Grieving Thais pay respects to longest reigning monarch

Authorities have made 30 street and river bus routes into the Grand Palace district free of charge

18:42 October 15, 2016

Bangkok: Pixit Seesuwa lost most of the top of his right index finger in a factory accident some years ago. He solemnly points the remaining stub to the skies in speaking about King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Thursday. “Every Thai feels a great loss,” he says. “We always knew this day would come, but it is a day we wanted to never think about.”

Yesterday, Seesuwa was just one of an estimated 200,000 Thais who came to the Grand Palace by noon hour. And more came by the minute.

Here, behind its stark, whitewashed walls, the late king lies in state, in a wooden coffin with a cremation urn nearby. For kilometres around the Grand Palace complex, Bangkok’s notoriously choked traffic came to a virtual standstill as grieving Thais, mostly wearing black or dark clothing, came to pay their respects to a king who had steered their country since 1946, was the longest reigning in the world, and who was a calming influence through a dozen military coups.

Normally on the top of the must-see tourism sites for the 30 million visitors who come to Thailand each year, and where guided tours of the complex are 1,200 Thai Baht per person, the Grand Palace complex is strictly off limits to non-Thais, and an armed police presence deters foreigners from entry.

“Closed for foreigners,” a sweating police sergeant in a perspiration-stained brown uniform tells Gulf News. “Maybe in a month. Now is for Thais for king.”

Despite temperatures reaching 35C and humidity levels at 90 per cent, Thais by the thousands lined up to enter the complex.

Volunteers handed out free water while others provided chilled juices and fruits.

Further down one street, street vendors had managed to secure plain black baseball caps and were doing a steady trade.

“I came to honour my king. He’s the father of our nation,” Janakakachana Panakatak told Gulf News as she cooled down for a moment. “People call me Jan. It’s so easier.”

She brought her 12-year-old daughter, Fon, along too. “I want her to remember this day. I want her to remember his majesty King Bhumibol as a great leader and father.”

Authorities have made 30 street and river bus routes into the Grand Palace district free of charge. Since the completion of the palace in 1782, for 150 years the complex symbolised the Royal Thai Court, the monarchy and government power. Many government departments and ministries are located near the site today.

Authorities too have banned any criticism or commentary on the current political situation, with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed his father formally at some stage in the future.

“He will be a good king too,” said Seesuwa. “The Royal Family is most important to Thailand.”

Yesterday, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn came to the complex to pay her respects to her late father. Under Thai law and by tradition, Thailand is ruled by a male.

At dawn, Buddhist monks began an hourlong chanting of prayers, a ritual that will be repeated at 7pm each evening.

For the next year, Thailand will be in a period of official mourning. Throughout Friday and yesterday, buildings, businesses, hotels and offices were draped in black and white ribbons. Virtually every office, hotel and public building has had makeshift shrines erected to King Bhumibol’s memory.

“This is the most important time in Thailand’s history,” Panakatak told Gulf News. “I want my daughter to be able to tell her children and grandchildren that she remembered his majesty [King Bhumibol].”

Fon pulled at her mother and pointed to a vendor and uttered some words. “She wants a baseball cap,” Panakatak explained.