Pomp and pageantry as Thailand rehearses late King's funeral

Sally MAIRS
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Royal guards in uniform march during a dress rehearsal for the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's funeral in Bangkok

Gilded chariots, horses and columns of military men in bright costumes swept through Bangkok's old quarter on Saturday in a final dress rehearsal for late King Bhumibol Adulyadej's funeral -- a meticulously-planned spectacle of devotion to a man known as the "soul of the nation".

Steered by the Buddhist ritual, palace protocol and social hierarchy that underpin Thailand's powerful monarchy, the elaborate cremation ceremony will befit a king who commanded a cult-like following during his 70-year reign.

The five-day fanfare, which kicks off next Wednesday, is the culmination of months of painstaking preparation that began after Bhumibol died a year ago, aged 88, plunging the nation into grief.

It will feature mass parades, cultural performances and Buddhist ceremonies centred around a gleaming funeral complex that has been erected from scratch outside Bangkok's Grand Palace.

On Saturday thousands of black-clad Thais watched a dress rehearsal of the procession that will deliver Bhumibol's body to the tiered funeral pyre on October 26.

Onlookers marvelled at the rich array of ancient garb on display -- from puffy blue helmets to embroidered red caps and pointy white hats -- as marchers beating drums and bearing tiered umbrellas strutted through Bangkok's historic heart.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha and the late king's daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, were also among those striding through the blistering heat.

"Officials had to study and work very hard to manage this event, because it is the first time our generation has prepared for a king's funeral," 54-year-old Rataya Kobsikarn told AFP.

"All of us love our King so much and this is the last chance we have to be close to him," she added.

Many Thais have worn only black-and-white since Bhumibol's death, draining colour from Bangkok's streets in a striking act of collective mourning encouraged by the ultra-royalist junta.

Royal propaganda has gone into overdrive in the run-up to his cremation, with portraits of the bespectacled monarch popping up all over the country.

A draconian royal defamation law criminalises criticism or perceived snubs of the monarchy.

Prosecutions under the law have surged since the arch-royalist junta grabbed power in a 2014 coup, with record decades-long sentences handed down for insults often posted on social media.

- Dressing for a demi-god -

Strict dress codes for the royal funeral have been set for the public and officials.

"Ceremonies for the king are still viewed as ceremonies for a demi-god," explained Eakkarak Limsunggas, a police commander tasked with enforcing proper funeral attire.

"The language and dress code used for the monarchy must be different than what we use in normal life."

Boosted by the late king's charisma, Thailand's once-weak monarchy grew in popularity during Bhumibol's reign and the palace revived royal rituals that had been dropped by previous sovereigns.

By the time of his death, Bhumibol sat at the apex of Thailand's power networks and was revered as a moral paragon in a country riven by corruption.

Many Thais refer to him as the "father" of the nation and are moved to tears at the prospect of bidding him a final goodbye next week.

Bhumibol's heir, 65-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to command that level of devotion and spent much of his first year in power abroad.

He is expected to be formally crowned after his father's cremation, though no date has been set.

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