A woman prays for King's recovery in the courtyard at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok Monday.
It's hard for non-Thai's, especially Americans who have no tradition of a monarchy, to understand how important Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is to most Thais. He is Thailand's longest serving monarch - on the throne since 1950. He's the only King the overwhelming majority of Thais know.
In a country riven by political differences, the King is a unifying force - reverence for the King is the one thing most Thais can agree on. Even though Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, like the United Kingdom, the King wields enormous influence that goes well beyond his technically limited powers. Insulting the King, or those in his immediate family, are violation of Thailand's "lese majeste" laws and can land you in jail.
He's Rama IX, the ninth King of the Chakri Dynasty. Thailand wouldn't be what it is today without the leadership of the Chakri Kings. When Burma, the Malay states, the Annamese (now Vietnamese), Lao and Khmer monarchies were wiped out or co-opted by the forces of colonialism, the Chakri Kings were able to play British and French colonial interests off against each other and maintain Thailand's (then Siam) independence.
Southeast Asia has a long history of God Kings - the Angkor Kings were revered as God Kings. Thailand was an absolute monarchy until a military coup in 1932 replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one.
Rama IX is revered because he is not a God King. He's a mortal who puts his people's needs ahead of his own. The King has sponsored economic development programs in rural Thailand. He funds colleges and schools, hospitals and health programs. He's an accomplished jazz musician and amateur photographer (I have a theory that one of the reasons Thais are so comfortable being photographed is that the King, even from his hospital bed, is never without a camera). In his younger days, the King seemed genuinely fond of getting out of Bangkok and being with the "common" people. Now age and illness limit his mobility.
The King has been in Siriraj Hospital since 2009. He's left a couple of times for short day trips or official functions but for all intents and purposes he lives in the hospital. A steady stream of Thais visits the hospital every day to pray for his recovery, sign get well cards and drop off bouquets of yellow or pink flowers (yellow the color of the monarchy, pink because it's thought the color will bring him good health). His birthday is Dec. 5. As the day approaches, crowds at the hospital are almost certain to grow.