THE KING NEVER SMILES: A BIOGRAPHY OF THAILAND’S BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ PAUL M. HANDLEY New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006 512 pp.; $38.00 (cloth)
KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ of Thailand is the only king of any nation ever to be born in the continental United States. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927 while his father attended Harvard Medical School, he ascended the throne unexpectedly in 1946, following the mysterious death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, found shot dead one morning in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. King Bhumibol is the grandson of the great Chulalongkorn, the much beloved Thai ruler best known in the West as the Crown Prince in the musical The King and I. Currently the world’s longest-ruling monarch, Bhumibol’s unsmiling photograph is framed in millions of homes and businesses throughout his kingdom and proudly displayed in Thai restaurants across the globe.
Paul Handley’s detailed account of Bhumibol’s early life and sixty-year reign, serves as a valuable modern history of Thailand, and as such it fills a persistent gap. The old standard, David K. Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History (also published by Yale), covers at least a thousand years more ground, but is much weaker on the turbulent twentieth century. Handley, a journalist who lived in Thailand for many years, is both blessed and cursed to publish his work when the country is in the world news, and his biography takes us all the way through Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation a few months ago.
Many Western Buddhists know Thailand either from visiting as students or as tourists, or through celebrated American dharma teachers like Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, who trained in Thai temples. But the political history of the Buddhist kingdom has often gotten lost, rarely commanding our attention as much as that of nearby Vietnam, Cambodia, or Burma. Having avoided colonization by the European powers and at most a bit player in the Cold War, Thailand has been largely neglected in the West by both academics and reporters. Handley’s book depicts the tumultuous political drama behind Thailand’s tranquil surface of meditating monks and smiling hostesses, showing us the many military coups and abandoned constitutions, the social struggles and foreign entanglements, the financial corruption and environmental degradation, and throughout it all, the central role of the king in shaping the country’s past and future.
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