Oct 17 2012
The death of former King Norodom Sihanouk, aged 89, on October 15 during the Pchum Ben festival is being mourned by Cambodians. Increasingly frail, the King Father’s last visit to Cambodia from his home in China earlier in the year proved to be his last. His death has saddened but not surprised Cambodians, who are paying their respects in different ways.
Local television channels are showing old films of Sihanouk in his prime, with plenty of focus on independence from the French in 1953, probably his finest hour; the 1950s and 1960s are remembered by many as Cambodia “golden era”. These broadcasts are worth tuning into for their historical context, even if you can’t read the French subtitles. Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 in favour of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, but remained a revered figure, and held status as Father of the Nation.
Cambodian flags have appeared on roadsides and outside official buildings at half mast, and mourners have also given prominence to the blue and gold royal flag. Facebook is covered with tributes and, confusingly, many people have changed their profile picture to the King Father’s official portrait.
On Wednesday October 17, crowds in Phnom Penh lined the route the coffin took from the airport, with thousands along the street named for the King Father, Norodom Boulevard. A black ribbon or a square of cloth fixed to a white shirt is the mourning uniform of choice, with many also pinning a prayer for Sihanouk underneath.
Clutching bundles of white and yellow flowers, incense and flags, they waited for hours in the baking sun for the cortege to pass. Print shops passed out photocopied portraits, while older mourners brought framed pictures from home, wrapped in yellow ribbon. Monks, nuns and laypeople displayed the traditional mark of mourning with freshly shaved heads.
The crowds were relatively subdued. As groups of monks began chanting, a few people wept quietly, while most put their hands together in prayer. When the golden floats passed, displaying the coffin and large images of the former monarch, a few more tears were evident.
Outside many pagodas, shrines of candles and photographs have been set up where people can pay their respects, and the large images of the King Father at the palace and by the Independence Monument have been wreathed in black and white ribbons. The Royal Palace has become a focal point, with crowds gathering outside to burn incense and candles and sign a book of condolence. The former king will lie in state for three months until a funeral is held.
Cambodians are now getting back to work after the Pchum Ben holiday, but the week of mourning, from 17 to 23 October, will continue, while Cambodia’s Water Festival, slated for three days at the end of November, has been cancelled.
Stay tuned for more information on what travellers can expect to experience in the capital over the next few weeks.
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