Celebration fit for a beloved king
As he celebrated his birthday seven months ago, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej told his subjects he accepted criticism.
'When you say the king can do no wrong, that is wrong,' he told a nation that still keeps laws banning insults against royalty. 'As a matter of fact there should be criticism, because when we do something we want to know if people agree or disagree.'
Wandering around Bangkok this week, it seemed criticism was the last thing on the minds of Thais, rich and poor, ahead of celebrations starting today to mark the king's 60th year on the throne - the world's longest reigning constitutional monarch.
Thais may be proud of their hard-won, if troubled, democracy, but their pride in the king they believe has nurtured those freedoms reaches into another realm altogether.
Fresh portraits are being hung in shops, noodle houses and homes, and the capital is being emblazoned in royal yellow, with flags rippling from cars, buses and buildings.
Trade in yellow T-shirts marking the event is running so hot that supplies are running out and government officials are investigating profiteering claims.
The continuing political drama - Thailand is gearing up for another election in October after the results of April's snap poll were annulled - has served to highlight the king's role in the eyes of many. Sticking within constitutional bounds, he expressed concern at the electoral impasse and insisted the courts find a solution.
'There is a lot to celebrate this week,' said Bangkok rice trader Suchit Somsavanij. 'This year has showed us again that the king is all we've got standing between good sense and anarchy.'
The five days of pageantry is one of Asia Pacific's biggest gathering of international royalty in decades. The event will be attended by royal representatives from 23 nations - including 13 monarchs.
They include Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and one of the world's richest men, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah. The king will address the nation tomorrow.
The biggest event comes on Monday night, when Thailand's ancient royal barges will sail down the rain-swollen Chao Phraya, the 'River of Kings', that bisects the capital.
The procession will involve 52 ornately carved barges paddled by more than 2,000 oarsmen. The king will ride in a central barge, observed by an audience of royal guests.
Diplomatic observers said the events reflected various elements of King Bhumibol's reign. The signs of widespread support from the people marked his years of efforts to reach out to the rural poor and disenfranchised.
The pageantry, meanwhile, reflected a king who had consciously sought to rebuild and restore faith in the institutional trappings of Thai royalty.
Being thrust onto the throne aged just 19 after the still unexplained death of his brother, King Bhumibol began his reign 20 years after the absolute monarchy fell to a coup.
He swiftly restored the ceremonial barge processions - an ancient royal tradition.
'This is very definitely the king's party,' one diplomatic observer said. 'And the people love it.'
Tomorrow: The family business