Far from Bangkok, a heartfelt tribute for a Thai king born in Massachusetts

Hundreds gathered to mourn the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej Thursday evening at a square in Cambridge that is named for him. The late king had many connections to the area.

Sakchai Lalit/AP/File
King Bhumibol Adulyadej speaks from the balcony at the Anantha Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok, Thailand, during his 85th birthday celebration on Dec. 5, 2012.

While millions mourned the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Thailand, hundreds of others gathered 8,000 miles away to honor the beloved monarch in his little-known birthplace: Cambridge, Mass. 

A modest monument dedicated to the late king had received a steady trickle of visitors earlier in the day. Some, with tear-stained faces, knelt to place flowers at its base; others paused to read the plaque's inscription for perhaps the first time. By Thursday evening, the small square in the shadow of Harvard University that is named for King Bhumibol Adulyadej was flooded with several hundred people. Packed together and spilling out into the street, they had come to pay homage to the world's longest-reigning monarch. 

One attendee, Thailand native and now-Bostonian Will Sripakdeevong, said that many of her local friends were unaware of the king's connection to the Boston area. The curiosity of passersby was evident Thursday evening, as "a lot of people have stopped to ask me what's going on." 

But within the local Thai community, the king's influence has been tremendous. His connection to the city, community leaders say, has strengthened the sense of unity and cultural pride among Thai-Americans here. 

A rare foreign-born monarch, King Bhumibol was born at Cambridge's Mount Auburn Hospital in 1927. His father, Prince Mahidol Songkla, had come to the US in 1916 to study public health at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there, he met his future wife, a Thai nursing student at Simmons College. 

Today, plaques mark the "Trail of Thai Royalty" in and around the Boston area. Places of historical significance include a building in the suburb of Brookline, where the king lived as a baby, and Mount Auburn Hospital. 

The commemorative plaques are the doing of the King of Thailand Birthplace Foundation (KTBF), a Burlington, Mass.-based nonprofit. The foundation is dedicated to "helping to preserve Thai history in Massachusetts, and to help educate the people of this significant history and the relationship between Massachusetts and Thailand," said Cholthanee Koerojna, one of the founders of KTBF. "We feel that if [then-Prince Mahidol] did not come here in 1916, he may not have met the girl he wanted to marry and then the last king may have been a different king." 

In addition to raising awareness of the king's past connections to New England, the group is also responsible for a number of initiatives aimed at strengthening the cultural connection between Massachusetts and Thailand, including an exchange program that brings students from Thailand to study at American schools. In August, to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of Prince Mahidol's arrival in Massachusetts, KTBF organized a symposium on public health in Thailand with the Harvard School of Public Health. 

The foundation draws its inspiration from King Bhumibol's example, explained Somnuk Pulling, one of the organizers of the mourning ceremony.  

"He put his people first," Ms. Pulling said. "He dedicated his life to his people. That was his mission. We just love the way his actions educated his people to teach them the value of life, the value of living, and the value of hard working." 

King Bhumibol Adulyadej Square was dedicated to the king by the city of Cambridge in 1990 in a ceremony attended by Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, the youngest daughter of Bhumibol. Two years later, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited the square for a rededication. A monument, featuring a plaque detailing the king's local connection, was installed in 2003 by KTBF and the city. 

"Typically, Cambridge pays great respect to people who identify with the city," said Joseph A. Milano, consul general of Thailand in Boston, who came up with the proposal to name a square for the king after spending time in Bangkok in the 1980s. He paused to offer condolences to nearby Thai students. "He was just so beloved." 

Among the crowd were Jon and Oy Zivan and their daughter, Zippy. Jon, a Boston native, said he hadn't known that his hometown was the birthplace of King Bhumibol until he met his Thai-born wife. Now, "for me, it's a little bit of Boston pride." 

"It's a little connection," added Oy, who has lived in Boston for roughly a decade. "And that brings people a little closer somehow."

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