Piseth Pelika prepares herself, right, for her dramatic role in the Reamker, or Ramayana, in front of Angkor Wat
Cambodians bid a sad farewell to a woman who was seen as the embodiment of
Khmer culture, as Chea Sotheacheath reports
HE HAUNTING sound of a Khmer traditional flute lament wafts through the air among
more than 10,000 mourners. The monotonous boom of a drum marks the steady pace of
the funeral procession making its way through weeping masses to the catafalque standing
in the school playground of the impoverished Fine Arts University.
The guests of honor begin arriving. Chief among them is Her Royal Highness Princess
Bopha Devi, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. With her are senior monks and other
top government officials.
But it is the immensity of the crowd, and its diversity, that is astonishing: young
and old, rich and poor, the famous and the unknown. Some have skipped work for the
day; others have journeyed from distant provinces. There are reports of people quitting
their jobs rather than miss the opportunity to be here.
All have come to bid their last farewell to a woman who in the wake of her
Piseth Pelika is posing with singer and actor Tep Veasna
death has come to be seen as embodying the very heart and soul of Khmer culture:
Piseth Pelika. A name already famous, but one that has been on everyone's lips during
the seven days that she struggled for life after the assassin's attack upon her in
a Phnom Penh market on July 6, and during the days of mourning since.
The numbers of the crowd are uncountable. The funeral lasts for hours. Thousands
flow continuously into the university grounds as other thousands are leaving. Police
link arms to form a human barricade to stop the surging crowd from overwhelming the
catafalque and dignitaries. A giant tree just metres from the bier is festooned with
a score of small boys nesting in its branches for a birdseye view.
"This is very big ceremony isn't it?," a man who has just dived under the
police cordon in front of the official stage remarks to the stranger next to him.
"Perhaps Samdech Preah Ream's funeral would not be crowded like this one, if
she were . . . Do you know the princess is a former Apsara actress?,"
his companion responds, pointing with pursed lips to Princess Bopha Devi seated in
the chair of honor on the stage, as his eyes move around watching the crowds.
The ceremony progresses. Cambodian film actor Tep Rin Daro, on behalf of Cambodian
Artists reads a eulogy expressing their deep sorrow at the loss of their friend Pelika.
"Let us speak to the soul of the Lady Pelika before the fire burns her beautiful
body away from us," Daro reads in front of a large smiling photograph of Pelika
displayed on the side of her coffin, high upon the catafalque.
"She is disappeared from the world, indeed. But the good model of her heroism
remains. We shall all remember her forever."
"Let us say goodbye to our Lady. Goodbye for ever . . . never to see her again."
Daro weeps, and the crowd weeps with him. On the official stage Um Sivorn, like Pelika
herself, a famous woman singer, sobs unrestrainedly.
One of the traditional musicians of Pleng Pin Peat , Nol Sobon, his face sweating
in the hot day, reflects on Pelika's life and sudden death: "I used to play
other songs on my flute for her to dance at national and international ceremonies.
But today I play a funeral song for her death. I never expected that," he says
Piseth Pelika was gunned down in an execution-style attack in broad daylight near
Phnom Penh's O Russei market with her niece on July 6, and died seven days later
in Calmette Hospital. She was 34. Her seven-year-old niece, Saren Sereiman, is recovering,
but Pelika was mortally wounded by bullets in the spine.
As the days passed after the shooting, Khmer radio was full of her singing, and Khmer
television played re-runs of the many movies she had starred in.
At first there was hope as she clung to consciousness.
Piseth Pelika's 73-year-old grandmother, Taeng Sovan, is overcome with grief
during the funeral.
"I did not do any bad thing at all. Why have they mistreated me like this?"
Pelika asked her family in a faint voice as they stood around her bed after a first,
ultimately futile, operation in the hospital.
Now the ceremony progresses. Princess Bopha Devi recalls the achievements of Pelika:
a great actress and exponent of Khmer traditional dance, which she had danced correctly
according to the traditional style.
"Pelika was the greatest actress representive of Cambodian culture," the
Princess says. "The loss of her is a huge loss to national culture.
"I myself, together with the Ministry [of Culture and Fine Arts] share her family's
hope that the soul of Piseth Pelika will be born peacefully in the next world, if
the murderer is arrested [and] justice is found for her."
Pelika's former husband, Khay Praseth, who had flown from his home in Australia,
seems overwhelmed with grief. Friends surround him and support him to save him from
falling. He puts flowers on Pelika's coffin and turns toward the Princess.
It is time, he says. Time for the Princess to light the torch that will begin the
The smoke from the pyre's chimney hovers and swirls through the crowds and through
the school where Pelika taught.
Praseth stands with his arms protectively around seven-year-old Khay Sithlysak, his
and Pelika's son. Together, they gaze up, watching the smoke rising from the pyre,
sadly and silently.
A seven-year-old son Khay Sithlysak, is overcome with grief during the funeral.
Then the rain begins. And the people murmur that the rain is accompanying Pelika
to another, more peaceful world.
Proeung Chhieng, dean of the University of Fine Arts and Culture, describes Pelika
as having been a modest student, polite and quiet. She never had any quarrel with
"Once, I saw her sitting in a corner of the school and crying. I asked her,
'Why are you crying?' Some boys had mistreated her," Chhieng recalls.
Chhieng says Pelika will be irreplaceable.
"Pelika had three good qualities: She possessed attitude, beauty and knowledge.
Other artists do not have all three of these."
Chhieng says the spontaneous presence of the multitude at the funeral, their pilgrimage
from all across Cambodia, is testimony to the enduring popularity of traditional
Khmer art. And this popularity endures because of the commitment of Pelika, who had
rescued the Khmer culture from its extinction by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Pelika had performed perfectly in many countries in the world since she became an
actress in 1988.
In 1997, Cambodia was one of 12 Asian countries at the Ramayana Festival in Bangkok.
And thanks to Pelika, Cambodia had been the best.
"Pelika did a great job. The way she danced followed the original rule. Only
Cambodia danced correctly. We are happy because we can maintain the original form
of the Ramayana dancing, whereas other countries like Thailand cannot."
The result was that Cambodia was placed first ahead of the other competing countries,
the dean said.
Piseth Pelika was born Ouk Eab Pily in 1965, in Sangkat No 5, Phnom Penh City, the
daughter of Ouk Eab, a professor of French. Her mother was Meng Mony. She had two
younger sisters, Sai Vina and Va Bo.
They were orphaned during the Khmer Rouge regime, and evacuated to live with their
uncle and aunt in a remote village in Pursat province, where Va Bo also died.
Because she lived with her uncle, Sao Piseth, Pelika's family name changed from Ouk
Eab to Sao, and she became Sao Pily.
In 1979 she returned to Phnom Penh and went to school, then in 1980 began studying
Khmer traditional dance at the School of Fine Arts. She graduated in 1988 and began
working at the Department of Arts and Spectacles of the Ministry of Culture and Fine
Later, when she became an actress, she changed her name from Sao Pily to Piseth Pelika,
according to Proeung Chhieng, dean of the arts school.
She became famous when she began to play roles in Cambodian films.
She had starred
in 60 films, among them the 1980s film Sramol Anthaka (Shadow of Darkness) about
life during the Pol Pot regime, and she also became a popular karaoke singer.
In 1990 she married Cambodian actor Khay Praseth, whom she subsequently divorced.
She joined the staff of the Fine Arts University in 1991 as a teacher of Khmer traditional
dance, and in1992 gave birth to her only child, her son Khay Sithlysak.