SIEM REAP - "Watching Cambodia from the top of a mountain. Having seen it and
not crying, not having tears running off the eyes..." It is a tale about Cambodia,
of a little girl separated from her mother because of war.
Those are the lyrics from a traditional Khmer song that Srei Roatkagna, an 11-year-old
girl, wanted to sing to King Norodom Sihanouk if she met him.
Roatkagna was among more than 5,000 Cambodians, according to a police chief's estimate,
who came to Siem Reap from different provinces to welcome the King back to Cambodia
late last month.
The little girl and her aunt came from their home town in Kampong Thom, along with
94 others, mainly women and children. To them, the politics of his return after a
six-month absence were of little consequence; they simply wanted to see "Samdech
Euv", or "The Venerable Father".
The Kampong Thom travelers arrived in four vans at the Angkor temple complex on Thursday,
Aug 28, the day before the King's return, after an 11-hour journey.
"Four days ago, when we heard on the radio that the King would be back, we were
all excited. I decided to organise a trip to come and see our father," explained
Yey Ien, aged 63.
"We want to meet Samdech Euv," added another woman, Yey Yat. "We want
to see him, because we want peace. He is the umbrella for peace, he is the father
of all Cambodians".
Yet Tha, a 60-year-old coconut seller said: "It will take me two months to pay
this trip back". She, and the others from Kampong Thom, each paid 30,000 riels
($10) for a round trip to Siem Reap.
The group camped at one temple on their first night, before being moved on by police
the next day. "We were very scared," said Yey Ien. "The police came...
and told us that it wasn't safe for us to stay there during the night. People may
come and harm us, they said."
King Sihanouk arrived at Siem Reap airport on the Friday but Yey Ien and her fellow
well-wishers missed him. By Saturday, as the little community found refuge at Wat
Kampong Roat in the middle of Siem Reap, their hopes were fading.
"Tomorrow, there will be only salt left," said Yey Ien, explaining that
the group had eaten most of the supplies of rice and prahok fish paste they had brought
for their trip.
"We don't know what to do. We have visited the temples. It is the first time
we have seen them. It is beautiful to see Cambodian traditional art, even if it is
broken. But we are sad that we couldn't meet the King."
"No one could tell us where to find the King. We don't know anyone here and
we don't know the area," said Yey Khang, aged 52. "We have to leave tomorrow
morning, at dawn, in our rented car. It will cost us an extra 10,000 riels to stay
for another day. We can't afford it."
In the early evening, as the women played cards, trying to kill their disappointment,
the silence was heavy at Wat Kampong Roat. Then, a car came to the wat to deliver
a message: the King had heard of their hopes.
Overnight, a ceremony was arranged. On the King's agenda, for 9am the next morning,
Sunday, a meeting with 96 well-wishers from Kampong Thom was pencilled in.
"I couldn't sleep at all," said Yey Ien in the early hours of Sunday. "I
am scared, and then I am glad. And then again I am scared."
Finally, four days after they arrived in Siem Reap, their wishes came true: they
were taken to the Royal residence to meet the King. "They are coming from so
far, from Kampong Thom to see me," the King, clearly delighted, said to reporters
as he embraced people in the crowd.
Fortune has proven to be even better than expected. Not only did they have the opportunity
to see Samdech Euv, but all of them one by one was personally introduced to the King
and the Queen. Each one was given gifts, to help pay for their trip to Siem Reap.
And 11-year-old Srei Roatkagna got what she wanted: she sang her song, watched by
the King just a few yards away.
"From now on, he will be like a grandfather who will always be around me,"
Roatkagna said afterward, before she and the others departed back to Kampong Thom.
"But it's too sad that he lives so far away".