Solemn nation prepares to say goodbye to late Thai king

A Thai woman takes a photograph of portraits of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej on display in front of a shopping center in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct 19, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - A cloud of sobriety has descended upon Thailand as the nation prepares to bid King Bhumibol Adulyadej goodbye.

The revered monarch, who died on Oct 13 last year after a long illness, will be cremated next Thursday (Oct 26) in a resplendent complex built from scratch.

In the meantime, chatter on Bangkok's trains has become muted, and lively advertisements replaced by quiet eulogies. Office workers gather around long tables during lunchbreaks, fashioning artificial flowers that will be used as an offering at the pyre. Art galleries and shopping malls are running exhibitions depicting the late monarch.

On Wednesday, his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, blessed and raised a nine-tiered, white and gold sacred regalia at the top of the crematorium to mark its completion. He then presented officials with a flame that would be used during the ceremonies for his father next week.

More than 12 million people have travelled to the Grand Palace over the past year to pay respects at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where King Bhumibol's body has lain in state near a royal urn.

On Thursday - a public holiday - the urn will be carefully transferred to the crematorium in a procession, featuring a two-century old chariot and courtiers and soldiers in traditional dress. By the end of the rituals next Sunday, his relics and ashes will be transferred to the Grand Palace, as well as two temples within the capital.

The Kingdom's military government has spared no effort in planning the multimillion dollar event. There have been two rehearsals so far and another planned for Saturday. Thousands of people have queued up for hours just to catch a glimpse of the dry runs. They included 82-year-old Suparb Mantarawipa, who says he has never missed any royal funeral - or rehearsal - in his entire lifetime.

Officials take part during a funeral rehearsal for late Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct 15, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

"My father came from China," he told The Straits Times. "He put the pictures of all the kings on the altar. He taught us that we must pray to them like we pray to gods."

Strict rules have been set for all those attending the ceremony. The public has been told to dress modestly in black, with jeans, sleeveless tops and slim-fitting clothes disallowed. Female photographers on specially erected stands can wear only skirts - not trousers. Unnatural hair colouring is prohibited.

Major businesses in Bangkok will shutter for at least half a day on Thursday for their employees to mark the cremation. They include hypermarkets like Tesco Lotus and Big C, two major cinema chains, KFC restaurants, and even 7-Eleven convenience stores.

Masses of people are expected to converge near the crematorium site as early as 5am on Wednesday, when entry will be given to 40,000 people on a first-come, first-served basis.

Others who cannot afford the trip to the capital are planning a more quiet tribute for their beloved king closer to home.

Chiang Mai resident Parissa Kanjanakun will travel to the foothill of Doi Suthep, an iconic local mountain, on that morning.

"We will lay our sandalwood flowers there in the morning," she said. "Then we will go back to our house, to watch the cremation ceremony on TV, till the end."

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