Thais camp on sidewalks for royal cremation procession

Mourners holding portraits of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej as they wait to take part in the royal cremation ceremony. King Bhumibol died in October last year at the age of 88.
Mourners holding portraits of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej as they wait to take part in the royal cremation ceremony. King Bhumibol died in October last year at the age of 88.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Late King to be cremated tomorrow in a lavish ceremony that will span 5 days

When Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in October last year, Ms Supitta Tolumthanapisarn was among the grieving masses who lined the streets of Bangkok as the authorities transferred his body from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace.

She visited the Grand Palace seven times over the past year, as the king's body lay in state during the official mourning period.

Yesterday - two days before the revered monarch's body is due to be cremated - she joined crowds of mourners camping out on the sidewalks near security checkpoints at the royal crematorium grounds.

The kingdom is sending off the late monarch in a lavish ceremony, involving a morning procession that will transport the royal urn to a purpose-built crematorium in the heart of Bangkok.

Even though the crematorium area is accessible to procession-viewers only from 5am today, mourners have been camped out in front of the checkpoints since Mondayto secure a viewing spot.

The early birds braved rain and sun, some armed with nothing more than raincoats and umbrellas as they slept on thin mats on the sidewalk.

Ms Supitta, a 59-year-old food vendor, arrived at 1pm yesterday with two neighbours, only to realise that most of the footpath ringing the site was occupied. They ended up finding a space on a sidewalk in front of a shuttered shop, where they sat with their provisions of wet tissue, deodorant, ponchos and some food.

"This place is so narrow that it's hard to lie down, but we will stay here," she told The Straits Times. "I am ready to face any difficulty just to see him on the last day."

King Bhumibol is often seen as a unifying figure in the politically riven country who has lent his clout to numerous projects to improve rural livelihoods.

To honour him, the military government has set aside 3 billion baht (S$120 million) for a tightly choreographed five-day send-off starting this afternoon at an elaborate crematorium with spire-roofed pavilions and sculptures of mythical creatures - all created from scratch over the past year.

Tomorrow, the day of the cremation, more than 2,000 artistes will put up traditional Thai performances, as well as play songs King Bhumibol had composed.

In the lead-up to the event, the Thai authorities have issued strict rules for the media and the public. Those watching the procession, for example, have been urged not to bring colourful umbrellas, spectacles and even cellphone covers. Selfie sticks are banned. The media is not allowed to do its own live Facebook broadcasts.

Some mourners like Ms Siripen Srinikon had booked hotel rooms nearby, but gave up the rooms to sleep on the sidewalk to ensure a better view of the procession. Yesterday afternoon, she sat on the sidewalk with her suitcase, which contained a traditional long-sleeved black dress that she intends to wear for the event.

"This is the first time I am doing this, sleeping on the pavement surrounded by the crowd and cars," the 47-year-old businesswoman told The Straits Times.

"But this is the only chance I can get close to him… This is like when you lose your parents and want to be close to them for the last time," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Thais camp on sidewalks for royal cremation procession'. Print Edition | Subscribe