Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, is king of Thailand. He is both Thailand's, and the world's, longest reigning monarch (well, longest living reigning monarch, in the case of the world). He has held the title of king of Thailand since 1946, when his elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol, died under mysterious circumstances. Although only 18 at the time, and not raised to rule, the laws of succession put him next in line to the throne, and he accepted.

Bhumibol's father was Prince Mahidol, one of King Chulalongkorn's numerous sons by a consort who was not elevated to queenly status. While Mahidol was studying to become a doctor in the United States, he met and married a Thai commoner who was studying nursing there. The couple had three children, a girl and then two boys. Bhumibol, the youngest child of the family, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927. Mahidol died in 1929, but is today known as the father of modern Thai medicine; his wife, who was referred to as the Princess Mother, shared the gift of longevity with another Queen Mum, and died in 1995 at age 95.

Bhumibol was educated in Thailand and Switzerland. He was studying engineering in Switzerland when his brother died and his own life was changed forever. He switched his major to political science, probably to help him prepare for his new duties. He also married Sirikit, a glamorous great-granddaughter of Chulalongkorn. Bhumibol was formally crowned in 1950, and he remains on the throne today. He has four children: former Princess Ubol Ratana (she lost her status when she married an American), Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the much beloved Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and Princess Chulabhorn. His children are all accomplished and well-educated, and his second and third daughters hold PhDs.

As king, Bhumibol has come to be loved and revered in a way that can be difficult for farang to understand. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Thailand became a constitutional (as opposed to an absolute) monarchy in 1932; soon after that Bhumibol's uncle, Rama VII, abdicated. The next king, Bhumibol's brother, had been crowned as a boy; he spent most of his childhood abroad, and then died at age 20. Thus Bhumibol was the first real king of parliamentary Thailand. Though Bhumibol himself was very young when he was crowned, he has grown into his position with grace: he visibly fulfills the role expected of him, taking Buddhist monk's robes, wearing sacred regalia for important ceremonial occasions. At the same time, he has brought compassion to his role; he seems to genuinely care for his people, and travels around the country tirelessly, meeting his subjects, listening to their problems, and seeking solutions to his country's woes. He has the mind of an engineer, and pores over maps and drawings that will help him to understand and improve his country and its people.

Though Bhumibol's power is largely ceremonial, he holds tremendous moral authority. In 1973, when the brutal suppression of student demonstrations led to the resignation of the junta government, he appeared on television to call for peace and announce the appointment of an interim government, headed by the rector of Thammasat University. And again in 1992, when Thai troops took to the streets to violently quell pro-democracy demonstrations, the king stepped in, this time more proactively. I remember well watching a broadcast from Thailand of both the prime minister and the putative head of the protestors crawling towards the king on their knees, while he lectured them firmly on making peace and getting along. It is very rare for the king to be seen to intervene so directly in the affairs of the nation; the demonstrations died immediately, and both men retired from political life, disgraced.

I know a few more interesting things about the king. As a young man, he raced cars, and had a bad crash in which he lost an eye; he now has a glass one. He has mastered the whole family of reed instruments, and favours the soprano saxophone. I have seen a photo of him playing with the goodwill ambassador himself, Louis Armstrong; he has apparently also jammed with other jazz greats like Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden. He is an accomplished composer (he wrote the Thai national anthem), painter, photographer, writer, and sailor. Although he lives a life curtailed by rigid court etiquette, backed, when necessary, by law (it is illegal to defame the king in Thailand), he has managed to chart a course for himself that allows him to fulfill his duty to his country while at the same time being a creative and productive person, and though I am no monarchist, I respect him for this. Er, not that he has any need for my respect.