Months of hard work ended for Hout Samnang this week with the modest task of painting sidewalk tiles with a roller, but the 45-year-old walked away from the massive crematorium for King Father Norodom Sihanouk with a strong sense of pride.
“We are sorry for the King Father’s death, but working here has made us all very proud,” he told the Post on his final day at the crematorium.
Like hundreds of workers from across the country, Samnang has spent the past two months working next to the Royal Palace, toiling away as part of a construction team that has converted Veal Preah Maru park into a stunning, $1.2 million crematorium.
“We’ve worked harder than normal, because we’ve also worked at night — from 7pm to 10pm — to complete it on time,” he said, as tourists wandered past, snapping photos of the crematorium and asking whether the painted sidewalk was safe to walk on.
For Samnang, the work has been tough and the hours long — he is one of many workers who have slept at the site — but he could not think of a better way to farewell his former monarch, who passed away in China on October 15 at the age of 89.
“It has given us a chance to mourn – although we have nothing to return that compares to what [Sihanouk] did for the nation,” he said.
Workers like Samnang, employed by Vispan, a company owned by Kong Panya, the daughter of Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol, were paid $7.50 for a day’s work and a three-hour night shift.
“I’ve never worked at night before, but I never complained about it,” Samnang said. “This is a proud thing for my family.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen last month defended the government’s decision to award the crematorium contract to Vispan, saying there was no time for a public bidding process that could have included companies not linked to Sam Ol.
Meeting King Sihamoni and Sihanouk’s wife, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, who visited the site to present gifts to the workers, added to the importance of the project for Samnang.
“I have received a lot of donations like food, clothes and money from them and from private companies,” he said.
Working on the King Father’s crematorium has brought similar joy to Chem Souern, 25, a decorator from Kandal.
“I’m very happy to have worked here, because I can get both a salary and donations and gifts,” he said.
Both men said they hoped they could take part in or simply observe the funeral ceremony – which begins with a procession through Phnom Penh on Friday and ends with Sihanouk’s cremation on Monday – but they had not received any information from their bosses about it.
“We do want to join the upcoming ceremony, but I am not sure whether we as construction workers are allowed to participate,” Samnang added.
Nhek Bun Chhay, deputy chief of the government’s committee on the funeral, said no specific plans had been made to include the construction workers in the procession, nor had they been allocated a special position from which to watch.
It was possible, however, that some of them would be among 120 civilians invited to march.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former aide to the King Father, said he admired the construction team for what they had achieved since work began in November.
“They’ve been working night and day,” he said. “I’m really amazed by all the work that’s been done in such a short time.”
Son Soubert, privy councillor to the king, was also happy with what he had seen.
“It looks gorgeous,” he said.
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