Bhumibol and Sirikit strolling through Lausanne with their children in 1960.
Bhumibol and Sirikit strolling through Lausanne with their children in 1960. Archive Yves Debraine

The ‘Vaudois’ King of Thailand

Bhumibol, the King of Thailand, lived in the canton of Vaud for 17 years. In his adopted home he experienced two strokes of fate which strongly impacted on his subsequent reign as a long-lived head of state.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

On 4 October 1948, a Fiat Topolino was racing along the main road through the canton between Lausanne and Morges. The reckless driver, who was known as a speeder and is reputed to have driven to Geneva at 140 kilometres per hour in other vehicles, smashed into a truck. The little Fiat was a total write-off, but the driver was very lucky: he escaped with his life, although he was marked by this accident. The driver involved in the accident was 21-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, the designated King of Thailand. The future monarch lost an eye in the accident in Vaud, and from then on had to live with a glass eye and some facial paralysis. But a frequent visitor at his hospital bedside was a friend, 16-year-old Sirikit, daughter of the Thai ambassador in Paris. In the unanimous opinion of friend and foe, she was considered a ravishing beauty. While he was still recovering in the Lausanne clinic, Bhumibol and Sirikit grew closer, and they subsequently became engaged and got married.
Bhumibol and his fiancée Sirikit in Pully in 1949.
Bhumibol and his fiancée Sirikit in Pully in 1949. Dukas / RDB

Abrupt end to the happy years in Pully

Bhumibol had moved to Lausanne with his mother and two siblings in 1933, at the age of five. His father had died of kidney failure in 1929. With his big brother Ananda, then heir to the throne and later king of Thailand, the little prince attended the private Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande in the Lausanne district of Chailly, while his sister Galyani went to a girls’ school. Contemporaries remember that the royal children were like everyone else, with no preferential treatment. The family lived first in the city at Avenue Auguste-Tissot 16 and then in the nearby Villa Vadhana at Chemin de Chamblandes 51 in Pully. It was a time that Bhumibol referred to often and fondly as the “most untroubled, happiest years of his life”.
Family photo with Bhumibol in the middle, 1929.
Family photo with Bhumibol in the middle, 1929. Wikimedia
Bhumibol on his bicycle in front of Villa Vadhana in Pully, where the family lived, early 1940s.
Bhumibol on his bicycle in front of Villa Vadhana in Pully, where the family lived, early 1940s. Swiss National Museum / ASL
But two years before the car accident, something terrible happened. His closest confidante, playmate and beloved brother Ananda had gone to Thailand, and was found dead of a gunshot wound in his room one morning. An assassination? An accident while handling his gun? A suicide? The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear.
Portrait of King Ananda in Pully, his adopted home. He had been crowned King of Thailand in 1935, but spent most of his time in Switzerland.
Portrait of King Ananda in Pully, his adopted home. He had been crowned King of Thailand in 1935, but spent most of his time in Switzerland. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Bhumibol’s whole life changed abruptly. Having until then grown up in the king’s slipstream and far from their homeland, Bhumibol was suddenly thrust into the spotlight: he was the heir to the throne and future king of Thailand. The tragedy became the defining drama of the prince’s personal life; as he himself later said, he never really recovered from this terrible shock. His subjects said that he was never again seen smiling properly, much less laughing! Overnight, the happy-go-lucky teenager from Lausanne had become the grieving King of Thailand. Bhumibol thus experienced two dramatic and formative events during his years in Switzerland: the car accident as a result of which he got to know his wife, and the untimely death of his brother with his own subsequent sideways step onto the throne.
The brothers Ananda and Bhumibol in 1946, shortly before Ananda’s mysterious death.
The brothers Ananda and Bhumibol in 1946, shortly before Ananda’s mysterious death. Wikimedia

Staunch believer in Switzerland’s education system

Bhumibol wished to gain as much as he could from the Swiss education system before being crowned king. He studied law and political science at the University of Lausanne, and also spent a semester learning about the teachings of Karl Marx – “the exact opposite”, he later said, “of what my people need”. He didn’t manage to complete his university degree, because the car accident referred to above intervened; in addition, his presence was required in Thailand. In 1950 he returned to Thailand, got married and, as duty and his people demanded, ascended the octagonal throne in the magnificent Grand Palace in Bangkok. He was 23 years old, and had spent 17 of those years in Switzerland. Not surprisingly, at that stage he spoke French more fluently than Thai. Just a year after ascending the throne, he went back to Lausanne: Sirikit and Bhumibol’s first child, their daughter Ubol Ratana, was born in the Vaud city.
Wedding and coronation of the King of Thailand, 1950. YouTube
Back in Bangkok again, Thailand’s royal couple were the recipients of unparalleled exaltation, acclaim and veneration – worlds away from their lives in democratic Switzerland. Bhumibol was given the epithet ‘the Great’, and was revered as a demigod. During his reign he lived through 18 coups, 23 prime ministers and 16 constitutional amendments. In the face of political unrest, the ‘Great King’ seemed to float above it all.

Longest state visit of all time

The King of Thailand continued to have a close relationship with Vaud. In 1960 Bhumibol came to Switzerland for an official state visit. Because he stayed for seven months, this visit has gone down in history as probably the longest state visit of all time. The Thai royals lived temporarily at the Villa du Flonzaley in Puidoux-Chexbres and travelled from there to visit Queen Elizabeth II, King Baudouin of Belgium, the French President Charles de Gaulle and Pope John XXIII. In 1964, the ‘Great’ took another trip back to his second home. He visited the national exhibition Expo 64. It was to be Bhumibol’s last visit to Switzerland.
The pavilion of the King of Thailand in Denantou Park in Lausanne.
The pavilion of the King of Thailand in Denantou Park in Lausanne. Wikimedia
However, the Thai king continued to maintain his association with Switzerland, and especially Vaud, until his death in 2016. In 2005 he gifted the city of Lausanne a valuable pavilion, to mark his diamond jubilee – 60 years on the throne – and the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Switzerland. Glittering in gold, the pavilion is built in the Jaturamuk style and, with its area of six by six meters, resembles a miniature version of the Thai Royal Palace. Today it stands in Denantou Park in Lausanne, and commemorates the special relationship between Thailand’s royal family and the Vaud region.

The Royals are coming

13.03.2021 03.10.2021 / Forum Schweizer Geschichte Schwyz
The list of royal visitors to Switzerland is long – and equally impressive: Emperor Wilhelm II, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Elizabeth, Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, and Queen Victoria. These are some of the many crowned heads who have visited Switzerland. Their reasons for doing are so as varied as their backgrounds. Whether for a state visit, rest and recreation, or even exile, crowned heads have long favoured Switzerland as a destination. The exhibition reflects the diversity of royal visitors to Switzerland and features fascinating stories and impressive mementos of their time here.

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