Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrated his 80th birthday on Wednesday. The whole country congratulated him with festivities, prayers and wearing yellow- the color that symbolizes devotion to the world’s longest reigning monarch.
Tens of thousands of people in yellow shirts and waving yellow flags packed the streets around the Grand Palace in Bangkok where Bhumibol made a rare public appearance from the balcony of his ceremonial Throne Hall - only the sixth such appearance in his 61-year reign.
Bhumibol's birthday has increasingly become a day of nationwide tribute to the man who is regarded the most influential figure in modern Thai history and the key to the country's stability.
This year's celebration was clouded by nationwide anxiety over Bhumibol's declining health, concerns about his eventual successor and a chaotic political situation ahead of divisive elections later this month.
The Dec. 23 election will be the first since a September 2006 coup toppled the elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the king had criticized in previous birthday speeches.
Unity of the nation has become Bhumibol's recurring theme in recent speeches.
"I am glad that everyone has come together in unison to give me birthday wishes," he told the crowd Wednesday, seated on a golden throne and dressed in a gold brocade robe.
The comments echoed his traditional televised birthday speech the night before, when Bhumibol repeatedly called for national unity. He likened the country's situation to difficulties he has in walking.
Bhumibol was recently hospitalized for three weeks for symptoms of a stroke, the latest of many ailments, and now moves about with a walker.
"(We) must be united, like our legs must be united - which means one goes forward and one pushes back before moving forward," he said. "This way, we could walk without falling. Without unity, the country will face disaster."
"I never thought I would live to be 80," the king added.
Bhumibol has never publicly commented on his successor, an issue that weighs heavily on Thai minds even if it is rarely discussed in public.
His son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has been groomed to succeed him. But the 55-year-old prince lacks the stature and popularity of his father. There is great concern that Vajiralongkorn, who has married three times, fathered six children and for years had the reputation of a ladies man, will have difficulty living up to Bhumibol's record of hard work and diligence.
Bhumibol was born on Dec. 5, 1927 , in Cambridge , Massachusetts , where his father, Prince Mahidol, was studying medicine at Harvard University . At the age of 19, he became the ninth king of Thailand's Chakri dynasty on June 9, 1946 after his older brother Ananda died from a mysterious gunshot to the head.
Though he is a constitutional king with no formal political role, he is regarded as the axle that holds the country together. Bhumibol has stilled bloody uprisings, weathered military coups and has reigned through scores of governments, democratic and dictatorial. In his six decades on the throne, he took an active role in rural development and is respected for his dedication to helping the country's poor.
To honor his birthday, people traveled from cities around Thailand, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beloved monarch.
"I love the king. He has done so much for the country," said Todsapon Katiya, a civil servant clad in yellow who had been camped out since 4:30 a.m. along the path of the king's motorcade. "He tends to the poor, the sick, the crippled, the blind. No man has done as much in a lifetime. I want him to stay with us forever."
Far from the center of celebrations, people everywhere donned yellow - from supermarket cashiers and morning joggers to business people.
Everywhere around the Buddhist nation, people planned to show respect for the monarch by saying prayers and performing merit-making ceremonies that typically involve freeing captive animals, including birds, turtles and fish.
Fireworks lit the skies on the eve of his birthday and more were planned for Wednesday night in several cities as part of weeklong celebrations.
Outside the palace, one older woman said she had hoped to glimpse the king but couldn't see over the crowd.
"I didn't see him at all. There were too many people," said 84-year-old Chaba Kongchukiat, 84, blinking back tears. "But it's OK. I plan to come back next year."
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