BANGKOK - Marching slow, with deliberate steps to a steady drumbeat, the columns of soldiers hauled the towering chariot down the wide avenue by Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
A thick silence hung over the mass of mourners knelt on the pavement, even though their faces were crumpled in grief. As the carriage passed, they prostrated in unison, in the final act of reverence to who some have hailed as the “king of kings”.
The cremation of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially began on Thursday (Oct 26) with Buddhist religious rites and ceremonial candle-lighting by saffron-robed monks.
“This is the last goodbye,” one tearful visitor, 42-year-old Pimsupak Suthin who travelled from the northern province of Nan to attend the function, told Reuters.
“I really love and miss him. It is very difficult to describe.”
King Bhumibol, also known as King Rama IX, died last October aged 88 after ruling for seven decades. Since then, artisans have transformed an open field next to Bangkok’s Grand Palace into a gilded crematorium with spire-roofed pavilions and dotted with sculptures of mythical creatures, as a symbol of Mount Meru, the cosmic dwelling of gods.
At the start of the ceremony, officials dressed in blue and orange removed a symbolic golden urn from the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall and carried it through the streets to a 50-metre-high royal crematorium in a nearby square.
The king’s body had been moved to the cremation area on Wednesday night from the palace, where it had been lying in state since his death. New King Maha Vajiralongkorn presided over religious chanting in the afternoon prior to the cremation at the royal crematorium, which features nine spires to mark the reign of his father, the ninth member of Thailand’s Chakri Dynasty. One of the late king’s daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, lit candles inside the crematorium. Thailand’s supreme patriarch, Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, led the religious ceremony, urging Thais to follow Buddhist teachings and “look beyond sadness”.
Royalty, heads of state and senior officials from around the world witnessed the ceremony. They included Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Akishino of Japan, Malaysia’s deputy king and Perak sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, Singapore president Halimah Yacob and United States defence secretary James Mattis.
President Halimah told Singapore media in Bangkok that King Bhumibol "is certainly one of the most respected, well-remembered monarchs of the modern era," who laid the foundations for good relations between Thailand and Singapore.
Meanwhile, 68-year-old retired teacher Kanya Bussayapa told The Straits Times: "He worked very hard as a king even though he didn't need to. Our hearts are with him wherever he goes."
Like her, crowds of mourners had arrived more than two days earlier, spending the night on pavements outside the security checkpoints they needed to pass through to enter the cordoned off compound in the historic quarter of Bangkok.
Officials in charge of the ceremony said about 110,000 people had gathered near the cremation area, with 200,000 more nearby.
The realisation of the king’s departure was now sinking in, funeral ceremony volunteer Petchpailin Jaidee, 60, told Reuters. “The cremation makes it real,” she added. “I feel like he is truly gone, and it feels like the sky is falling.”
King Bhumibol, who assumed the throne in 1945 at the age of 18, is often seen as a unifying figure amid Thailand’s political turbulence. His 70-year-reign, buoyed by widespread reverence but also protected by a strict lese majeste law, left the throne at the apex of prestige and wealth.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 65, assumed the throne last December, promising to continue his father’s work.
Beyond the crematorium grounds today, thousands converged around smaller replicas of the royal crematorium as well as LED screens erected nationwide to watch the ceremony.
Thursday’s procession involved the transfer of a golden urn from the Grand Palace to the crematorium. While such urns were used to contain the remains of previous kings, the one paraded today was empty, and instead was used more as a symbol of the former ruler. His body has been kept in a coffin instead.
By the end of the five-day cremation period on Sunday (Oct 29), King Bhumibol’s relics and ashes will be enshrined in the Grand Palace as well two temples in Bangkok. The military government has set aside three billion baht (S$123 million) for the funeral.
Much of the commercial activity in Bangkok and other parts of the country will grind to a halt on Thursday afternoon as businesses like Tesco Lotus hypermarket and even 7-Eleven convenience stores shut to let their employees pay their respects to the late king.
As a final tribute to King Bhumibol, and to mark the end of the year-long mourning period, over 2,000 artistes will kick off 12 hours of public performances, including the traditional khon – or masked drama – as well as puppet shows and musical repertoires featuring the late monarch’s compositions. The performances are scheduled to run overnight and end at 6am on Friday.
The lavish crematorium complex will be completely dismantled after a 30-day exhibition next month.
You can also watch the livesteam here.