The giant portraits erected in plazas and on street corners across Thailand usually show him as a younger man, clad in a fitted military uniform, his face unlined and hair jet-black.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn is now 66 years old and graying. Yet the official photos have until now represented among the only public signs of the zealously private monarch, who has rarely appeared before his 69 million subjects since assuming the throne when his father died 2½ years ago.
That will change when Vajiralongkorn is officially crowned in three days of elaborate ceremonies beginning on Saturday, the first coronation in this Southeast Asian kingdom in nearly seven decades.
The royal rites — inspired by Buddhist and Hindu traditions and organized at a cost of more than $30 million, officials said — are aimed at bolstering the monarchy’s position as the most powerful institution in Thai life.
The only coronation that most Thais are likely to see in their lifetimes, it’s also designed to unite a politically divided country before the announcement May 9 of the results of the first election since a 2014 military coup. A party backed by the ruling military junta, which is believed to have the king’s support, is angling to form a government, but opposition parties claim to have won a majority of parliamentary seats.
At precisely 10:09 a.m. Saturday, a time deemed auspicious by royal astrologers, the king will take a purification bath with waters collected from across the country and blessed by Brahmin priests, then sit atop a gilded throne to receive a golden plaque, regalia and ceremonial weapons, according to a schedule released by the government public relations department.
The ceremonies are due to continue over the next two days with a procession to a series of Buddhist temples — in which soldiers will carry the king in a palanquin in temperatures forecast to reach 96 degrees — and a public appearance by the monarch from a balcony of the Grand Palace.
There is little pushback against the pageantry and hidebound rituals; criticizing the royal family is a criminal offense. Some international news channels have been partially blocked in Thailand in recent days to prevent the airing of information that could potentially be insulting to the king.
Tens of thousands of government employees and Thais dressed in yellow, the color of the king, are expected to line the roads of central Bangkok for a glimpse of the monarch, who will reign as King Rama X of the Chakri dynasty.
“Both as king and crown prince, he has not made as many public appearances,” said Bruce Lockhart, an associate professor and expert on Thailand at the National University of Singapore.
“The coronation is a chance to be among the people in a way that he has not.”
His father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the name Rama IX, ruled Thailand for nearly seven decades and was revered as a godlike figure who displayed a common touch. His death in 2016 sparked a long national mourning period, which was part of the reason Vajiralongkorn delayed his coronation.
Vajiralongkorn has shown little appetite for the public aspects of his position, continuing to spend much of his time at villas he owns in Germany. He remains an enigma to many Thais, with a colorful but closely guarded private life whose details occasionally spill into public view.
On Wednesday, the palace abruptly announced that the king had married his longtime consort, a former flight attendant named Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, and promoted her to Queen Suthida.
Many Thais were surprised to turn on the television and see the broadcast of a ceremony in which the new queen, wearing a traditional pink silk dress, prostrated herself before her somber husband, who anointed her with holy water as a retinue of men in white military-style uniforms looked on.
It was the king’s fourth marriage. He has seven children, four of whom are not recognized by the palace and live overseas after he fell out with his second wife and members of her family were jailed for insulting the monarchy.
Suthida, who is reported to be 40, first came into public view about three years ago and had been given the title of deputy commander of the king’s security detail. Military ranks have been bestowed on members of the royal family before; as crown prince, Vajiralongkorn famously appointed as Air Chief Marshal his pet dog Foo Foo, an irrepressible poodle who once jumped onto a table at a royal gala and lapped from the U.S. ambassador’s water glass.
As king, Vajiralongkorn has signaled he intends to use his powers expansively.
He changed a newly written constitution to remove the requirement to appoint a regent to oversee royal matters when the king is overseas, which would make it easier for him to rule from Germany.
He also packed loyalists in the privy council, a sort of royal advisory board, and took full control of the Crown Property Bureau, an agency that manages the monarchy’s vast real estate, banking and other assets valued in the tens of billions of dollars, making him one of the world’s wealthiest rulers.
This year, the king asserted his authority over the election process in ways that were unusual for a monarchy that has long tried to portray itself as above politics.
In February, his elder sister attempted to run as the prime ministerial candidate for an opposition party backed by fugitive tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, a sometime adversary of the king. In an unusual late-night decree, Vajiralongkorn forbade his sister from running; the party was later banned for actions deemed hostile to the monarchy.
Then, on the eve of the election, he called on Thai voters to support “good people,” which was widely seen as an endorsement of the military-backed party led by the incumbent prime minister, former Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The moves signal a king who doesn’t intend to remain in his father’s shadow.
“His father left very big shoes, and the king is aware of being a very different man from his father,” Lockhart said. “He wants to find a balance between being his own man and also earning a degree of the respect that his father enjoyed.”