BANGKOK (AFP/REUTERS) - Tens of thousands of Thais streamed into Bangkok's Grand Palace on Saturday (Oct 29) as the public was granted its first chance to enter the throne hall where late King Bhumibol Adulyadej is lying in state.
For the past two weeks, crowds have massed outside the Grand Palace, a compound of shimmering temples and pavilions in Bangkok's old quarter, to pay tribute before a portrait of the monarch.
But Saturday was the first time the public has been allowed to enter the decorated throne hall, where he is lying in a coffin behind a gilded urn.
"I have been waiting here since 1am," said Mr Saman Daoruang, an 84-year-old sitting in a thousands-long queue that snaked around a large field outside the palace.
About 80,000 mourners arrived at the palace on Saturday morning, deputy police spokesman Major General Songpol Wattanachai told Reuters. The authorities have said 10,000 mourners will be allowed to enter the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, inside the palace, each day, in small batches.
“I’m prepared now to go in and pay my respects to our late king because this will be the last time for us to express our sorrow,” said mourner Waewwan Iimsud, 42, waiting to enter the hall.
Like many in the crowd, Mr Saman has been sleeping in a tent on the grassy parade grounds since he arrived in Bangkok by train from northern Nakhon Sawan province.
"But I haven't been able to sleep because I was so thrilled and proud to come here," he told AFP, clutching several portraits of the monarch.
Daily religious rites are taking place in the hall, where the King lies in state, and senior members of the royal family have taken turns attending daily, amid chanting by Buddhist monks.
The bodies of high-ranking Thai royals traditionally used to be placed in a golden urn. But palace officials said that tradition would no longer upheld and the King would be placed in a coffin with the symbolic urn nearby.
King Bhumibol, who died at 88 two weeks ago, was adored by many of his subjects and seen as an anchor of stability in a kingdom rocked by turbulent politics.
His passing has thrust the country into a year of official mourning, with most Thais wearing only black and white since his death and TV channels devoting hours of airtime to footage from his 70-year reign.
Thailand's arch-royalist military government, which came to power in a 2014 coup, has encouraged mass displays of devotion for the late King and helped arrange a flurry of free bus, train and boat rides to move mourners to the capital.
It has also stepped up its enforcement of lese majeste - which punishes criticism of the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison per offence.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, has asked to delay his proclamation as king in order to grieve with the nation, according to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who has presided over the transition.
The regime has not provided a clear timeline for when the Prince will formally ascend the throne.