of their two sons, who eventually were to become kings.” One year after the birth of his third child, Prince Mahidol, now armed with medical knowledge, brought his family back to Bangkok, enthusiastic about starting a new life as a doctor at Siriraj Hospital .
But much to his disappointment, the Prince soon realized that his royal status as a celestial prince would not allow him to pursue this line of service. Determined to use the knowledge he had gained in order to help those in need, Prince Mahidol decided to leave his family behind and work as a resident at McCormick Hospital, an American missionary hospital in Chiang Mai. The hard-working, selfeffacing prince took care of needy patients at all hours of the day and night, and even, according to records, donated his own royal blood.
Afflicted with severe kidney disease, the selfless Prince ignored his own ill health. Four months after moving to Chiang Mai, he came to Bangkok for a funeral, planning to take his family with him on his return to the North. He never made it back.
Four months later, in September 1929, the Prince succumbed to his illness, leaving a huge void not only in the local field of medicine but also in the hearts of his wife and their three little children. His youngest son, Prince Bhumibol, was barely two years of age.
On that tragic morning, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana recounted in two books – Mae Lao Hai Fang (Mother Told Me) and Chao Nai Lek Lek, Yuwa Kasat (Minor Royalties, Young Kings): “I was playing in front of the palace building, stomping heavily on the road's edge, when I was summoned to see my mother. She was sitting on a long bench by the window in her dressing room. She pulled me into her embrace, said something that I could not recall, and cried. I cried too, but only due to the shock of seeing my mother sobbing. Both of my brothers were unaware of what had happened. Perhaps, mother might have thought that they were too young to understand. For one year, we were in mourning.” Despite their huge loss, life went on for the Mahidol family. The Princess Mother sent the children to school — Prince Bhumibol to kindergarten at Mater Dei, Prince Ananda to Dhepsirin, and Princess Galyani to Rajini.
While the young Mahidol children were exploring their childhoods, clouds of political turmoil began to take shape. The Great Depression that gripped the USA in early 1930 spread throughout the world, and Thailand's economy plunged to an unprecedented low.
The economic downturn sent public morale tumbling, which in turn fuelled resentment of the absolute monarchy among a group of young, foreigneducated Thais. Hoping to change the nation into a democracy, the group clandestinely plotted a coup d'etat.
On the morning of June 24, 1932, soldiers successfully took control of Bangkok while King Rama VII was vacationing at Klai Kangwol Palace in Hua Hin. Himself democratically minded, King Prachadhipok had intended to ease the nation towards democracy once he felt the time was right. With his hand forced, the King decided not to resist the premature transition in order to spare the country from “useless bloodshed.” Unfortunately, the relationship between the King and the new government was a strained one. As tensions continued to grow and the relationship fractured beyond repair, rumours spread of an abdication.
The young Prince Ananda's name was often mentioned as heir apparent, to the surprise of many.
As HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana explained in Chaonai Lek Lek, Yuwa Kasat , Prince Ananda became the first in line to the throne as a result of the Law of Succession, which was issued in 1924 by King Vajiravudh.
The law stipulates that heirs must be direct descendants of the King and the Queen, disqualifying anyone who suffers from psychological problems; is not Buddhist; is married to a foreigner; has had their heir status revoked; or has been disqualified from the line of accession. Princess Galyani wrote: “Amid rumour of the king's abdication, perhaps someone had rushed to study the Law of Succession.
One day Prince Ananda came home from school telling mother that his friends called him 'Ong Poey'. Mother immediately realized the hidden meaning of this, ‘Number Eight' in Chinese [Rama VIII]. But she did not explain this to the young prince.” Out of concern for her grandson's fragile health and potential political involvement, Queen Savang Vadhana decreed that the Mahidol children should pursue their education abroad. The decision came down to weather: Switzerland was the first choice over second-place England.
In 1933, when Prince Bhumibol was five and a half years of age, the Mahidol family settled in a tiny flat at No 16 Tissot Road, a 15-minute walk to the central city of Lausanne, Switzerland. They all enrolled at the Ecole Miremont primary school.
It was here in this modest apartment where the Mahidol children enjoyed their childhood as ordinary kids.
Despite their distance, trouble followed them from home. As rumours of the King's abdication turned out to be true, newshounds in Europe frantically combed Swiss schools to find the young Siamese heir to the throne, at first without success.
Eventually they caught up with him. In an excerpt of a letter from the Princess Mother to Queen Savang Vadhana that was printed in Chaonai Lek Lek, Yuwa Kasat , the Princess Mother explained why she finally had to give in to the press: “Initially, I refused but finally had to give in when they pointed out that they would be able to capture photos of Nandha [the prince's shortened name] on his way home, anyway. But, they said, they would prefer being granted permission.”
On the eve of King Rama VII's abdication in February 1934, the government sent its representatives to approach the minor prince through the Princess Mother, acting as his guardian. The Princess Mother declined to respond, saying that the crucial decision should be left to Queen Savang and the King (Rama VII). However, the Princess Mother told them that the young prince's health was fragile and illsuited for tropical weather, and that his doctor recommended he stay in Switzerland.
On March 2, 1934, King Rama VII abdicated in London, England, where he spent the rest of his life in exile until his death in 1941.
After the abdication, the Thai parliament unanimously agreed to invite Prince Ananda to the throne following the Law of Succession. Upon Queen Savang Vadhana's blessing, Prince Ananda was named King Rama VIII. He was just nine years old.
In the book Chaonai Lek Lek, Yuwa Kasat , Princess Galyani recounted King Bhumibol's 1987 recollections of this momentous period of his brother's accession to the throne: "The king [then 7] remembered that he felt nothing special.
No particular excitement. What he recalled, however, was how he and King Ananda were amused by the 'pompous' manner of those [government representatives] who were granted an audience with the young king.” While the government's representatives agreed that the new king should stay in Switzerland, they tried to convince the Princess Mother that the king should be provided with special tuition at home, and that he should live in a grand atmosphere full of pomp and ceremony worthy of his status.
The Princess Mother flatly rejected both suggestions.
He and his siblings, she insisted, would be raised incognito, as ordinary kids in ordinary schools in an unpretentious environment.
In a note to Queen Savang Vadhana describing her conversation with government representatives, the Princess Mother wrote: “At first, Chao Phya Sri [government representative] suggested that the king should stop going to school. Tutors should be provided at home. I promptly said that I thought otherwise. In private tuition at home without friends and peer competition, the king would suffer from a lack of enthusiasm and feel isolated. Having to shoulder the mantle of kingship, the king would be unhappy if deprived of his childhood.... It is quite necessary for a king to mix and mingle with ordinary people to learn about their habits. By doing so, it would benefit the country, which is under a democratic system.” Together, King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol were enrolled into a new, private school, Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande, where they learned Latin, French, German, English and Spanish as well as gardening and carpentry. At home, they attended a Thai class, where they studied the language as well as Thai history and Buddhism.
While King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol received wellrounded education and participated in activities to broaden their perspectives, thus making them fit to be king and, inadvertently, a king-to-be, the Princess Mother stressed that they were to be treated as normal kids.
Even though they moved out of their tiny apartment into the more spacious, three-storey Villa Vadhana in Pully, outside Lausanne , the royal family lived in only moderate luxury, as insisted upon by the Princess Mother. Indulgence to the king or his siblings was discouraged except for special occasions such as birthdays or the new year.
Just like other boys in the neighbourhood, King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol had errands to run and chores to do such as picking up fruit in the backyard or sweeping snow off the road. They were also encouraged to earn extra money by picking apples and pears in nearby fruit orchards.
With only two years separating them, King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol developed a profound bond, which Princess Galyani Vadhana described as something “quite extraordinary.” “They were like twins,” she wrote, “buddies, who are fond of one another more than they are of other friends.
They would prefer to play together more than anyone else.” Four years after his accession to the throne, King Ananda, in 1938, returned to Thailand as its sovereign for the first time at the age of 13. Walking one step behind him was his bespectacled younger brother and heir apparent, Prince Bhumibol. His royal title was Somdej Phrachao Nongyather Chaofah Bhumibol Adulyadej —but he became affectionately known as “Chaofah Waen” (the Bespectacled Prince) by the public.
Albeit short, King Ananda's 59-day homecoming visit invigorated the country. His 18 million subjects had yearned for the presence of their young monarch. Traditional ceremonies, which had abruptly ceased after King Rama VII's abdication, were restored with pomp and pageantry.
As a child, Prince Bhumibol had been described as a precocious and animated boy, talkative and witty. A darling of the family, the young prince was barely 10 when he started wearing glasses for short-sightedness after his teacher noticed him having to approach the blackboard to take notes.
Even at a very young age, Prince Bhumibol demonstrated his remarkable talents, which ranged from sports to music, science and technology, carpentry and art.
His knack for sports was shown at the tender age of eight as he agilely glided down mountain slopes during his first ski lesson in 1935. Later in life, he adopted several other active games such as badminton and water sports, and excelled at all of them.
But it was technology Prince Bhumibol demonstrated a special aptitude for — especially mechanics and electricity — at a very young age.
“Normally, mother would not allow anyone to indulge her children with gifts unless it was a special occasion such as a birthday or the new year,” Princess Galyani wrote.
“One day, mother saw Phra Anucha [Prince Bhumibol's new title as the king's younger brother] playing with a new toy car. Upon learning that Nan [the family's nanny] gave it to him, she asked why. Nan said it was a reward for fixing her sewing machine....” Another example that stood out in Princess Galyani's memory occurred when, at the age of 10, the King transformed metal coils into a radio. "He won the coils as a prize in a raffle at school. Upon receiving the prize, he asked an expert how to build a radio. He was told to acquire black ore (galena or galenite or PbS) which is a crucial material for making a receiver for radio waves, and an earpiece. The whole thing cost about 10 francs. It was unclear how he pieced them together, but eventually his invention was able to receive radio signals. The brothers shared the earphones and took turns listening to the radio.
“Upon our return to Switzerland from Thailand, the king was presented with a Philips radio. At first the two brothers, who shared the same bedroom, also shared the radio. Later, when the king moved to a new bedroom, he left the radio behind for his brother, who connected the radio to a loudspeaker and broadcast the radio programmes into the king's bedroom." One of Prince Bhumibol's childhood activities was to build a dam in a stream near their summer school on Les Pleiades mountain. It wasn't simply for fun, but also a learning experience, wrote Princess Galyani.
When the Princess interviewed His Majesty the King in 1986, he vividly recalled the way the school directed the water into the students' pool by building a clay slope path, smoothing them with glass bottles.
The Princess also recalled “Club Patapoum”, which King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol had established.
The idea was adapted from comic books in which the main children's characters would gather to form a club. King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol, then 12 and 10, adopted the idea and named their club “Patapoum”.
“The club had had plenty of committees and members, albeit existing under in name only. It was the two brothers, who alternately took different administrative positions and their deputies under odd pseudonyms. These odd aliases would be used just between the two of them.
For Prince Bhumibol, these included: Raoul, Gontran and Le Gommeux….
“Apart from his aliases, Phra Anucha (Prince Bhumibol) also named his future kids as: Fkou for the first child; Deliz for the second; and Fkou-Deliz for the third. So that when he called Fkou-Deliz, all three would show up….” It was in their bedroom's empty closet where the two royalty held club meetings to discuss crucial decisions such as how the club's money would be well spent.
From bedroom closet, their playing activities sometimes extended to the kitchen, where the two royaly experimented with cooking. Princess Galyani wrote: “…they used to cook together preparing mignons de veau on a toy stove. Butter was hand-beaten from cream. They even helped Nan to prepare peanut butter. However, the most favourite dish of King Rama IX was his own culinary creation called ‘kai pra athit' (the sun's egg). It was an omelette garnished with grains of crispy-brown cooked rice – resembling dark spots on the sun….” Beyond the fun and games, it was music that the two young brothers enjoyed together from their childhood into their adolescence. Princess Galyani wrote: “King Rama VIII started piano lessons after he saw me learning it. King Rama IX opted for accordion.
But he took only a few classes before calling it quits, since ‘it didn't go well with piano'. Eventually, King Rama VIII stopped piano too….
“One day as he (King Ananda) was inspired by an orchestra playing in a hotel, he acquired a second hand saxophone at a price of 300 francs. Mother chipped in for half of its price, Club Patapoum supported the other half. When an instructor showed up at home, instead of attending the class, King Rama VIII pushed his brother into the room to replace him.
"Thus, it was King Rama IX, who first started.
After 2-3 courses, King Rama VIII bought his own clarinet. The instructor split the class into 30-minute sections to instruct each of them.
After the class, the instructor would bring out his own saxophone prompting a trio. For six months, they played together in the same manner. Then Phra Anucha (King Rama IX) had to attend boarding school. Yet, he continued his class by biking from school to his instructor's studio. During those two years at boarding school, he bought a clarinet for 200 francs. King Rama VIII bought an old sax while some of his friends taught him more on piano.
They even built their own instruments, such as a drum from planks of wood and thick paper and a bass from a wooden crate and rope.” Eventually, both royals developed their passion for jazz, which spread from the United States into Europe in the 1940s. King Rama VIII preferred Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet albums, while King Rama IX would go for Duke Ellington and Count Basie. “For jazz albums, they had to spend their own money, but for classical they could get reimbursed,” wrote the Princess.
It was on December 5, 1945, the 18th birthday of Prince Bhumibol, that both King Ananda and the prince made their second home-coming visit to Thailand after the end of WWII.
Although they had been away for seven years, King Ananda, then 20 and Prince Bhumibol, 18, received an overwhelming welcome from the public, who showed their unwavering loyalty to their king by turning up in full force along every street the king and his brother passed. For six months, the king and Prince Bhumibol rigorously performed royal duties, presiding over ceremonies as well as visiting people upcountry.
What was originally planned as a one-month trip was extended to six months during which King Ananda's popularity soared as the king charmed his subjects with his unpretentious characteristics.
In its Feb 15, 1946 issue, The Suparb Burud Prachamitr newspaper reported: “(The King) favoured a simple way of living without pomp and ceremony as if he were an ordinary person…. He would address himself as “I” and with a ‘krub' (sir) to anyone he granted an audience to….” Yet, tragedy struck the glowingly popular young king, just a few days before his scheduled return to Switzerland to resume his education. King Rama VIII was found dead with a bullet hole in his forehead on the morning of June 9, 1946 at Boromphimarn Palace.
On the same day, heir-apparent Prince Bhumibol was named his successor as King Rama IX. His formal title: Phrabath Somdej Phra Paramindara Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitarathibej Ramathibodi Chakrinaruebej Sayammindhrathiraj Boromnartborpit.
Two and a half months after the mysterious death of his brother, King Bhumibol returned to Switzerland for his education at Lausanne University. But instead of pursuing sciences as he initially planned, the King switched his education to law and political science in preparation for his new role as the Siamese monarch.
On October 4, 1948, the King had a car accident while he was driving on the main Geneva-Lausanne highway. The Associated Press quoted police in its report of Oct 9, 1948, that the King was driving a midgetsize automobile toward Geneva when "a truck ahead of him stopped suddenly to avoid two cyclists and the royal car crashed into the rear.” For three months, the King was hospitalized to recover from the car crash that affected his right eye.
While in hospital, the King received a vivacious visitor whose acquaintance he had previously made, Mom Rajawong Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of His Highness Prince Chandaburi Suranath (Mom Chao Nakkhatra Mangala Kitiyakara), Royal Siamese Ambassador to Paris, and Mom Luang Bua Kitiyakara.
As their romance grew, the King asked for the hand of MR Sirikit and they became engaged on July 19, 1949.
Upon his journey back to Bangkok in early 1950, the King was occupied with three significant missions: a royal funeral ceremony for King Ananda, his marriage to M.R. Sirikit and his own coronation. The royal funeral was held on March 29, 1950. One month afterward, he married his 17-year-old fiancee in a ceremony presided over by Queen Savang Vadhana, at Sra Pathum Palace. The royal newlyweds enjoyed their honeymoon at Klai Kangwol Palace in Hua Hin.
On May 5, 1950, a grand coronation ceremony was held for King Bhumibol with pomp, ceremony and pageantry. Soon after the coronation, His Majesty the King together with Her Majesty the Queen returned to Switzerland to further his education.
Their permanent return to Bangkok came on December 2, 1951. With them was their eight-monthold first-born child, HRH Princess Ubol Ratana, born on April 5, 1951.
Their second child, HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, was born on July 28, 1952; their third child, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on April 2, 1955, and their fourth, HRH Princess Chulabhorn on June 4, 1957.