Bhumibol was born at Cambridge Hospital (now Mount Auburn Hospital) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States, on 5 December 1927. He was the youngest son of HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, the Prince of Songkla, and his commoner wife Mom Sangwan (later HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother). His U.S. birth certificate reads simply “Baby Songkla”, as the parents had to consult his uncle, King Rama VII (Prajadhipok), then head of the House of Chakri, for an auspicious name. The king chose Bhumibol Adulyadej, meaning “strength of the land, incomparable power” (from Sanskrit: भूमिबल अतुल्यतेज, IAST: Bhūmibala Atulyatēja). His father was enrolled in the public health program at Harvard University, which is why Bhumibol is the only monarch to be born in the US.:46–47 Bhumibol had an older sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, and an older brother, Prince Ananda Mahidol.
Bhumibol came to Thailand in 1928, after his father obtained a certificate from Harvard. His father died of kidney failure in September 1929, when Bhumibol was less than two years old.:62 He briefly attended Mater Dei school in Bangkok, but in 1933 his mother took her family to Switzerland, where he continued his education at the École nouvelle de la Suisse romande in Lausanne. In 1934 Bhumibol was given his first camera, which ignited his lifelong enthusiasm for photography.:67 When Bhumibol’s childless uncle Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935, his nine-year-old brother Ananda became the new King Rama VIII. However, the family remained in Switzerland and the affairs of the head of state were conducted by a regency council. They returned to Thailand for only two months in 1938. In 1942, Bhumibol became a jazz enthusiast, and started to play the saxophone, a passion that he kept throughout his life.:73–74 He received the baccalauréat des lettres (high-school diploma with a major in French literature, Latin, and Greek) from the Gymnase Classique Cantonal of Lausanne, and by 1945 had begun studying sciences at the University of Lausanne, when World War II ended and the family was able to return to Thailand.
Bhumibol ascended the throne following the death by gunshot wound of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, on 9 June 1946, under circumstances that remain unclear. While a first government statement stated that Ananda had accidentally shot himself,:76–77 an investigation committee ruled this was virtually impossible.:87 Two palace aides were eventually convicted of regicide and executed. A third possibility, that Bhumibol accidentally shot his brother while the brothers played with their pistols, was never seriously considered, despite the British official investigation’s chronology placing Bhumibol as being the last visitor to the sleeping king’s bedroom 20 minutes prior to the shot.:77–78
Bhumibol succeeded his brother, but returned to Switzerland before the end of the 100-day mourning period. Despite his interest in science and technology, he changed his major and enrolled in law and political science to prepare for his duties as head of state. His uncle, Rangsit, Prince of Chainat, was appointed Prince Regent. In Bhumibol’s name, Prince Rangsit authorized a military coup that overthrew the government of Thamrongnawasawat in November 1947.:88 The regent also signed the 1949 constitution, which returned to the monarchy many of the powers it had lost by the 1932 Revolution.:91–93
While finishing his degree in Switzerland, Bhumibol visited Paris frequently. In Paris he met Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the Thai ambassador to France.
On 4 October 1948, while Bhumibol was driving a Fiat Topolino on the Geneva-Lausanne road, he collided with the rear of a braking truck 10 km outside Lausanne. He injured his back and incurred cuts on his face that cost him the sight of his right eye.:104 While he was hospitalised in Lausanne, Sirikit visited him frequently. She met his mother, who asked her to continue her studies nearby so that Bhumibol could get to know her better. Bhumibol selected for her a boarding school in Lausanne, Riante Rive. A quiet engagement in Lausanne followed on 19 July 1949, and they were married on 28 April 1950, just a week before his coronation.
Bhumibol and Sirikit have four children.
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