Photo: Bright lights, big city.

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej Day

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Update: King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away at the age of 89 on 13 October 2016. His birthday remains a national holiday in Thailand, but will be far more somber and subdued than in previous years.

Doubling as Father’s Day, the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) on December 5 is one of Thailand’s most important holidays. Although celebrated throughout the kingdom, festivities are centered around Bangkok‘s Ratchadamnoen Road from Democracy Monument to the Grand Palace. Being among the throngs of Thai people as they honour the King is an enchanting experience — and it’s a chance to see the Grand Palace for free.

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Swept up in the Kingdom.

Swept up in the kingdom.

King Bhumibol's 87th birthday in December 2014 increased his title not only of the longest reigning Thai king in history, but also the world's current longest reigning monarch. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927, he ascended the throne way back in 1946. Suffice it to say, this is no ordinary king.

A young King Bhumibol is portrayed comforting one of his subjects.

A young King Bhumibol is portrayed comforting one of his subjects.

Far more than a ceremonial figurehead, the Thai king is revered by many as a bodhisatta (fully enlightened buddha in a future life) or even a semi-divine being who possesses potent spiritual and moral authority. The mild-mannered king has widely been viewed as a unifying presence throughout his reign. All visitors to Thailand should be aware of the deep level of devotion many Thais feel for their king — to the point that defacing his picture or verbally insulting him (or any of his royal family) could land you in jail. The Kingdom's lese majeste laws call for up to 15 years imprisonment for offenders, though foreigners who break the law usually get off with only deportation.

Every year on December 5, thousands flock to the historic Ratchadamnoen Road, its usual snarling traffic replaced by a twinkling, carnival-like atmosphere. Khom loy (floating fire-powered lanterns) fill the sky as street food vendors line up to satiate the masses. Plan ahead if you need to get to the airport from nearby Khao San Road on the evening of December 5 as this major eight-lane thoroughfare is closed to all traffic save a handful of public buses, and even the side streets will be clogged.

Lantern offerings dot the sky.

Lantern offerings dot the sky.

The king also has a birthday tradition of opening the grounds of his Grand Palace to all people for free between 19:00 and midnight. A range of ceremonies take place throughout the day and into the evening at prominent Bangkok temples like Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Saket, and cultural performances are held at Sanam Luang near the Palace. Note that ceremonies at Wat Phra Kaew are closed to the public before 19:00 on December 5, as is the entire Grand Palace complex.

This is an easy festival to get to if you’re staying in the backpacker district around Khao San, but a difficult one if coming from elsewhere in the city. Be sure to depart before the sun goes down if coming by taxi or express boat and expect to huff it a good three kilometres from National Stadium BTS station if making your way here after dark, as traffic in the direction of Ratchadamnoen will be at a standstill. The celebrations take place all day long, although it’s most lively in the evening.

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