Mourners still gather as workers build late Thai king's crematorium

A conservation expert from the National Museum of Thailand refurbishing the Royal Chariot, which will be used for the late Thai king's royal cremation ceremony. No date has yet been set for his cremation.
A conservation expert from the National Museum of Thailand refurbishing the Royal Chariot, which will be used for the late Thai king's royal cremation ceremony. No date has yet been set for his cremation.PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Kris Sombut, an English-speaking volunteer, stands at Sanam Luang's main gate in central Bangkok helping to direct traffic for locals and tourists arriving at the site.

Sanam Luang, to the north of the Grand Palace, has recently been the focus of ongoing construction for the 1 billion baht (S$40 million) royal crematorium for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

A blessing ceremony will be held today to erect the crematorium's main pillar. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to attend.

Rain did not deter mourners yesterday. At the site, barriers, tents and scaffolding sit side by side with portable toilets. Police, nurses and doctors are on standby, as are student volunteers doing rounds to collect rubbish.

Around 30,000 people pay their respects daily to the much-beloved king, who died on Oct 13 last year. Thailand is observing a one-year mourning period.

"The wait was six to eight hours in the first few weeks, but now it takes only two to three hours, since many have already come here to pay their respects," Mr Sombut told The Straits Times.

But there are visitors, like Mr Woraseth, 47, who have been going to Sanam Luang every day since the king died.

"I love the king and I think everyone thinks like me. That's why they come here," he said.

Tourists in brightly coloured shirts - in stark contrast with local mourners' funereal garb - would occasionally wander by the gate.

"Tourism hasn't really been affected," said Mr Sombut, who used to work as a tour guide.

"Before, foreigners would come in and wait along with the locals, and complain about the long wait hours. They thought they were queueing to enter the Grand Palace."

The elaborate royal crematorium for the late monarch will be the tallest of similar structures since the reign of King Chulalongkorn, who died in 1910.

Since the Thai monarchy is heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, the crematorium is designed to symbolise Mount Meru - the centre of the Buddhist universe - and will be 50.49m high.

It will be surrounded by eight pavilions with pointed roofs, representing Mount Meru's surrounding mountains, and the pillars will bear Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.

The structure is set to be finished by the end of September, but a date for the cremation has not been set.

After the cremation, the late king's ashes will be taken to the Grand Palace and enshrined at one of the Buddhist temples there.

"That will be a very sad day," said Ms Nok Chutamas, 42, referring to the day the king's remains are cremated.

"It has been completely different (since he died). Many Thais are not sure about the future. It's really quite complicated to express our sadness with words."

She added that the late king's legacy was "how he dedicated his life for his people".

"He dedicated so much for his country. That's why his passing away has made a great impact on us," she said.

Thailand's most recent cremation ceremony was for the late king's sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, in November 2009. It took 11 months to prepare the 300 million baht crematorium, which was used for six days and dismantled afterwards.

Sanam Luang has been the only royal cremation ground since the founding of Bangkok more than 200 years ago.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Mourners still gather as workers build late Thai king's crematorium'. Print Edition | Subscribe