Helen Van Berkel visits the shrine of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-serving monarch.

Reverence for the late king has not faded in the 12 months since he died — millions of people have joined these queues with 100,000 lined up each day.

Respect for the king is almost compulsory in Thailand. Actually, forget almost: you can get jailed for 15 years if you disrespect the royal father of this country of nearly 70 million gentle souls.

So when one dies — as King Bhumibol Adulyadej did on October 13 last year — the entire country mourns for a year. After a year of lying in state at the Grand Palace, he was cremated in a lavish ceremony at an extravagantly elaborate crematorium built especially for the occasion at Sanam Nuam, a field next to the royal palace in a historic area of Bangkok.


Thai royalty have been cremated at Sanam Nuam since the early 1800s, but I imagine few would have had such an ebullience of spires and glowing gilt and mythological creatures as King Bhumibol did. It took nearly the entire year to build, at a cost of a billion baht — about $44 million.

Crowds already lined up dozens deep — mostly school groups — when I arrived shortly after 8am. Reverence for the late king has not faded in the 12 months since he died — millions of people have joined these queues, with 100,000 lined up each day. In the early days there were even reports of arrests because people weren't mourning properly.

Schoolkids in the northeastern Buriram province got their winter coats taken off them because they were too colourful.

The walk through the crematorium begins with an exhibition of the king's life and his works, which are also referenced around the grounds, but the main attraction is the nine-spired crematorium, set on a four-storey foundation accessed by red-carpeted steps that ascend from four directions. The nine spires represent Mt Meru, which is the centre of the Hindu universe. The Thais' relaxed attitude towards religions is clear in the mix of Hindu and Buddhism imagery seen at the base of the spires: about 500 statues of animals and gods, some oozing some kind of steam.

Surrounding the main spires are pavilions for different ranks of mourners — government officials, monks, royal family members — and entertainment stages. It's death as a grand spectacle on an epic scale.

I wish I'd had more time to explore. King Bhumibol was Thailand's, and the world's, longest-serving monarch when he died after 70 years on the throne, so visiting the Royal Crematorium is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Because come Christmas, Sanam Nuam will again be a quiet field an hour's walk from the very heart of Bangkok; its gilded spires taken down and its animals scattered to museums and communities around the country.

Getting there
Thai Airways flies a Dreamliner service daily between Auckland and Bangkok.

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