BANGKOK - Thailand on Wednesday (Oct 25) marked the start of a lavish, five-day funeral for King Bhumibol Adulyadej with a Buddhist religious ceremony attended by senior members of its royal family.
King Bhumibol, who died last year aged 88, will be cremated on Thursday on a royal pyre within a cremation complex of gold pavilions in front of Bangkok's Grand Palace, in a ceremony that is expected to draw about 250,000 mourners.
Thailand has observed a year of mourning for King Bhumibol, who was regarded as a pillar of stability during a reign of seven decades that witnessed political upheaval and rapid development in the South-east Asian nation.
"It's overwhelming," one mourner, 60-year-old Aporn Wongdee, who hails from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, told Reuters."I've been here for two days already and I want to see our father to heaven."
A sum of US$90 million has been set aside for the funeral, the likes of which has never been seen in Thailand, officials involved in the funeral preparations said.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as Rama X, who inherited the throne in December on his father's death, arrived at the Grand Palace by car on Wednesday as soldiers dressed in red uniforms and black hats stood to attention, Reuters reported. He was flanked by his two daughters.
Live television images from inside the palace showed the king lighting candles in front of his father's coffin and a symbolic royal urn. The Buddhist funeral ceremony, mixed with Hindu rituals, was attended by 119 Buddhist monks who chanted prayers in the ancient Pali language, Reuters said.
Queues of black-clad mourners, many carrying portraits of the king, snaked around parts of Bangkok's old town, waiting to enter the cremation area. By mid-afternoon, 25,000 mourners had gathered around the cremation site, city police said.
In what is expected to be an emotionally-charged morning, King Bhumibol's body will be moved on Thursday from the Grand Palace to a crematorium in a public square in front, where thousands of people have already pitched tents to ensure places.
On Thursday, three processions will make their way from the palace to the cremation site - a series of specially-erected Thai pavilions that took nearly a year to build. Some Thais have folded flowers of sandalwood paper to be used in the cremation, in the belief that their fragrance guides the soul of the departed to heaven.
The cremation day has been declared a national holiday, when banks will be closed and major shopping centers will be shut from 3pm.
Early birds keen to get a glimpse of the procession had been braving rain and sun for days to camp out on the sidewalks near the nine security checkpoints for the royal crematorium grounds. Some had been armed with nothing more than raincoats and umbrellas as they slept on thin mats on the sidewalk.
By around 4.30 am on Wednesday, thousands had gathered at Pinklao Bridge, one of the checkpoints located near the Grand Palace. All were in black formal attire, while many among them were elderly women.
Royals and dignitaries from more than 40 countries are expected to attend Thursday's ceremony. Those who have arrived included Britain's Prince Andrew, Spain's Queen Sofia and Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Bangkok Post reported.
One of the mourners, 44-year-old Ratchaneenart Sanguansapsiri from Nonthaburi, said that she had been queuing since 8pm on Tuesday night and was glad that she finally made it inside the ceremony grounds.
"It was a long and rainy night, but finally we made it," she said with big smile.
"We understand what we are going to go through, as we still have to wait inside the ceremony grounds for a day, but we are determined to endure this hardship, because all of us want to be a part (of the ceremony) to send our beloved king back to heaven," she said.
Mourners had also joined queues of several kilometres at the other designated sites near the ceremony grounds, reports said.
Night clubs at Phra Arthit road, located near the ceremonial grounds, have also opened the door for mourners to use their toilets for free. Some restaurants on the nightlife street have also provided free snacks and coffee for the people.
Before passing through the screening points, mourners are required to show their identification cards and have their baggage checked. Once inside, officers will then inform them on how to get to the closest screening points.
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.
Roads around the Grand Palace will be closed on Thursday, although some public transport to the site will be made available. While tourists are not expected to don black for the occassion, they have been asked to dress and behave "respectfully".