Jan 16 2013
Cambodia has been slightly subdued since the death of the beloved King Father Norodom Sihanouk in October 2012. The initial quiet intensity saw thousands of visitors burning candles outside the Royal Palace, rolling documentaries on television and a flurry of Facebook posts. Nearly three months later, mini-buses from the countryside, full of white and black clad Cambodians coming to pay their respects, are still a daily sight in Phnom Penh. The clock is ticking — on the weekend of February 1 to 4, the final ceremonies will be conducted before the body of the King Father is cremated in traditional style. As a visitor, will you keep well away or join more than a million mourners on the streets of Phnom Penh?
A week of mourning has been announced from February 1 to 7 inclusive. Flags will fly at half mast, businesses and broadcasters must avoid “joyful spectacles, performances or concerts” and people will wear black ribbons. During the last mourning period, nightclubs were closed and there was no live music or loud parties. The usual alcohol ban rumours have begun circulating –although these are generally not strictly enforced, you should certainly exercise restraint and respect if you’re in town.
The main activities will take place February 1 to 4, with a procession on Friday 1 and the funeral itself on Monday 4. Three thousand people (plus rumoured elephants and monkeys) will take part in the funeral procession on Friday February 1, which will be two kilometres long. Blank bullets will be fired when the King Father’s body leaves the palace by a side gate used exclusively for this purpose. The procession will follow a six-kilometre route from the Royal Palace to Wat Phnom along Sisowath Boulevard via Onalom pagoda, doubling back along Norodom Boulevard to the Independence Monument then arriving at Meru field in front of the National Museum via Sihanouk and Sothearos Boulevards. Teams of 90 monks will bless the body along the route and shots will be fired again when the body is set to rest in the specially constructed pyre.
Saturday February 2 and Sunday February 3 are reserved for paying last respects to the body in location at the park outside the National Museum, now converted with pavilions and a pyre. The funeral itself, on Monday February 4, will be attended by the French prime minister and senior officials from China, India and the ASEAN countries. The funeral will be highly ritualised, including many monks, more blank bullets and fireworks. A total budget of $1.2 million has been put aside to cover the construction and ceremony costs.
Wearing a white shirt and black trousers or skirt, or the usual funeral attire for your country, will be much appreciated by ordinary Cambodians. Needless to say, buttock-skimming shorts or a BeerLao T-shirt customised to show your manly chest are not going to be well received.
Businesses along the procession route will be closed on February 1, and getting around town will be trickier than usual due to road closures. The four-day weekend has been decreed as a public holiday, which means you won’t be able to arrange visas or use the banks.
Massive congestion is to be expected — estimates range from 1 million to 2 million people in the capital to witness the proceedings — with 11,000 members of the security forces including police, military police and bodyguards to keep things under control. Getting anywhere in the centre of the city without using your own leg power could be difficult.
If you’d like to experience the event but don’t fancy your chances down near the funeral site, TV and radio stations will broadcast the procession and the funeral live, and will be guaranteed viewing at all coffee shops and restaurants. Fourteen 2 metre x3 metre big screens will be erected around the city, at large spaces such as the Olympic Stadium, Night Market, Chenla Cinema, Koh Pich (Diamond Island) and Century Plaza Market.
Alternatively, you could catch a dress rehearsal of the procession on January 19 or 26. On the 19th, police and others will go over the route from the Supreme Court to Wat Onalom, and the second day covers from the Royal Palace to Wat Phnom.
We recommend you book accommodation in advance for the funeral weekend, and schedule your arrival before the road closures and crowds begin. If you’re more interested in the Super Bowl or nightclubbing than last rites for a King, you might want to choose an alternative location for the beginning of February.
Further reading: Old photographs of elephants at work, including in funeral processions.
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