BANGKOK, THAILAND - Hundreds of thousands of people surrounded the Thai royal palace and millions more gathered at shrines around the country Thursday to bid their final farewells to their revered King Bhumibol Adulyedaj, after a year of official mourning.
Dressed in black and amid tight security, 7,500 guests at the Grand Palace, including royals from as far afield as Britain, Bhutan and Lesotho, looked on as smoke began billowing from a spectacular 50.28-meter-tall pyre representing Mount Meru — the center of the universe in Thai-Hindu cosmology.
The procession and cremation, televised live on all Thai networks, began Wednesday with the transportation of the royal urn to the Royal Crematorium.
Mourners prostrated themselves before a 200-year-old, 42-ton chariot carrying King Bhumibol's remains, as the ever-loyal military marched with all the spit and polish demanded of the occasion.
They lit candles and incense sticks, in scenes repeated at shrines and an additional 85 replicas of the cremation site erected across 70 provinces in ceremonies barely changed over six centuries.
King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946 after the death of his elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol, and was among the world's longest serving monarchs when he died. He was widely regarded as a demigod by his subjects, who had nothing but praise for his rule.
Among the mourners was 46-year-old Ning Plernpis from northeast Thailand. She travelled to Bangkok for the ceremony and praised King Bhumibol for his modernistic approach and steering his country into the developing world.
“Yes, the King is a good man for Thai people. Yes, he helped people — for the worker, the farmers, any needy people,” she said.
Hundreds had camped out for up to a week, hoping to catch a glimpse of the procession held under grey monsoonal skies, but with an occasional burst of sunshine. They were joined by international dignitaries from Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and the United States, where Bhumibol was born, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Wittaya Noichin, a 43-year-old hotelier said Bhumibol — a keen musician and photographer who embraced science — had led by example and served as a wonderful role model for all Thais.
“He worked very hard for our people in Thailand and he was a very good king,” he said in broken English. “He do before (set a good example) and tell the people to do like him.”
His sentiments were echoed by 26-year-old Won, who works for a tour company.
“He did everything for Thai people, and he goes everywhere, like I can't do
Since his death after a long illness at age 88 last year on Oct. 13, almost 13 million people, or a fifth of the population, have paid their respects at the Throne Hall in Dusit Palace where his remains laid in state, with a golden death mask covering his face.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn — Bhumibol's son — presided over the pageantry culminating in Thursday's cremation. He was often flanked by other members of the royal family and Thai elites from the military and civil society.
King Vajiralongkorn's coronation is expected to be held in December of this year.
Businesses were closed with the day declared a public holiday. A strict dress code was enforced around the palace, where selfies were banned and public transport was declared free for travellers. More than 50,000 police and volunteers were on hand, with royal events continuing through the weekend.
On the streets of Bangkok foreigners also were out in abundance.
Forty five-year-old Aye Aye Mar from Myanmar has lived in Thailand for 15 years, where she works as a travel agent. She says King Bhumibol worked tirelessly to help the elderly and lift his people out of poverty, particularly in the impoverished northern and southern provinces.
“The king is in heaven, yeah,” she said. “This king is very good for the people so we are very proud of this king, like an angel this king has got power so he can do everything.”
Englishman, Derek Mayes, 62, said he preferred the Thai sense of respect for the monarchy as opposed to the celebrity and tradition commanded and demanded by the British royal family.
“I think that the reverence for the King has always been very strong. I've noticed that, and I think it's one of the few countries that I've travelled in where reverence for royalty is probably based on a true love of the King rather than, say, British royalty, which is tradition,” he said.
Official mourning is due to end in November, when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to face increased pressure to call elections and ease restrictions on political freedoms imposed after the military seized power in a coup in May of 2014.
Analysts say the military takeover was aimed at overseeing a smooth transition in the royal succession following many years of protests by rival political factions, which split Thai society, damaging its economy and international standing.