The incredible longevity of his reign, which began in 1946, meant that he came to represent a number of different roles in the lives of his subjects. More recently, he had been the steadying force in a nation that seemed sometimes to teeter on a political edge. But in 1960, as he and Queen Sirikit of Thailand prepared for an official state visit to the United States, he was an image of vitality and new hope for the future in a country that had only been called Thailand for about a decade. When the royal couple gave LIFE Magazine’s John Dominis an invitation to photograph them at home, those images offered American readers a glimpse at the royal couple in the prime of life.
Dominis spent time with them at their daughter’s birthday party, followed the Queen on official business and also saw the King—who had a passion for music, specifically jazz—playing the clarinet.
Soon after, TIME reported on how the U.S. visit progressed:
The most influential man in Siam, namely its king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, 32, and his svelte, archfeminist queen, Sirikit, 27, dropped into Washington for a friendly visit. They were well received—what with some of the rebuffs that the personalized spearheads of U.S. foreign policy have suffered in the Far East lately. In fact, the capital was delighted with the wide-eyed couple and their unabashed liking for the U.S. At National Airport, Bhumibol, born in the environs of Harvard University, where his father studied medicine, paid tribute to his “two motherlands.” That evening at the White House, the King swapped recipes with Dwight Eisenhower for Thailand noodle soup and Ike’s ice cream. While the cookery talk went on, the U.S. Marine Band orchestra accommodated its listeners with a Thai march, composed by His Majesty, who is a jazz buff. Not on the program: songs from the Thai-strung The King and I, disliked by Bhumibol because he regards the musical as a slur upon his lusty ancestor. Addressing a joint session of Congress next day, the King set a new high in expressing appreciation for U.S. foreign-assistance funds. Said he candidly: “We are grateful for American aid. But we intend one day to do without it.”
He was, TIME explained in a 1966 cover story about the King, a prime example of a leader who was not only revered by his people but also a true political asset for his nation: “[The] men who run Thailand are well aware that their youthful King is their—and the nation’s—greatest living asset.”