Late Thai King's cremation

Grand send-off

Thousands of mourners line cremation procession route to bid farewell to beloved monarch

It was 4am. At one security checkpoint near Bangkok's Grand Palace early yesterday, ushers were trying to hold back hundreds of mourners trying to get up close to the route of the royal cremation procession.

But as officials had stopped admitting people, the swelling crowd crammed into every nook and cranny in front of the barricades so they could be sure they would be the first to enter should the officials change their minds.

Inside the procession area, thousands of people were just stirring from sleeping in the open for a second night.

A faint pong of sweat hung in the air as men brushed their teeth by shallow drains and women applied lipstick in the dark.

Even under these rather challenging conditions, they wanted to look their best to send off their beloved monarch, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Military-ruled Thailand declared a year of mourning after the 88-year-old king died in October last year. Since then, more than 12 million people have queued up at the Grand Palace to pay their respects to King Bhumibol, whose body was kept in a coffin, near a glittering royal urn.

Mourners prostrating themselves in an act of reverence to King Bhumibol as the royal urn arrived at the crematorium. Many people slept in the open for days and camped out on sidewalks to secure a viewing spot for the ceremony. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EPA-EFE

Later in the morning, the empty urn would be transported to the crematorium via an elaborate procession involving more than 4,000 troops. His body had been reportedly moved to the crematorium before the ceremony. But such arrangements mattered little to the mourners.

"He will always be with us," Ms Thanittha Prompatima, a 38-year-old architect, told The Straits Times as she sat patiently on a thin mat near Wat Pho, a famous temple by the Grand Palace.

Days before the event, officials had instructed mourners not to shout "long live the king", a standard phrase that is uttered in the presence of a monarch.

The mourners dutifully kept their silence when the urn came into view and was carefully raised onto a two-century-old chariot that glimmered in the morning rays.

There were red eyes and stifled sobs as the chariot started inching its way forward to a solemn tune.

One tearful woman brought her palms together as a sign of respect towards the passing royal urn, while keeping her eyes on a picture of King Bhumibol carefully balanced on her lap.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, dressed in a ceremonial military uniform, walked behind the urn, followed closely by his siblings and children.

Elsewhere in the capital and around the country, mourners queued for hours to offer sandalwood flowers, a traditional item burned during cremations.

Dressed in black long-sleeved Thai costumes, they did not budge in the searing heat, nor did they try to escape the downpour that hit the capital in the afternoon.

"I come here today to send the King off to heaven, together with other people here, to show him that Thais are united," Ms Thawanrat Winitwatthanakhun told The Straits Times.

"We will stand together, and what he has worked for, for his whole life, will not be forgotten," added the 52-year-old teacher,

As the sun waned, dignitaries as well as royalty from all over the world, including Bhutan, Tonga, Singapore, Britain, Spain and Japan, gathered at the resplendent crematorium complex built from scratch on an open field in just one year.

One by one, they climbed the steps of the tallest of nine pavilions of the complex and laid funeral flowers by a royal sandalwood urn.

"I believe that everyone now is in the same state of mind," went the narration that accompanied the live footage of the ceremony broadcast on every television channel.

"We must go on with our lives, but do our duties to the best of our abilities."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'Grand send-off'. Print Edition | Subscribe