Every December 5, thousands of Thais chant “Sohng phra ja reern! Ying yeuun naan!” in celebration of the birth of the man whom they call the “Strength of the Land, Lord of Incomparable Power”.
The chant means: “Long live the king! May his days be un-numbered!” The king in question is Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth king of Thailand of the Chakkri Dynasty (1950 — present day). He is the divine father, a powerful yet benevolent patriarch whose birthday is also feted as the Thai national Father's Day.
It is a scorching hot morning and yet we, as with 200,000 Thais and well-wishing visitors alike, are camped enthusiastically at the Bangkok Royal Plaza. And there he is, high above the plaza, the beloved King, seated, enthroned, at the balcony of the ceremonial Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. It overlooks the populated plaza, peopled by throngs garbed in all manner of yellow.
The Thais subscribe to an astrological rule which prescribes one colour to each day of the week. So even though it is a Wednesday, the Thais wear yellow, which is the colour for Monday, the very day the King was born 85 years ago. Many wave Thai flags and flags adorned with the mythical garuda, the King's royal insignia.
This will go down in history as a rare public appearance, only his fifth of such a scale in all of his 66 years of reign on Thailand's Bahadrabith Throne.
King Rama IX of Thailand also has the honour of being the world's longest serving monarch, surpassing even the Queen of England, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (60 years of reign) last year. Perhaps his longevity has imbued him with a sense of kingship that is altruistic, compassionate and unifying.
“Progress and stability will come true if everyone in the nation discharges his duty with all his might and puts the common interest before his own interest,” he says in his brief address. “They shall do that with their wisdom, conscience, honesty and sincerity.
“I ask all of you here who hold important positions in major institutions of the country, and all groups of Thais, to…set your sights on performing your duties to the best of your ability for the glorious success of this country.”
When night falls, thousands still line the streets, holding up candle-lights, awaiting the night festivities to begin, singing songs of praise, publicly expressing their loyalty and adoration.
RIVER OF KINGS
We take a dinner cruise onboard the Loy Nava, a floating traditional Thai restaurant refurbished from a rice cargo barge.
In between courses of palm-sugar pork cakes and aged angus beef massaman curries, both of which are menu signatures, fireworks go off in several factions of the night sky; a pause, before hundreds of spirit lanterns, afloat as though they are candlelight-welding angels on the ascent, are released into the dark firmament.
Through the course of one dinner, the journey covers 34 points of historical and architectural interest along the Chao Phraya, also known as the River of Kings for a good reason. Northbound, the boat passes by the Rachini School (opened by Queen Saowapa Pongsri in the late 19th century), Chakrabongse House (belonging to a prince of Rama V who lost his throne succession rights when he married a Russian woman) and the Royal Boat House, which houses the royal barges used in monarchical ceremonies over the decades.
As we near the Rama VIII Bridge, a palatial structure comes into sight. This is the Deves Palace, the family home of Queen Sirikit where she has lived since she was one, prior to her royal marriage. Part of its compound is home to Piyasvasti Amranand, Thailand's former energy minister and former Thai Airways president.
Southbound, the boat passes the Vichai Prasit Fortress, the former palace of King Taksin), and Wat Rakhang Rositharam (Temple of the Bell, once home to Rama I). Towards the end, the cruise gathers poignancy as we sail by the Siriraj Hospital. This is where King Bhumibol was admitted once in 2007 and again in 2009, where he has taken up semi-permanent residence ever since. The King suffers from lumbar spine stenosis, a degenerative spinal disease which narrows and compresses the spinal chords and nerves.
Each year, thousands in tourism numbers flock to Thailand's bustling capital. All know it as Bangkok, but in historicity as well as in reality, its unabridged name actually consists of 165 characters rooted in the ancient languages of Pali and Sanskrit. All 165, as one sing-song verse, bestow the city with a certain celestial air, beginning with Krungthep (city of angels), followed by references to ‘city of immortals', ‘home of gods incarnate' and ‘impregnable city of the God Indra'.
The Thais themselves believe firmly in the concept of the God King, according their beloved King Bhumibol an auric presence. In tandem, his portrayal in the media is almost Messiah-like. On television screens, birthday greetings and royal announcements are broadcasted with a giant image of the King, looming over the country's landscape, hands raised, brow furrowed, lips frozen in mid-sentence, like an omnipresent deity delivering counsel.
One can almost hear him mouth the words in the brief speech he gave earlier in the day: “May the power of the Triple Gems of Buddhism and holy deities protect you from any suffering and danger, and bless you with happiness and success.”
The theory of the God-King is not just confined to Thai territory. It was also central to the Egyptian civilisation, and the anointing of the Hebrew kings marked them as agents of Yahweh and sacrosanct. Capetian kings of France are believed to wield supernatural healing powers and talismanic protection against the Devil.
In Thailand, the magic is of a different sort.
When the King was born in 1927, there was no Thailand yet — the country was still known as Siam. In his 66 years on the throne, he has seen Thailand transfigure from a rural country of 20 million to a middle-income nation of over 65 million. His pet projects include enhancing the country's natural water supply with inventions for rainmaking, aeration and anti-flooding. King Bhumibol may just be the world's only monarch who has patents to product inventions.
Thailand now thrives with a bustling metropolitan capital city, a strong export base and a thriving economy worth US$345.65 billion at current market prices, second in size only to Indonesia in Southeast Asia. As of August 2012, it holds US$178 billion in reserve money and international reserves, a regional second after Singapore.
If the Thais' faith in the God-King concept is anything to go by, then surely the Rama IX's current reign has made Thailand one heaven of a country to be in.
WHERE TO STAY
THE VIBE The Renaissance brand is the Marriott group's answer to Starwood's hip W brand, with a huge serving of luxe. The jaw dropper: A sleek, glittery car lift that leads right up to the ballroom, perfect for Lamborghini launches and weddings.
ROOMS It's as luxurious as it gets. Just so you know, Paris Hilton spurned her namesake Hilton for nights at the presidential suite here.
DINING Go to Fei Ya, or Flying Duck, which is the Thai royal family's favourite Chinese dining spot in the entire city.
518/8 Ploenchit Road, Bangkok 10330 Thailand
DusitD2 Baraquda Pattaya
THE VIBE When Korean boybands — Shinee and Xing, no less — choose this as their post-concert nest, and Greyhound designs its staff uniforms, the chic energy is almost contagious. It has an oceanic theme that anchors the entire space, think an orange-version of Octopussy's Palace, but younger.
ROOMS The youthful DusitD2, offspring of the Dusit Thani hotel group, muscles in on the boutique hotel territory monopolised by the likes of W, with very well thought-out designs that meld, say, the swervy queen bed with a writing desk behind headboards. There's something very Clockwork Orange about them.
DINING The s.e.a. Restaurant serves ingenious Southeast Asian cuisine (Hence SEA, get it?) amid a pop-art décor. Try the stinging Spicy Thai Seafood, guaranteed to make you take extra sips of its signature blue Barracuda cocktails. But what we love best is the Deep Bar, designed to look like the underside of a huge iceberg, alluding to the hotelier's love of deep sea diving.
485/1 Moo 10 Pattaya 2 Road, Tambol Nong Prue, Amphur Banglamung, Chonburi 20260 Thailand
THE KING & THE SKY
Prestige Singapore's participation in the King's birthday celebrations in Bangkok was by the grace of Thai Airways, in conjunction with the launch of their first Airbus A380-800. But this is not the only time the Thai national carrier has been intertwined with the Thai monarchy. We track their enduring relationship
The first Thai Airways logo was designed by Prince Kraisingh Vudhijaya. He rendered an ethnic dancer in traditional Thai silks. This logo was later superseded in 1975.
King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand inaugurated the maiden flight of a new 99-seat Convair 990 Coronado jet, the fastest civil airliner at the time.
Thai Airways commemorated the King's 72nd birthday by emblazoning a graphic rendition of Suphannahong, the Royal Barge, on its entire fleet, including a Boeing 747-400.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the King's reign, the airlines launched the Thai Grand Season Campaign to attract tourists to Thailand.
Partnering Unifem and Thailand's Ministry of Justice, Thai Airways featured Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol in its inflight public service announcement as part of the “Change Now! Say No to Violence Against Women” fundraiser, on all domestic and international flights. She has been a Unifem Goodwill Ambassador since 2008.
Thai Airways was the official airline at the 66th IFALPA (International Federation of Airline Pilots' Association) Conference, the opening ceremony of which was presided by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Also present was Princess Srirasmi and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, accompanied by Princess Srirasmi and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, presided over the launch of the airline's two newest planes — including its first Airbus A380-800 and Boeing 777-300ER — at a ceremony held at Suvarnabhumi Airport.