Thailand’s revered but frail king left the hospital where he has lived for almost four years on Thursday, as thousands of flag-waving well-wishers cheered him on his way to his coastal palace.
Crowds shouted “long live the king!” as 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej was driven away from Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, where he was admitted in September 2009.
The king, wearing a salmon pink jacket, waved acknowledgement to supporters lining the route, many of whom were respectfully on their knees and clad in the royal colours of yellow and pink.
The world’s longest-serving monarch, treated as a near-deity in politically turbulent Thailand, left for his residence in the seaside town of Hua Hin, about two hours’ drive south of Bangkok.
He was accompanied by 80-year-old Queen Sirikit, who has also been in hospital for the past year.
“The tears came automatically, I was so happy I could not hold them back,” said one onlooker, Sasitorn Intarachit, a pink jacket draped over her shoulder, after the convoy had passed.
The 27-year-old said that the day-long wait in the tropical heat had been worth it for a sighting of the monarch.
Bangkok traffic police said there were between 20,000 and 30,000 people out to show their devotion to the Thai monarch.
Brandishing a picture of the royal couple, the Thai national flag and a yellow flag that read “I love the king”, Chatprapa Poomman said she was happy to take time off from her job as a grocer to show her devotion.
“I am the most happy. I have come here eight or nine times, whenever I know that he will appear,” said the 53-year-old, adding that she was wearing pink because she had heard that the colour would aid the royal recovery.
Weera Sriwathanatrakoon, the governor of Prachuap Khiri Khan province where the Hua Hin palace is located, said he expected more than 10,000 residents there to greet the king.
He said he did not know how long the royal couple would stay at the seaside residence – which is called Klai Kangwon, or “far from worries” – a longtime favourite of the royals.
Royal physician Udom Kachintorn said the royal couple would be given the same level of care as they had in hospital.
“Both the king and queen are in good health now and the king thinks that he should go and reside in Hua Hin so the public will not worry,” he told Channel 3 television station.
The palace has made no comment on the move.
The elderly king, who has been on the throne for 67 years, has suffered from a range of ailments since being admitted with respiratory problems in 2009.
He suffered a minor brain bleed in July last year, but has since made several official appearances including meeting Barack Obama during the US president’s visit to the country in November.
Video: Thai king leaves hospital after almost four years
The queen has largely disappeared from public life since July last year, when she was admitted to Siriraj Hospital with what doctors termed a slight loss of blood flow to the brain.
The monarchy has no official political role but the king called for stability during his birthday celebrations in December.
Thailand has been rocked by sporadic rival street protests for years, with ultra-royalist and nationalist “Yellow Shirts” and rural working-class “Red Shirts” both taking to the streets.
Political instability has coincided with increased use of the country’s controversial lese majeste rules, which prohibit criticism of the Thai king, queen, heir or regent.
Rights campaigners say the law has been politicised, noting that many of those charged are linked to the “Red Shirt” protest movement, which is broadly loyal to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Two months of mass street protests by the Red Shirts against the previous government in early 2010 triggered the kingdom’s worst civil violence in decades with some 90 people killed, mostly in a bloody military crackdown.
The country is again gearing up for anti-government protests in central Bangkok, with a newly-formed coalition of ultra-royalist groups who despise the Puea Thai ruling party and its exiled figurehead Thaksin vowing to rally from Sunday.