BANGKOK • Thousands of Thais streamed through the gates of Bangkok's Grand Palace yesterday as the public was granted its first chance to enter the throne hall where the body of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej is lying in state.
The King, who died at 88 two weeks ago, is adored by many and seen as an anchor of stability in a kingdom rocked by political turmoil.
His passing has thrust the country into a year of official mourning, many Thais wearing only black and white since his death and TV channels giving hours of airtime to footage from his 70-year reign.
For the past two weeks, crowds have massed outside the Grand Palace to pay tribute before a portrait of the late monarch.
But yesterday was the first time the public has been allowed to enter the throne hall where his body is lying in a coffin, out of sight, near a gilded urn.
"I have been waiting here since 1am," said Mr Saman Daoruang, 84, in a massive queue around a large field outside the palace.
Like many in the crowd, he camped out under a tent, having arrived in Bangkok by train from northern Nakhon Sawan province.
"But I wasn't able to sleep because I was so thrilled and proud to come here," he told AFP, clutching several portraits of the monarch.
An initial plan to limit visitors to 10,000 per day was dropped yesterday after crowds swelled to 100,000, according to a monitoring centre outside the palace.
"I'm prepared now to go in and pay my respects to our late king because this will be the last time for us to express our sorrow," said mourner Waewwan Iimsud, 42.
Daily religious rites are taking place in the hall and senior members of the royal family have taken turns attending them daily, amid chanting by Buddhist monks.
The bodies of high-ranking Thai royals used to be placed in a golden urn. But palace officials said that tradition would no longer upheld.
Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd urged people "not to rush to come in the early days" as the throne hall would be open for "a long time".
Thailand's arch-royalist military government, which came to power in a 2014 coup, has encouraged mass displays of devotion for the late King and arranged a flurry of free bus, train and boat rides to move mourners to the capital.
It has also stepped up its enforcement of lese majeste - a law punishing criticism of the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison per infringement.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS