Retracing HM Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Steps: Rare Travel Photos (Part Two)
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was truly the pillar and soul of our nation. We want to remember him and to keep this memory alive for generations to come. Thankfully, an abundance of photos and footage of His Majesty’s activities has been carefully preserved over the years. According to deputy director of the Thai Film Archive Chalida Uabumrungjit, some of the footage— much of it currently appearing in an ongoing TV series on the MCOT channel—dates as far back as when His Majesty was but a young boy, not older than three years old. We have all sat in front of the television while short excerpts of His Majesty’s humanitarian efforts were aired daily after the evening news. Although we Thais are well aware of His Majesty’s activities in the country, perhaps less well known are his trips abroad. Accompanied by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, King Bhumibol set out on an international tour during the 1960s. Though the entire duration of all the trips combined constituted only a small portion of his 70-year reign, the importance of these visits to 29 countries across the globe cannot be underestimated.
“It is one thing to read or hear about His Majesty,” says Chalida, “it is another to witness the great king that he was, his activities and efforts for the people through moving images.” According to the archive’s deputy director, most of them are not digital and therefore extremely hard to preserve. “As keeper of the archive, we obtain footage from numerous sources,” she says, “from different organisations, TV channels or prominent cinematographers who have had the chance of joining His Majesty’s trips around the country, as well as from government agencies and embassies. MCOT, for example, about 30 years ago donated a collection of footage and we have since preserved it for them.”
For Chalida, her role as deputy director of the Thai archive has been more than duty but also an honour. “Through my work, I have had the privilege to observe the small moments in His Majesty’s life, moments that portray him not only as a king but as a happy man with his family, a musician, a sportsman. People tend to focus on his achievements and work but I find the personal aspects of his life just as precious,” she says.
“There are also numerous clips of His Majesty’s time abroad,” she adds. His Majesty King Bhumibol did not neglect his duty as a member of the international community and saw the importance of forging and strengthening ties at the global level. Though he travelled abroad only briefly in comparison to the length of his reign, his trips contributed significantly to promoting the kingdom’s good relations with foreign countries and enhancing its national security as well as its position in the world arena. MCOT and Global Intercommunication, with the support of the Thai National Film Archive, have tried to highlight his efforts in this regard in their latest project: a documentary entitled The Royal Imprint on International Relations. While there is an abundance of documentaries about His Majesty, this one sheds light on his trips abroad, something that has seldom been covered. In an effort to enable people to learn more about His Majesty’s life and work and perhaps to build a more complete picture of his reign, the documentary has been on air since September 2016 and will run for approximately one year.
“Countless documentaries have been created on His Majesty’s life,” says General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, chairman of MCOT. “That said, I don’t think there are many out there with emphasis on the king’s travels abroad, and definitely not like the one we have created.
We managed to gather about 50 per cent more data and detailed information than previous documentaries.” Between 1959 and 1967 King Bhumibol and his beautiful Queen Sirikit visited 29 countries on 31 trips. The first country that Their Majesties visited was Vietnam in 1959. The political context of the global scene at the time, namely the Cold War, was very much present in Southeast Asia. Born in the United States in Massachusetts, His Majesty fulfilled his lifelong desire to revisit his birthplace (Cambridge, Massachusetts) in 1960 when he was invited to Washington DC by then president Dwight Eisenhower. During his visit to the United States, His Majesty delivered over 60 speeches, which contributed a great deal in enhancing Thailand’s international recognition and solidifying its international relations. A key message that he conveyed during his visit was the importance of good relations between different peoples, which in his eyes was a necessary component to international peace.
In that same year—1960—Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were among the numerous countries His Majesty visited. In 1962 a tour of Asia, which included Australia and New Zealand, began, and was followed by trips to Japan and the Philippines in 1963. In 1967, His Majesty visited Canada, Iran and again the United States. It is widely acknowledged that Thailand never had such a strong international recognition prior to the reign of this monarch.
Be it the ticker-tape parade that welcomed His Majesty in New York, or his encounters with Pope John XXIII in 1960 at the Vatican, the Queen of England or many of Asia’s leaders, all these visits are portrayed in the documentary.
State visits and official ceremonies aside, during his trips abroad His Majesty King Bhumibol—also a musician and composer of note—managed to spare some time for his passion for music. In France and in England he called on Thai students there to come so that he could play music with them. These sessions sometimes went on until late in the night. In New York in1960, he played the saxophone in a two-hour jam session with Benny Goodman.
After returning from his extensive tour, His Majesty never left the country again, except for a short overnight state visit to Laos in 1994. He made it his mission to focus on the development of the kingdom as he continually visited villages in the most remote corners of the country. Challenging weather conditions and even floods could not prevent his Majesty once he had committed himself to a cause.
MCOT and Global Intercommunication through their documentary are aiming to spread awareness of how King Bhumibol’s graceful manners and diplomacy impressed the world. The documentary also highlights the outstanding welcome that their Majesties received from each place.
“Wherever His Majesty visited, he was always greeted with enthusiasm and a warm welcome,” says Tawatchai Kitiyapichatkul, managing director of Global Intercommunication. “In a part of our documentary, His Majesty is welcomed in New York with an extravagant ticker tape parade. How many leaders have you seen received in such a manner? It reflects the extent to which members of the international community truly appreciated our King.”
In an effort to broaden Thai people’s knowledge about His Majesty’s travels, the production team visited each of the countries and places within those countries that he travelled to. Putting together a documentary of this nature was not an easy task. “It took us three years to finish everything,” says General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, chairman of MCOT. “To honour His Majesty, we have tried to make this documentary to the best of our ability. Originally there were 52 episodes but we have just decided to add another four, each episode detailing their majesties visits. This documentary was made possible through a joint effort not only between MCOT and Global Intercommunication but also with the Thai government and its agencies that supported this project. Moreover, we worked closely with the embassies of each country that His Majesty visited. But some footage we had to buy the rights for.”
“We have been given the opportunity to film in many locations that Thai people would not normally have had the chance to either enter or see,” adds Tawatchai. “We compiled information from every source possible including over 50 books in our own offices.” The significant amount of additional information and collected footage in this documentary makes it a special and unique tribute to our King. “Before His Majesty left for the grand tour,” says General Chatchalerm, “he made a national radio broadcast announcing that he was going to travel abroad to forge good relations with various countries. We managed to recover this precious 1:35-minute recording that no one today has ever heard.”
General Chatchalerm emphasises that this project goes beyond merely trying to do something in honour of His Majesty that hasn’t been done. “It’s not just a documentary in honour of His Majesty,” he says. “It is a history lesson about our beloved King. We owe a great deal to his Majesty. He is the uniting force held the country together despite the many challenges our country faced. I think everybody should watch the films, particularly the younger generations.” He adds that it is their hope that this documentary, along with all the detailed information accumulated for it, will pave the way for more in-depth research and documentaries in the future—and so contribute to keeping our beloved King’s memory alive.
His Majesty proved himself to be an exceptional ruler within the borders of the kingdom and beyond. Revered and loved, and not because of his status but because he was above all a good man who used his status to do good, he will be remembered as the benevolent king, the development king, the selfless king—the father and soul of our nation. How fortunate and blessed we are to have lived under the reign of King Rama IX.
Go back to part one.