He was for many of us living in Thailand the only King we had ever known. Fondly called “Father”, he was the spiritual and physical head of a family of 71 million people.
Many thought of him as a living god. The Kingdom will begin the five-day Royal Cremation ceremony this week, with the country’s military government allocating a budget of B3 billion for the funeral.
Huge crowds are expected near a vast crematorium being constructed at Sanam Luang, a park in the heart of Bangkok, close to the Grand Palace. The cremation itself will be conducted on Oct 26, when the deceased monarch will ascend to Heaven.
The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was revered throughout his Kingdom, a kingdom he rarely left. He explored every part of Thailand. He was often seen in the rice paddies and jungles, always taking notes and often seen with a map and a camera around his neck. He wanted to visit every inch of Thailand. Everywhere his subjects were present – many in remote corners or high in the mountains.
The King was an expert on water-management systems; an inventor, a musician, a devout Buddhist, an intellectual, visionary, diplomat, elder statesman, entrepreneur and a peacekeeper.
People bowed and prostrated themselves before him and always proffered a deep wai (the Thai greeting with the palms pressed together) not just as a sign of respect but out of a deep sense of love and devotion. His picture still graces almost every home and every building in Thailand. Never has a King been so respected.
His passing at 88 years of age (He was born on Dec 5, 1927) was a deeply sad period in our history. The country shunned bright clothes; buildings and public places were adorned in black and white, the mood was sombre. Black ribbons and armbands are still a common sight.
Thousands have queued daily since his death, to pay homage and make their final respects to their King. Many standing for hours in stifling heat or seasonal rains to shuffle past the King’s remains – silent, respectful and for many… emotional.
Not surprising, the country’s largest-ever Royal Cremation platform has been built, and as is tradition, golden chariots have been repaired and adorned – ready to carry the beloved King on his final journey. Hundreds of master craftsmen have toiled for thousands of hours, crafting exquisite pieces in wood from timber especially chosen for the occasion. Thailand is preparing a grand final farewell to its beloved late King in a way not experienced by most living Thais.
As is tradition, wood from the rare and fragrant Mai Chan Hom tree, a Kalamat (similar to sandalwood) from the Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan, will be used in the funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The royal tree, which was selected to be used in the royal funeral, is already dead, one of 12 lifeless yet standing Mai Chan Hom trees. The use of the fragrant and auspicious tree is a custom that can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period.
Trees from the park were used in the funeral of the late Princess Mother in 1996 and for Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008. The tress are protected. Anyone can plant them but special permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is required before they can be felled.
The Royal Crematorium, the Phra Merumat, has been built on the grounds of Sanam Luang, a vast green park to the north of the Grand Palace. A spiritual as well as historical landmark of the city, Sanam Luang has been used as the funeral ground of kings, queens, princes and princesses since the beginning of the present Chakri dynasty of the Rattanakosin era (1782). The last time Bangkok saw a royal funeral pyre was at the cremation of Her Royal Highness Princess Bejraratana Rajasuda in April 2012.
But the Royal Cremation of the late King will be fittingly majestic, unprecedented in scale and historical in gravity. The last time a Thai king was cremated was 66 years ago, when King Ananda Mahidol was cremated in March 1950 at Sanam Luang. After the Royal Cremation, the Royal Urn is expected to be kept for an exhibition in the National Museum Bangkok like the previous royal urns of the late Princess Mother and Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana.
Although nearly a year has passed since the revered monarch’s death, his presence is still strongly felt. The grand cremation ceremony will take place from Wednesday through next Sunday (Oct 25-29) and will draw thousands of Thais to the capital. They will come from the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Hotels in Bangkok are expected to be heavily booked.
The crematorium complex measures 31,000sqm. At its centre is the golden crematorium. The square structure measures 60 metres by 60m and is 50m high, surrounded by water in recognition of the King’s work with the country’s water-management systems. On Oct 26, a coffin carrying King Bhumibol’s body will be brought here and elevated to the top platform of the structure to be cremated.
The complex itself, able to accommodate up to 7,000 people, including members of the Royal Family, government officials and foreign guests, will be majestic and regal. The magnificent Grand Palace will be its backdrop. The general public will not be allowed inside during the funeral but will be able to visit after the rites.
At the Bangkok National Museum, a short walk from Sanam Luang, artists are busy restoring the grand chariot and other carriages that will be used in the procession. The grand chariot has been used since the days of Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, which was founded in 1782.
The golden chariot is being restored by workers in Bangkok. Built of wood and decorated with gold and mirrors, the 13.7-ton chariot is 18m long, 11.2m high and 4.8m wide. Pulled by 216 men, it will carry the ornate urn containing King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s remains to the site of the cremation at Sanam Luang. It was last used in 2012 for the cremation of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, the late King’s cousin.
King Bhumibol was the ninth king of the dynasty. Thailand moved forward from a mainly agricultural society into Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy during his reign. Now, the key drivers of the economy are exports, such as cars and food, and tourism.
King Bhumibol died on the October 13, 2016. The monarch, who rose to the throne in 1946, had come to symbolise continuity. During his reign, the country had more than two dozen prime ministers and 10 military coups.
Having lived in this country for over a quarter of a century I feel, with a few exceptions, that a peaceful contemplation has descended across the country. In the past the country has been racked by tumultuous political scenes as it struggled with democracy. However, the nation draped in sadness mourns together.
English born Andrew J Wood, is a freelance travel writer, and for most of his career, a professional hotelier. Andrew has over 35 years of hospitality and travel experience. He is a Skal member and director of WDA Travel Co. Ltd and its subsidiary, Thailand by Design.