A sea of black-clad mourners massed across Bangkok’s historic heart early this morning as funeral rituals began for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a revered monarch whose passing after a seven-decade reign has left Thailand bereft of its chief unifying figure.
As dawn broke, an estimated 200,000 Thais had gathered around the Grand Palace to bid an emotional farewell to a monarch known as “father of the nation”, silently packing the pavements, many clutching portraits of the beloved late king.
The golden spires of a spectacular $90 million cremation site, purpose-built for the funeral, were bathed in light as Bhumibol’s son and heir, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, joined Buddhist monks to start a day of sombre processions, colourful pageantry and religious ceremony.
Vajiralongkorn will light the funeral pyre tonight at 10pm (1500 GMT) as his father, Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, is laid to rest.
The ceremony will be attended by a “Who’s Who” of Thai power — royals, generals and establishment figures — as well as scores of foreign dignitaries.
The lavish event gives the public a chance to say goodbye to a king who was crowned in 1950 and towered over decades of Thai history, before his death last October at age 88.
But Bhumibol’s intimate connection with his subjects was on ready display Thursday as Thais from across the country waited near the cremation site.
“He was perfect. He helped the country and Thai people so much. Seventy million Thai people are united in their love for him,” said 65-year-old Wacharadej Tangboonlabkun, who like most Thais knew no other monarch before Bhumibol’s death.
The death of a figure of constancy in a politically combustible country has dipped the kingdom into uncertainty.
“There’s no more a father who only gave to his children,” Kingkan Kuntavee, 47, told AFP.
Bhumibol leaves behind one of the world’s richest monarchies, which stands at the apex of one of Southeast Asia’s most unequal societies.
The new king, who wore full military regalia early Thursday and was attended to by kneeling palace aides as he started funeral rituals, will be crowned after his father is laid to rest.
Aged just 18 when he ascended the throne, the US-born Bhumibol became the fulcrum of the monarchy.
The crown flourished with heavy US backing as Washington sought a bulwark against the spread of Communism across Southeast Asia.
Thais have donned black for much of the last year in a remarkable outpouring of grief, which officially ends on October 30.
They are expected to wear colourful clothes at the conclusion of the rites, which celebrate the king’s ascent to Mount Meru, the centre of the universe in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology.
*This story has been edited to comply with Thailand’s les majeste law.