Why funeral for the late Thai king may not be for tourists; and how you can still pay your respects
The funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej involves five days of ceremonies. Venues will be closed, traffic will be disrupted and massive crowds are expected around the royal palace. Here’s how to view this historic event
The five days of funeral ceremonies this month for Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej will truly be fit for a revered monarch who ruled for 70 years. Ceremonies will draw on Buddhist and Hindu rites dating back hundreds of years and will take place in and around a cluster of temporary wooden structures north of the Grand Palace that architects and artisans have been labouring on for most of this year.
However, visitors to Bangkok from October 25 to 29 should give up any thought of attending the site of ceremonies in person. Especially on October 26, the day of cremation, they instead should be prepared for traffic disruption, closures of public and private venues, and massive crowds in the vicinity of the old royal city.
All the rehearsals and ceremonies this month take place on or near Sanam Luang, the traditional royal cremation grounds. Usually a great open grassy field, it is north of the Grand Palace and extends along the east side of Thammasat and Silpakorn universities.
The centrepiece, still under construction, is the crematorium, an elaborate 50-metre high wooden pavilion representing Mount Meru (or Phra Merumas), a sacred peak for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists and the centre of the spiritual universe.
WATCH what a Thai king’s funeral looked like in 1926: rare film footage of the 1926 funeral of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, King Bhumibol’s half uncle) shows many elements that will recur at King Bhumibol’s funeral this month, in the same setting.
Aside from rehearsals (one took place on October 12 and there will be two more on October 15 and 17) there will be few opportunities to observe the proceedings. Flash-free photography will be allowed on those days and possibly on October 18 and 21 when King Vajiralongkorn will be present.
However, visitors can observe the ceremonies the way most Thais will: by watching TV or listening to the radio. Commentary will be provided in both Thai and English.
Those who want to participate in the funeral and avoid the crowds can pay their respects by making offerings of sandalwood flowers at small replicas of the crematorium at 85 sites across the country. Eight of these will be in the Bangkok area close to commuter rail stations.
For the dedicated, there is actually one chance to observe the US$30 million funeral in person: up to 40,000 people will be allowed to spend the five days along southwest side of the Grand Palace and eastern edge of Sanang Luang. The lucky “few” will be among those allowed to queue up at entry points at 5am on October 25 – more than 24 hours before the cremation, that is scheduled for 10pm on October 26.
Despite those limits on the number of up-close viewers and the closure of 18 nearby roads to normal traffic during the funeral days, the number of regular buses serving the general area will be greatly increased between October 23 and 31. It is expected that most people will congregate on Rajadamnoen Klang, the wide boulevard centred by the Democracy Monument stretching for a kilometre east of Sanam Luang.
Estimates that one million people might gather here during the period are probably conservative, says Tongthong Chandransu, a law professor and expert on Thai royal funeral ceremonies. “After all, 500,000 people showed up last year on October 14 to observe when the king’s body was transferred across the river from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace,” he says.
Since then, 20 million people have paid respects to the royal urn in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
In November an exhibition will be held on Sanam Luang, showing the chariots, palanquins, crematorium and surrounding pavilions, as well as the 500 sculptures and other artworks that craftsmen have created this past year. When it is over, the structures will be dismantled.