Feb 05 2013
It’s been an historical weekend in Phnom Penh, as the King Father, former King Norodom Sihanouk, was finally laid to rest. Many of the rumoured 2 million mourners stayed at home and got a better view on the TV, but the streets were still full of Cambodians and a few Westerners dressed in sombre black and white.
The weekend began with the funeral procession on Friday, which included representatives of the government, armed services, minority tribes and scouts. The casket finished its six kilometre-long journey at the cremation site in front of the National Museum, where it was raised into position after making three circuits of the park.
In the evening, funeral music was gently broadcast from PAs around Wat Phnom, along riverside and at the Independence Monument. Subdued crowds gathered to see the crematorium, fairy-lit and ethereal, surrounded by huge vases of white flowers. Outside the palace, incense fogged the air and people knelt to chant. Fireworks, a major feature of the weekend’s itinerary, set the seal on the first day. Over Saturday and Sunday, visitors queued in long lines to pay their final homage to the well-loved former king, kneeling before the coffin and burning incense.
On Monday, tens of thousands gathered on riverside to be close to the cremation site and the palace. The mass of black and white was broken by the occasional splash of a monk’s orange robes. Women squatted by mats, serving nom banh chok and corn on the cob to hungry mourners. Impromptu stalls offered laminated pictures of the King Father in different roles — as monk, soldier, family man and statesman. Standing on tip-toes at barriers, the crowds stretched for a glimpse of the tip of the funeral pyre or the cannons facing the Mekong, which would announce the lighting of the fire.
The 3,000 selected guests inside the funeral site included the prime ministers of France, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, various ambassadors and Prince Akishino of Japan. Just after 18:00, following a beautifully rosy sunset, King Norodom Sihamoni and his mother lit the funeral pyre. To a soundtrack of exploding fireworks and traditional Khmer music, white smoke slowly began to emit from the chimneys at the top of the ornate structure. A minute’s silence was observed along riverside, as many, particularly older people, allowed the tears to come. The king’s grief was also obvious, his shoulders heaving as he was comforted by his mother, wiping her eyes.
To finish the ceremonial weekend, on Tuesday some of the royal ashes were scattered from the royal barge into the river where the Mekong meets the Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac. In accordance with Sihanouk’s wishes, the remainder will be placed in the grounds of the Royal Palace.
Following the end of the official week of mourning on Thursday February 7, Phnom Penh will be back to the usual bustle, parties and laughter. The overloaded minibuses are returning visitors to the provinces, and the roadblocks have been lifted. The large scale memorial photographs outside businesses and ministries will be dismantled. But those laminated pictures of an unquestioningly loved king will be pinned to domestic walls for years to come.
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