Praying, wailing and collapsing to their knees, devastated Thais poured out their grief on Thursday as they struggled to process the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only monarch most had ever known.

“What will the country be like without the Father? Father!” bellowed a distraught Patcharapol Piamsaad, one of hundreds of Thais who had held hopeful vigils for days outside his Bangkok hospital.

Bhumibol Adulyadej
Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The revered Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died Thursday at the age of 88 — depriving the perennially divided nation of a towering, unifying father figure.

The king had been in increasingly poor ill health for years but his inevitable demise was too much for many to take.

Well-wishers had stood quietly below the Thai king’s hospital room praying, as they had for days, when news of his passing suddenly rippled across the crowd, turning quiet prayers into agonised wailing.

Stunned Thais clasped their hands in redoubled prayer, with some throwing themselves to the ground.

Others stood to sing his personal royal anthem, wiping away tears.

Many in the surrounding area flocked to the riverside hospital, clutching portraits of Bhumibol and crying, while other parts of the capital appeared in an eerie calm.

Waiting for a miracle

After the news filtered in, crowds of Thais packed into the courtyard beneath his hospital window continued to chant “Long live the king!”.

“I want the king to hear us in case he will come back to life,” said Sukit Tanaboonsombat, 46, one of those leading the chants and never taking his eyes off the hospital windows.

Sukit said he raced over to the hospital after hearing the news of the king’s death, which he refused to believe.

“I’m waiting for a miracle to bring the king back to life because he said he wanted to live until 120 years old.”

Across the board, Thai television turned its programming over to glorifying the revered king, broadcasting images of him at his 1946 coronation, patrolling in military fatigues, and overseeing programmes aiding the poor.

His worsening health has raised concerns over the country’s political future.

Most Thais have known no other monarch and though the king officially took no part in politics, he has been portrayed as a guiding light through decades of turmoil, coups and violent unrest.

“We are waiting for a miracle but it’s likely impossible,” said Panaree Thanawirachotikul.

“We’re shouting to heaven and angels to tell the king that Thais will always have very strong loyalty toward him.

“The king passed away but he will always be in all the Thai people’s hearts.”

Out of respect, Bangkok’s notorious red-light districts also quickly shut up on Thursday evening, with images posted on social media showing usually buzzing bars completely empty.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.