Millions bid farewell as Cambodian monarch makes final journey

Half of the country's population is expected to make the pilgrimage to Phnom Penh to pay their respects to King Father Norodom Sihanouk, demonstrating their reverence for him as well as their unease about what his absence will mean for the country's future

For weeks, Cambodians have filed into the capital, ending a pilgrimage which for most is a once in a lifetime event. The streets along the riverside are jammed with traffic while in the parks outside the Royal Palace children dressed in white with black ribbons play and pray with their parents.

From a distance the palace gates _ adorned by portraits of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk _ appear like an entrance to a castle in a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The palace is tastefully lit against the night sky, its spire pointing at the moon above and shrouded with smoke from the millions of incense sticks burning below.

Sihanouk's legacy is mixed. But as his people see it, he delivered them from Japanese occupation in World War II, won Cambodia independence from France eight years later and finally delivered peace after decades of bitter regional and internal conflicts.

Sihanouk, who abdicated the throne in 2004 due to ill health, died at the age of 89 in Beijing in mid-October after reportedly suffering a heart attack.

It is the kind of farewell that Sihanouk would have wished for _ emotional, convivial and forgiving of past sins.

Outside the gates women, young and old, weep. Men tend to be a little more reserved. Expectations are that half of the country's 14.3 million people will travel from all corners to pay their final respects by the time of the cremation in February.

Among the crying women is Yan Sokha, 63, who travelled alone from the eastern province of Kampong Cham. She said she was shocked to learn of Sihanouk's passing and had wanted to pay her respects for his soul.

''Only the King Father could provide shade for his children. He rendered justice for the people. I want him to rest in peace and I would like to appeal to his soul, to help look after the Cambodian people as well. We want to live in harmony, together.''

Khmers are also deeply religious _ outsiders might say superstitious _ when dealing with death. Importantly, rumours had circulated after he died on Oct 15 that the god-king was looking down upon his people from the moon. Sihanouk's face was then seen in the moon and this was not without diplomatic incident.

Wang Zia Chao, 43, a Chinese manager of a clothing factory was deported under rarely used lese majeste laws after she accused workers _ carrying poster-sized photos of the moon with late King Father embedded in it _ of shirking their responsibilities. She then enraged them by cutting up the pictures and 1,000 people went on strike, the police stepped in and even the Chinese government came down on the side of the Khmers.

One Thai television reporter was wiser. Without thinking, she placed a photograph of Sihanouk on the ground while filing her report. That move underpinned another public outcry and a chorus of diplomatic complaints amid fears it could cause a repeat of the 2003 anti-Thai riots.

A similar act in Thailand could result in jail time, but in Cambodia the reporter apologised profusely, and calm prevailed.

Commemorations, the pomp and pageantry surrounding Sihanouk's funeral are likely to outdo previous efforts. Numbers will also be bolstered by this year's Water Festival, normally held at the end of November when up to two million people descend on the capital for the annual boat races. The festival itself has been cancelled but the holidays remain, offering villagers from the most isolated parts of the country a chance to pay their respects to the late king.

The last royal funeral was for Sihanouk's mother, Queen Sisowath Kossamak, who died in 1975 in Beijing where her son had lived in exile for five years following the Lon Nol coup. Her ashes were returned to Cambodia with Sihanouk with a dowdy Khmer Rouge escort.

The funeral for his father King Norodom Suramarit in 1960 was a much grander affair. His death was accompanied by a salute from 66 cannons followed by three days of official mourning.

The body was then transferred to the Preah Moha Montir Room, traditionally the resting place for deceased Khmer monarchs, for five months while local and international dignitaries, which included the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, paid their respects before a lengthy funeral procession and lastly the cremation in the park outside the National Museum.

Sihanouk's final journey will follow a similar path. After a week of mourning his embalmed body went on display. Dates for the final procession and cremation have not been announced, although Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the cremation would take place in February.

In the meantime, Khmers from all walks of life are patiently waiting for the palace gates to open, so they can file past the casket alongside other dignitaries and say their last goodbyes. Their patience is shared by King Norodom Sihamoni and the King Mother, Monineath, who have won the hearts of the nation by taking unannounced walks through the crowds.

''I respect his son,'' mourner Yan Sokha said. ''We want to devote our hearts to him and I think he will be good because he is the son of the King Father.''

Another mourner, Toch Kan, 77, said his country had lost a great hero who stood up for the Cambodian people.

''For the future, I would like the next leaders to follow his heroism.''

Pheung Lot, 66, from Kandal province lit her incense sticks and prayed.

''I prayed to his soul to bring happiness and harmony to the country and people. We lived with happiness during his rule,'' she said referring to the 1950s and '60s when Cambodia experienced what many historians refer to as a ''golden period''.

''He was a smart king. I want Cambodia to have such a great king. I feel a deep regret in losing him. He is the one who brought independence and peace to the Cambodian people.''

Such thoughts were echoed across the lawns _ along with the odd concern for the future.

Cambodia has gone through enormous changes since the last battles between government troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas were fought in 1998. Skyscrapers are being built, a stock market is up and running and business is brisk _ but a yawning wealth gap amid widespread complaints of corruption and land grabbing by the politically connected has tarnished the government's image while enhancing the role of a monarchy, widely seen as impartial.

Such concerns are more common among the young. Eighteen-year-old Noch Srey's view was typical, saying the stability afforded by Sihanouk at a time of great uncertainty was the country's biggest loss.

''It's worrying for the country because Cambodia is developing so fast and now we have lost a great, grand king, we don't know what problems we will face in the future,'' she said. ''I just wish he could be here.''

About the author

Writer: Luke Hunt