KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Thailand has said goodbye to the only king many Thais have ever known. Bhumibol Adulyadej was cremated late this evening in a lavish ceremony after a year of mourning. From Bangkok, Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For many Thais, King Bhumibol was more of a demigod than a man, one who became king when he was just 18 just after the end of World War II, a man credited with overseeing Thailand's economic development, keeping it from going communist and one who fought tirelessly for Thailand's rural poor, all of which makes this cremation day after a year of official mourning so hard.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: It's a poignant time because it's the culmination of the day that we Thai people have been dreading for many years. It's the culmination of an epoch of the reign of King Bhumibol.
SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
PONGSUDHIRAK: In the Thai Buddhist cosmos, cremation is the closure. Until cremation, there's still some lingering, some yearning, some attachment. And that's why I think that this week, Thais are profoundly moved, emotional.
(SOUNDBITE OF FUNERAL PROCESSION)
SULLIVAN: That emotion, that devotion was on full display today along the royal procession route, hundreds of thousands lining the road, some prostrating themselves as the procession passed. And then there were those who came determined to see the cremation itself, like 58-year-old Tippawan Chotsriri from Hat Yai in the south of the country who spent two days sleeping on the sidewalk just for the chance to attend the cremation ceremony.
TIPPAWAN CHOTSRIRI: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "I'm here because of the bond I feel with him," she says, "and his goodness. Everything he did, he did for his people," she says. I ask her what she'll do if she doesn't make it inside after coming so far.
CHOTSRIRI: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "It doesn't matter if I can't get in there," she says, "because no matter where I am, my heart is already there." In the end, she did make it after spending another two and a half hours waiting in a late afternoon downpour.
Those who did manage to make it inside sat patiently on mats or on the wet pavement, a sea of people dressed in black waiting for the cremation ceremony with nary a selfie to be seen. Barber Supakorn Rattanakwara kindly offered to share his mat with me. He told me he'd slept outside a nearby 7-Eleven the first night he got to Bangkok, then another two more sleeping right here waiting for this moment.
BARBER SUPAKORN RATTANAKWARA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "Ever since I can remember," he says, "I saw the king working so hard, always devoted to his country and his people, never doing anything for himself," he says. "That's why we love him."
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Praying in Thai).
SULLIVAN: Prayers could be heard, and smoke could be seen late in the evening, indicating that the king had left the stage for the last time and left Thailand a little less sure, a country still ruled by the military three years after a 2014 coup, a country whose new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, doesn't enjoy the same level of adulation as his late father. Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak...
PONGSUDHIRAK: Certainly people are worried because King Bhumibol was the final arbiter. The buck stopped with him. Now we don't know where the buck stops in Thailand.
SULLIVAN: There needs to be a new balance among the major political players among the major political institutions, Thitinan says. And that will take time, though he thinks it can happen despite the loss of King Bhumibol. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.