Thai mourners brave tropical heat, torrential rain for king's funeral

A royal ceremony to begin moving the remains of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej to his spectacular golden crematorium has begun in the royal quarter of Bangkok.

The ceremony will be followed by three separate and intensely solemn processions involving thousands of troops, a golden palanquin, a chariot and a royal gun carriage to move the royal urn representing Bhumibol’s remains from the Dusit Maha Prasad Throne Hall to the crematorium. Thursday’s journey along a two-kilometre route will take at least three hours and is being watched by tens of thousands of mourners dressed all in black.

Thais have braved tropical heat and torrential downpours to secure street-side vantage points to witness the funeral, which is spread over five days.

About 250,000 people were expected to line the streets to witness elaborate gilded processions that will be broadcast live. The funeral officially begins midafternoon Wednesday with a Buddhist merit-making ceremony in the throne room of the Dusit palace.

“It’s overwhelming,” said one mourner, Aporn Wongdee, 60, who hails from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. “I’ve been here for two days already and I want to see our father to heaven.”

A sum of $ 90 million US has been set aside for the funeral, the likes of which has never been seen in Thailand, officials involved in the funeral preparations said.

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As dawn broke, thousands of people waited on a bridge to attend the funeral of the late king. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as Rama X, who inherited the throne in December on his father’s death, arrived at the Grand Palace by car on Wednesday as soldiers dressed in red uniforms and black hats stood to attention. He was flanked by his two daughters.

Live television images from inside the palace showed the king lighting candles in front of his father’s coffin and a symbolic royal urn.

The Buddhist funeral ceremony, mixed with Hindu rituals, was attended by 119 Buddhist monks who chanted prayers in the ancient Pali language.

Outpouring of grief 

On Thursday, three processions will make their way from the palace to the cremation site — a series of specially erected Thai pavilions that took nearly a year to build.

Some Thais have folded flowers of sandalwood paper to be used in the cremation, in the belief that their fragrance guides the soul of the departed to heaven.

Bhumibol’s death at age 88 on Oct. 13 last year sparked a national outpouring of grief and a year of mourning. More than 12 million people, which represents nearly a fifth of Thailand’s population, visited the palace throne hall where the king’s body has been kept for the past year.

The reverence Bhumibol inspired was in part the result of decades of work by palace officials to rebuild the prestige of the monarchy, which lost its mystique and power after a 1932 coup ended centuries of absolute rule by Thai kings.

APTOPIX Thailand Royal Cremation

A Thai mourner holds a portrait of the late king. (Kittinun Rodsupan/Associated Press)

That effort built an aura of divinity around Bhumibol, who was also protected from criticism by draconian lèse-majesté laws, but the king was also respected for his charitable work, personal modesty and as a symbol of stability in a nation frequently rocked by political turmoil and surrounded by Southeast Asian neighbours beset by colonial and revolutionary strife.

The funeral will be an intensely sombre event but also rich in history and cultural and spiritual tradition. Mourners are allowed to prostrate when royal processions pass but must not shout out “Long Live the King” or hold up mobile phones to take photos or selfies.

Yuwadee Tyler said she had come from Hobart in Australia where she has lived for more than a decade.

“When I know my king is passed away, my heart is broken,” she said. “I am so glad to be here.”

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Mourners shelter from the rain with umbrellas and plastic ponchos while waiting for the funeral on Tuesday night. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Police are trying to calm occasional flare-ups of tension among mourners.

There have been accusations of queue jumping and sharp exchanges between some who have waited hours or travelled from far away.

Volunteers handed out water to offset the tropical heat as the crowded slowly moved through security checks into the historic royal quarter. Portraits of King Bhumibol were held by many in the crowd, and some wore plastic raincoats during the heaviest rains overnight — the only bits of colour breaking up the sea of black as the crowds grew. 

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