They came from down the road and from across the country, trailing flags and portraits in their wake. They paused to pin thin black ribbons and coarse patches of cloth onto blazing white shirts.
And, one by one, starting early yesterday morning, Cambodian mourners lined the streets of Phnom Penh to meet the King Father’s body as it returned to its homeland.
By the time the plane carrying the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk touched down at Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday afternoon, the crowd across the capital had swelled to more than a million people, by Ministry of Information estimates – although the municipality put the figure at closer to 100,000.
In front of the Royal Palace, along Russian Boulevard, up and down roads both large and small, the streets filled as Cambodians gathered en masse to pay their respects to a man who, despite a complex life, remained beloved by many of his compatriots until the end.
On a scorching-hot day, students and the elderly, monks, families and foreigners alike took shade under the limited trees, picking out the best spots to view the procession.
“People have shown their attachment to him today,” said Seng Valath, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, who was watching the procession from outside the airport.
“For many people, this is their last chance to say goodbye.”
At the edge of Phnom Penh International Airport, hundreds of young men scaled the walls, propping themselves at the top of the fences leading to the airstrip in the hopes of catching of glimpse of the plane.
As the Air China flight landed, the crowd grew quiet. By 3pm, a sombre King Norodom Sihamoni, hand in hand with a teary-eyed Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, had made their way to the tarmac toward a waiting delegation of hundreds of monks, ministers and diplomats.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh followed behind, greeting those offering condolences.
Carried off the plane by 10 palace soldiers, the casket was placed in a traditional golden swan float leading the convoy of hundreds back to the Royal Palace. As the procession snaked across town, mourners dropped to their knees in prayer.
“I’m feeling very regretful today,” said 20-year-old Mam Oudom, a university student who came with 15 of his friends to pay his respects.
“This was our king of Cambodia, and I could not concentrate on studying today. I had to join the parade of people.”
The crowd grows
By early afternoon the small cluster of people gathering at the Royal Palace and Independence Monument had become tens of thousands as mourners dressed mostly in white streamed across the blocked-off city streets.
Just south of the palace at Wat Botum, 71-year-old Seng Oeun and 19 other lay people, as well as five monks, ate a lunch of rice and mackerel under the shade of a tree.
“I came to mourn for the King’s spirit,” said Oeun, who had travelled from Kampong Speu province with his cohorts to welcome the King Father’s body back to Cambodia.
“We were all sad and shocked when we got the information of his death. He sacrificed for the country... and he played the role of co-ordinator to unify the nation.”
Along with his companions, Oeun had scraped together $100 to pay for a portrait of Sihanouk, a funeral wreath and transportation from his home province.
To Oeun’s eyes, it was Sangkum Reas Niyum – the period from independence in 1953 that lasted until the threat of war set in about 1970 – that marked the golden era of Sihanouk’s reign.
Outside the palace, groups vied to scrawl condolence notes in a set of books placed on a table in front of the palace, and photographers for hire handed out small portraits of the late King Father for people posing for a souvenir.
As mourners jostled for space along the palace walls, a young man knelt down on the concrete. He poured a bottle of water over his head and bowed in front of a huge image of the late King Father Sihanouk staring out over the scene. He put his hands together and closed his eyes and prayed as a monk started shaving off his hair.
“I am so full of sorrow to lose him,” said a 68-year-old nun from Eth Reus Pagoda in Kandal province, wiping her tears.
“He should have lived longer. Without him, people will live with no calm in mind, but we wish the soul of the King to continue protecting his people.”
Vendors wandered up and down the parks, hawking flowers, incense, candles and pictures. “In a normal day we sell 100,” said Srey Nech, a 17-year-old lotus flower vendor who a day earlier had doubled the price to 1,000 riel. “Today it’s 200.”
Across Phnom Penh markets, sellers were doing brisk business. In Phsar Chas, mourners rushed to pick up framed portraits and pieces of black cloth.
Chan Ny, owner of a produce stall, said she and other vendors had begun selling ribbons at prices that barely turned a profit but which met a public need.
A young man paused to pick up a pin for 1,000 riel.
“I was in panic when I heard that our King had died. Not only me, but all Cambodians feel this sadness,” said Sokha.
“So I bought this [ribbon] to show we all share in mourning for our former king. He is a father and grandfather to all Cambodians, and is our hero who won us our independence.”
A royal welcome
As the afternoon wore on, old women retreated under umbrellas from the blistering sun as they squatted holding photocopies of the revered former leader, while girl and boy scouts stood hand in hand holding back the crowds along one side of Sothearos Boulevard.
Exhaustion and heat stroke soon kicked in, with a girl scout, then a boy scout, then another teenage girl fainting from the heat within minutes of each other as people rushed to help cool them down and remove them from the crowd.
At least two women were treated at local hospitals.
But even as the crowd grew and the temperature rose, the scene across the capital remained almost festival-like, with old friends greeting one another and swapping memories of the king.
“I’d rather come to sit here than watch it on TV,” said political analyst Chea Vannath, a former executive director for the Center for Social Development.
“I used to line up to watch him journey ever since I was a student, so I want to seen him off for the last time.”
At the Independence Monument, speakers hooked up to a sound system played traditional mourner’s music as anticipation mounted for the arrival of the procession.
Flanked by police motorcycles and protected by a ring of security personnel at the crowd’s edge, three golden swan floats, one carrying the coffin of the late King Father, glided toward the monument.
Onlookers wedged against one another at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards to get a better look. The procession stopped briefly in front of a phalanx of praying monks, before continuing and eventually turning north toward the Royal Palace.
There, after one false start triggered by the arrival of a vehicle unrelated to the procession, jubilant bystanders surged forward to snatch the final unoccupied areas of pavement as overwhelmed security forces flailed their arms and barked orders into megaphones.
Around 5:30, as incense rose into the dusk, the motorcade finally cut through the crowd led by the three golden swans carrying the casket, monks and traditional musicians.
Dozens of vehicles joined the procession, dropping off dignitaries including the late King’s daughters Princess Norodom Arun Rasmy and Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, Deputy Prime Ministers Sok An and Nhek Bun Chhay, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Half a dozen members of the Chinese delegation followed closely behind.
“Tonight, the Chinese delegates will pay respect to the [former] king at the Royal Palace and tomorrow there will be the Vietnamese prime minister,” Minister of Information Khieu Khanharith said, adding that the coming days will be reserved for other foreign dignitary visits.
During the next three months, the body will be kept in state, and may be visited by members of the public.
A royal decree was issued yesterday to establish a national committee for preparation of the funeral ceremony. That body will be headed by Senate President Chea Sim, with National Assembly President Heng Samrin as deputy, Prime Minister Hun Sen as standby deputy, and Minister of Royal Palace Kong Sam Ol as permanent deputy.
Mourning across the nation
Outside Phnom Penh, local authorities geared up for their own preparations during the week of mourning that began yesterday.
In Siem Reap, residents joined a mourning parade of monks stretching from Wat Po Langka to the shrines at Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chom.
“I knew his majesty since I was young; he endured all the obstacles to take back freedom and independence for Cambodia,” said Ith Si Thai, weeping as she spoke. “We are proud to have the greatest king, who always cared about his people like this.”
“I’ll be missing him,” she added, before breaking into sobs.
In Kampong Thom, deputy governor Ouch Sam On said he was preparing a large-scale ceremony to be held today at Kampong Thom pagoda.
More than 1,000 people are expected to come from across the province.
“We did this so everyone can come to respect our old king’s spirit. After, we will allow all the districts in our province to [hold ceremonies] in their community in whichever pagoda they prefer, so they can do in their local community.”
Speaking by phone, Battambang governor Prach Chan said all local government offices, schools and public places had been ordered to display images of the late King Father and the people urged to dress in white and black mourning clothes out of respect.
For at least a week, “at all the pagodas in my province, the monks will be blessing and offering dedication to the spirit of our old king.”
As the sun set and the crowds quietly dispersed, those closest to the late King Father, back on their native soil at last, were left to contemplate their loss.
“[The King] is very saddened and the Queen Mother also is crying all the time. It’s very sad to see them in such a sorrow,” said Son Soubert, an adviser to King Sihamoni.
But, he added, the turnout of mourners had been deeply heartening.
“I never saw something like that; such a devotion to the King Father... I never could have imagined a crowd like that.”
Reporting by Sen David, Phak Seangly, Cheang Sokha, Vong Sokheng, May Titthara, David Boyle, Justine Drennan, Joe Freeman, Abby Seiff, Stuart White, Shane Worrell.