Thailand’s King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at a craft fair in early 1956. The two women to their left, in the white shirt and the floral dress, are my mother and grandmother.

Of King and Country

Today Thais bid a final farewell to their late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. As an American growing up in Pennsylvania, I heard this name on my parents’ lips since I was a toddler.

BANGKOK, Thailand

Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, two of the earliest words in a foreign language that I ever learned were these: Bhumibol Adulyadej.

My parents and sisters had lived in Thailand for a chunk of the 1950s, a decade before I was born,. And so the country and its king — a man revered as not only a benevolent monarch but an accomplished photographer and jazz musician, among other noble pursuits — were always frequent, affectionate touchpoints of conversation in our house.

Thais pose for pictures in front of a portrait installation of the late king earlier this month. Photo ©Ted Anthony, 2017.

His official name was Rama IX, from a long line of Ramas that included the famous 19th-century king of Siam, Rama IV, who was depicted in that musical and movie that so many Thais despise. But it was Rama IX’s longer royal name — Bhumibol Adulyadej, pronounced, loosely, “Pumipon Adunyadet” — that became so familiar to me, that I learned to pronounce and to bristle when anyone said it wrong. “If you’re going to say the name of the king of Thailand,” my father would sometimes say, “then learn how to say the name of the king of Thailand.”

Tonight, after a year of mourning in Bangkok and across the kingdom of Thailand, Bhumibol’s remains will be cremated. The Thai capital this week is quietly mournful. Everywhere things seem subdued. People and places are bedecked in black, and images of the late king are everywhere — far outnumbering those of his son, Rama X, who assumed the throne after his death last fall. Yesterday, I went for a checkup at the hospital near my apartment, and the nurse who leaned in to take my blood pressure had a tiny Bhumibol pin affixed to her ID badge. I pointed to it and said, “Do you miss him?” Her eyes welled up as she nodded.

My parents in Bangkok in the mid-1950s.

I have lived in this country as an American for 3 ½ years now. My sons, in some very fundamental ways, came of age here. I came here often as child and returned multiple times as an adult, including one memorable trip during which my aging educator parents had the chance to meet up again with all the people they taught — young Thai students who grew up into titans of business, governors of provinces, educational leaders, all now gray and many retired themselves.

Each looked back upon an entire adult life in which, until a year ago, Bhumibol was their king. When I was here in 2000, as we attended a banquet that featured an appearance by a Thai princess, one of Bhumibol’s offspring, one of my mother’s former students leaned over and whispered to me: “She is our sister, because her father is our father.”

I have hiked in Thailand’s remote northern mountains, disappearing for days and then re-emerging. I have waded in the waters of its pristine southern beaches. I have taken rickety sleeper trains to its eastern borders and watched as elephants gingerly approached the railroad tracks. I have been to an odd place called Lopburi where, in the center of town, monkeys outnumber people. I have sweated my way through countless “sois” — Bangkok backstreets — and eaten far too much street food fried in far too much second-day oil. I have escorted my children to their Bangkok international school where, at 7:35 each morning on the outdoor basketball court, day after humid day, a different class sings a song about Bhumibol.

In every one of these places, from a Bangkok cul-de-sac to an isolated Lisu village near the border with Myanmar, I have seen a portrait of the king who will be cremated tonight.

He is everywhere, still, and I expect he will be for many years to come. Over time, I have learned that he is beloved not only for what he was born into — a king descended from kings — but for what he actually did. Year after year, decade after decade, he traveled his land, meeting his people, rolling up his sleeves and doing the work to help them forward — to propel them, yes, but to equip them to propel themselves as well.

In America, we rejected kings many generations ago, and rightly so. But to live here, to see how daily life is suffused with the sense of this man to whom Thais say a final farewell today, certainly drives home an important point for me: What you do matters just as much as who you are.

And as someone familiar with this king’s name since I was small, as someone who moved to his country just as my family did so many decades before, as someone who has experienced how Thais see this monarch, it felt clear to me this morning as I traveled empty, mournful streets at dawn: Though this is a day of sad goodbyes, what King Bhumibol Adulyadej did here — it mattered.

My parents at a temple built to honor Bhumibol’s ancestor, King Chulalongkorn. Photo ©2000, Ted Anthony.

Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.

©2017, Ted Anthony