They’ve been prime ministers and plumbers, senators and street sweepers, ambassadors and movie stars, taxi drivers and transvestites.
And all have been blue bloods--members of probably the largest and most complex royal family in the world.
At its head is King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, who will celebrate 50 years on the throne next year. He’s regarded as semi-divine by some of his subjects and held in highest regard by virtually everyone for his work on behalf of Thailand’s have-nots.
Unlike British royalty, who are considered fair game by London’s tabloid press, Thailand’s constitutional monarch and his immediate family are treated with utmost deference. Slights are considered a grave matter that can result in a prison term.
It’s a different story for the 130 other branches of the family, with 98 princes and princesses, and thousands of descendants of the country’s nine kings. They have braved the bruising world of politics, suffered the scandals of high society and been the targets of newspapers.
In August, Prince Thitipan Ukol, 60-year-old cousin of the king and fifth in line to the throne, was found dead in his palace. An autopsy found poison. Suspicion focused on the woman he adopted as a child, seduced as a 12-year-old and eventually made his wife.
Two warring tabloids, Khao Sod and Thai Rath, have been dueling for dirt on the rocky relationship between the prince and his 25-year-old wife. She ran off several times with younger men. One paper says his death was suicide; the other says it was murder.
“Gossiping about the royals is a very popular sport in Thailand,” says Colin Hastings, managing editor of the Thailand Tattler, a magazine that covers high society. “Talking about the immediate royal family is so restricted, but the other layers are accessible.”
The sheer size of the family makes it that way, says Jeffrey Finestone, who researches Asian and European royalty.
“You could quite conceivably walk into any office or restaurant and the person you encounter . . . could be a great-great-grandson of the first or second kings,” he says.
The royal family is so large because Thai kings were polygamous until early this century. King Mongkut, or Rama IV, who was caricatured in the 1956 Hollywood film “The King and I,” had 56 wives and 82 children. King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, the last polygamous king, who died in 1910, had 92 wives and 77 children.
Children of a king have the title Phra Ong Chao and grandchildren are known as Mom Chao. A great-grandchild is a Mom Ratchawongse, or M.R., and a great-great-grandchild is a Mom Luang, or M.L.
The titles end with Mom Luang. After that, descendants of kings may affix a “na Ayudhya” to their surname to indicate their lineage.
Many members of the extended royal family have served the nation with distinction, including the brothers M.R. Seni Pramoj and M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Both were prime ministers.
Seni was ambassador to the United States at the time of Pearl Harbor and refused to deliver Japanese-allied Thailand’s declaration of war against the United States.
Kukrit, who died in October at 84, was known as “the pillar of Thai democracy.” He also starred with Marlon Brando in the 1962 movie “The Ugly American” and led a renowned troupe of classical Thai dancers.
M.R. Prom Chakrapai had a prominent role in the 1957 Academy Award-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” M.R. Suriyavan Suriwongse was a popular martial arts movie actress, and M.R. Tanadtsi Svastivatana is a television personality known for his gourmet cooking show and noodle commercials.
One late Mom Chao was known to be a transvestite who occasionally roamed Patpong, the notorious sex-and-sin strip. Another M.R. owns one of the largest massage parlors in Bangkok.
“We may have blue blood, but we’re not all wealthy,” says M.R. Malinee Chakrabandhu, a columnist for the newspaper Siam Rath. “Many of us work for a living.”
Malinee remembers meeting a grandson of a king at school when she was a child. The Mom Chao was the school’s plumber.
One branch of the family produced several taxi drivers, and one M.R. who fell on hard times became a street sweeper in Bangkok. He won an award as the city’s best, but the publicity embarrassed his wife and she left him.
“Even if you work like a peasant, you must keep up your dignity and your rank,” Malinee says.