BANGKOK – Thousands upon thousands of devoted Thais feted their 84-year-old monarch Friday on his first trip outside the capital in almost three years, a period marked by his ailing health and national political turmoil
The elaborate tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the old capital of Ayutthaya was a celebration of values and unity overshadowed in recent years by the turmoil.
Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, actively worked for decades on behalf of the country's poor but has almost disappeared from public life since he was hospitalized in September 2009 for what the palace called a lung inflammation.
Since then he has had a variety of ailments and has lived in a royal wing of Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital, leaving only on rare occasions and always in a wheelchair.
Friday's highlight was to be a visit to a rice paddy that the king also toured in 1996 and was part of a royal project to mitigate flooding in Ayutthaya. The devastating floods last year submerged much of Ayutthaya, damaging ancient temples, crops and hundreds of factories.
The Ayutthaya area is fraught with historical significance as the country's capital three centuries ago that was sacked by invaders from neighboring Burma.
The king's first stop was at a statue of Queen Suriyothai, a consort of an Ayutthaya-era king who sacrificed her life in battle with the Burmese to save her husband. Bhumibol handed over a garland from his van for an official to place before the statue.
The king left his van at the next stop, a specially constructed royal hall, where Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra paid her respects with a short speech declaring her devotion.
Controversy involving Yingluck's brother has put in jeopardy the once unchallenged reputation of the monarchy.
Elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup in 2006 that many believed was sanctioned by the royal palace, and subsequent sometimes violent tussling between his supporters and opponents opened a debate on the political role of the monarchy.
Thaksin's critics had charged he had sought to usurp royal power, while his supporters believed that the old power-holders, circles around the palace in alliance with the military and others, sought to suppress democracy to preserve their own privilege.
As unprecedented debate raged — muted publicly by a harsh law banning criticism of the monarchy — the king's frail health caused him to distance himself from public affairs. Overzealous attempts to defend the monarchy's reputation by suppressing criticism only inspired new questions over its place.
However, politics was pushed aside Friday for pageantry and displays of devotion by the huge numbers of ordinary Thais who crowded roadsides to see the only monarch most of them have lived under. The king came to the throne in 1946.
A parade staged for the king recalled a much earlier era, with people in period costumes marching along with nine elephants decked in glittering regalia. The show at one point included two warriors on elephant-back staging a mock battle, as well as performances of traditional music and dance, performed in the dramatic dusk light.
Dressed in a military uniform, Bhumibol earlier was wheeled from the hospital and into a white van adapted to accommodate his wheelchair.
He, Queen Sirikit and one of their daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, were driven past crowds of people waving Thai flags and the yellow royal flag as police outriders stopped traffic to let the king pass.
People dressed in yellow and pink — colors associated with the monarch — lined the roads from Bangkok to the country's central plains hours before the royal convoy was due to pass.
The palace has given little explanation for the trip, though farming is closely integrated into national tradition and the king closely associated with it.
It likely serves as a chance to publicize the king's improved health — a matter of such public interest that a Bangkok newspaper carried a front-page headline Thursday that stated: "His Majesty The King Takes 50 Steps Without His Cane."
As far as could be seen Friday, he used a wheelchair.