I vividly remember my first official call upon His Majesty the King at his palace in Bangkok. His modest palace is situated in an English-type park in the center of the city. We were ushered into his office with considerable ceremony, which is typical of the Thais who have great reverence and affection for their monarch. However, his office was relatively simple and he appeared to me to be an unassuming, informal young man. Slight in build, he has a finely chiseled face with a square chin and with eyes rimmed by glasses. He seemed a bit tense, or perhaps I was tense and imagined him so. He wished to hear about the progress of our various university projects and expressed a keen interest in the contribution that education could make to the development of Thailand. I found my visit informative and encouraging for our technical-assistance programs.
I was to learn soon that he followed the practice of presenting the diplomas himself to the graduates of the several universities at commencement. Each student crossed the stage when his name was called and His Majesty handed the graduate his diploma. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Phumiphon Aduldeh and Rama IX) later told me that he did this because it gave him an opportunity to meet and face each graduate. These graduates were likely to become the leaders of the Thailand of the future and he wished to have at least one meeting with each of them, even though the contact was brief.
When the College of Education planned to award me an honorary degree, the date had to be set at a time when His Majesty could attend the Commencement ceremony. As I remember it, the ceremony lasted about two hours, agreeably drawn out as His Majesty recognized each graduate individually. In years past, Thais always prostrated themselves before the King, but as King Bhumibol Adulyadej frowned upon the custom, the students merely bowed when they passed before him. In addition, he awarded the honorary degrees. The occasion is memorable to me principally because of his participation but also because many Thais in government and education were present in academic regalia or full costume; because the background music was furnished by the chanting of the Buddhist monks seated on the floor at one side of the platform, chanting that never ceased throughout the ceremony; because the Thais have a custom of presenting to each honorary degree recipient a beautiful gown of Thai silk—I have cherished mine throughout the years; and finally because, following the exercise, I had lunch with His Majesty, the faculty members, and guests.
The lunch interestingly enough had been prepared by the young ladies from the College of Home Economics, and it was delicious. As I sat by His Majesty, we talked at some length about education—past, present, and future—in Thailand, and I was impressed anew by his interest in the subject and by his grasp of current educational developments. When he shook my hand to bid me goodbye, I noted that the palm of his hand was calloused and I was a bit ashamed of my own soft hand. It was explained to me that the King liked to do manual work for exercise and that he was a keen sailor, handling the rough ropes himself and doing the hard work of sailing. It seems to be the general impression that he and members of the extended royal family perform a very useful function in the government of Thailand. While he is not technically a constitutional monarch, his actual governmental powers are limited somewhat in the same way as the rule of England is. I would hope that his reign will continue for a long time and be successful.