Phnom Penh woke to the sound of a cannon salute on Friday as the ashes of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk were paraded through the city in an elaborate ceremony ahead of their interment at the Silver Pagoda 24 hours later.
The procession allowed Cambodians one of their last opportunities to pay their respects to the man many regarded as the last god-king.
As urns containing his remains were loaded on to a golden ceremonial float outside the palace just after 7:15am, King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath could not hold back their tears.
Sihanouk died aged 89 in October 2012. As both a monarch and politician, he towered over Cambodia for more than 60 years.
Government officials, members of the royal family, diplomats, monks, the armed forces, police, palace officials, royal guards and scouts all assembled in full regalia for a colourful ceremony. It was full of the pomp and splendour that characterised the elaborate funeral and cremation in February last year.
But the crowds were only a fraction in comparison, with large stretches of the route – notably along Norodom Boulevard – largely bereft of mourners. According to City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, only 20,000 Phnom Penh residents were invited to line the route for the choreographed event. They were selected by district governors and included heads of families, school children and local officials.
Those from the provinces, who had poured into the city during the funeral, were told to watch proceedings on television instead. “But people still can come by themselves,” he said.
The King and Queen Mother, and top officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen, did not join the parade. Instead, they waited outside the palace after the ashes departed. But emotions were still running high among the thousands who did come to pay their respects.
Lun Thean, 70, clutching flowers and a picture of the King Father, wept outside the palace as the urn returned. “Please my King Father rest in heaven. We all love you and want you to bless our whole country with happiness forever,” she said.
“We remember when you ruled the country [in the 1950s and 1960s]. We had prosperity. No leader in Cambodia can compare to you.”
To a sorrowful tune played by the military brass band, the procession travelled from the palace down Street 184 and onto Norodom Boulevard. It then snaked around Independence Monument, which commemorates one of Sihanouk’s greatest achievements – convincing colonial ruler France to grant Cambodia independence in 1953.
A total of 90 monks blessed the ashes there and again at the statue of Sihanouk in the park opposite. Dressed in customary white and black, with their heads bowed and hands pressed together, mourners looked on as the ashes travelled down Sihanouk and then Sothearos Boulevard.
Just before 9am, the procession stopped next to Wat Botum Park and the urns were carefully moved by white-robed, pony-tailed Brahmin priests from the float and on to an ornate red wooden litter, carried on the shoulders of 26 men.
As Sihanouk’s history and accomplishments were broadcast from loudspeakers, the procession inched dramatically towards the Silver Pagoda entrance, where the King and Queen Mother stood waiting.
Chhim Riya, 64, began to weep as she caught sight of the urns, representing Sihanouk, for the last time. “You created jobs for our Cambodian people,” she said. “Now we don’t have many like you during your time. Our Cambodians have to migrate to find jobs overseas and risk being trafficked. And they get shot. This current society is not good like yours.”