Just east of Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument, the memorial to Cambodia’s late king is located on the street bearing his name, Sihanouk Boulevard. Unveiled in October 2013 to coincide with the first anniversary of his death, this US$1.2 million new addition to Cambodia’s public monuments makes for an interesting detour.
Considered by many Khmers as a hero king and the father of the nation, King Norodom Sihanouk’s first reign was a turbulent one. In the 1950s and 60s, romantically seen as the “golden era” of Cambodia, he led the country into independence from France. After a US-led coup he was forced into exile, from where he made a deal with the emerging Khmer Rouge.
When the ultra-Maoists seized power in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state but was detained and kept at the royal palace for most of the regime’s rule. Among the nearly two million people killed as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s policies were several of Sihanouk’s children. Sihanouk left when the Vietnamese ousted the regime, returning yet again in 1991 and being named king again two years later. Although he relinquished power in 2004, and his legacy is debated by historians, his place in many Cambodian hearts was secured.
The mass mourning following his death in 2012 demonstrated that public affection for the King Father remains high, and you’ll see his picture in government buildings, banks, offices and plenty of private homes. The new memorial is popular with Cambodian visitors and likely to be a focal point during the public holidays reserved for his birthday and death.
Wearing a plain suit and a benign smile, the 4.5 metre high bronze statue of the King Father is simple and personal, in style if not in size. The statue is shaded by a traditionally styled gold coloured stupa, 27 metres tall and set in the long narrow park that runs down the centre of the boulevard. The memorial is best approached from the riverside end, as the supersized monarch looks out to the water. To avoid causing offence, take your cue from those around you — removing your shoes at the base of the steps shows respect. Photography is fine, but don’t expect to get a close-up, as access is not permitted within 10 metres of the statue.
The memorial would be an appropriate addition to a visit to the Royal Palace (about seven minutes’ walk away) or following a wander around the National Museum, as the royal cremation took place in the garden out front.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 21st November, 2015.