BANGKOK (AFP) - A sea of black-clad mourners massed across Bangkok's historic heart early Thursday (Oct 26) as funeral rituals began for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a revered monarch whose passing after a seven-decade reign has left Thailand bereft of its only unifying figure.
As dawn broke, an estimated 200,000 Thais had gathered around the Grand Palace to bid an emotional farewell to a monarch known as "father of the nation", silently packing the pavements, many clutching portraits of the beloved late king.
The golden spires of a spectacular US$90 million (S$122 million) cremation site, purpose-built for the funeral, were bathed in light as King Bhumibol's son and heir, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, joined Buddhist monks to start a day of sombre processions, colourful pageantry and religious ceremony.
King Vajiralongkorn will light the funeral pyre at 10pm local time as his father, Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, is laid to rest.
The ceremony will be attended by a "Who's Who" of Thai power - royals, generals and establishment figures - as well as scores of foreign dignitaries.
The lavish event gives the public a chance to say goodbye to a king who was crowned in 1950 and towered over decades of Thai history, before his death in October 2016 aged 88 seeded uncertainty in a country ruled by a divisive junta.
A brew of palace propaganda and a harsh lese majeste law burnished the king's reputation throughout his reign.
But King Bhumibol's intimate connection with his subjects was on ready display on Thursday as Thais from across the country waited near the cremation site.
"He was perfect. He helped the country and Thai people so much. Seventy million Thai people are united in their love for him," said 65-year-old Wacharadej Tangboonlabkun, who, like most Thais, knew no other monarch before King Bhumibol's death.
The death of a figure of constancy in a politically combustible country has dipped the kingdom into uncertainty.
"There's no more a father who only gave to his children," Kingkan Kuntavee, 47, told AFP.
For much of King Bhumibol's long reign, Thailand remained stuck on a carousel of violent protests, short-lived civilian governments and coups.
Political turmoil threw up an endless supply of junta leaders and prime ministers, but all lacked King Bhumibol's moral capital with the Thai people.
He left behind one of the world's richest monarchies, that stands at the apex of one of South-east Asia's most unequal societies.
Deference towards the monarchy - and the social elites it underpins - is a given in Thailand.
Arcane palace rituals reinforcing the status of the monarchy were revived in the King Bhumibol era.
The new king, who wore full military regalia early Thursday and was attended to by kneeling palace aides as he started funeral rituals, will be crowned after his father is laid to rest.
He is yet to win the same affection among the Thai public as his father, whose image was carefully curated by palace public relations, cementing a reputation as austere, benevolent and incorruptible despite the fast-changing times.
Thailand's royal defamation law shields the monarchy from criticism, carrying 15-year jail sentences for each charge.
That law makes independent analysis and frank public debate about the monarchy impossible inside Thailand.
In effect, it means the monarchy "has monopolised the way the Thai public can think about its own political story", historian David Streckfuss told AFP.
The ruling junta has jailed record numbers of people under the law since seizing power in a 2014 coup.
Aged just 18 when he ascended the throne, the US-born King Bhumibol became the fulcrum of the monarchy.
The crown flourished with heavy US backing as Washington sought a bulwark against the spread of Communism across South-east Asia.
Thais have donned black for much of the last year in a remarkable outpouring of grief, which officially ends on Oct 30.
They are expected to wear colourful clothes at the conclusion of the rites, which celebrate the king's ascent to Mount Meru, the centre of the universe in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology.
You can also watch the livesteam here.200,000ThaisgatheraroundGrandPalacefuneralritesKingBhumibolbegin