Thailand begins lavish five-day funeral of late king

Bangkok: Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Wednesday presided over a Buddhist rite at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, marking the beginning of the five-day cremation ceremony for his late father Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s biggest ceremony in decades.
Arriving at the palace in his cream-coloured Rolls Royce and accompanied by his two daughters, the 65-year-old king lit candles to pay his respects to his late father’s body with a traditional Thai orchestra playing the royal anthem in the background.
The ceremony on Wednesday mainly involved Buddhist monks chanting, giving blessings and praising the late king’s many achievements. It marked a solemn note before a colourful ceremony on Thursday.
Just hundreds of metres away, tens of thousands of people queued up in tropical heat and monsoon rains to reserve their spots early to see hundreds of soldiers haul a two-century-old golden chariot carrying the late king’s symbolic urn to the cremation site early on Thursday.
Urns are central to the Thai royal tradition: past kings’ bodies were placed inside before being cremated. However, unlike his predecessors, Bhumibol requested that he be cremated in a coffin instead.
Sheltering themselves with portraits of their beloved king, thousands of black-clad Thais slept on the pavement near the cremation site on Tuesday night, forming long lines before officials let them through designated checkpoints early on Wednesday.
Vajiralongkorn’s youngest son, 12-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, made a surprise visit to mourners camping outside the cremation complex on Wednesday, handing them snacks and water.
Deeply revered as a father figure, Bhumibol’s death last October after seven decades on the throne has sent Thailand into a year of mourning.
The actual cremation is due to take place late on Thursday at the 80,000-square-metre complex close to the Grand Palace and is expected to be attended by 7,000 guests, among them foreign dignitaries from 42 countries.
Among honorary guests already arriving in Bangkok are former German president Christian Wulff, and King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema of Bhutan.
Prince Andrew of Britain and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis are also scheduled to attend the ceremony.
With a budget of $90 million, the five-day cremation ceremony took one year to prepare for and involved millions of volunteers.
The colourful cremation at the golden pavilion-shaped crematorium will mark the end of the year-long mourning. It is also meant as a celebration to send the late king back to heaven as a deity, as Thai kings are believed to be reincarnations of Vishnu, a Hindu god.
Up to 250,000 people are expected to travel to the capital from across the country ahead of Thursday’s procession. — dpa