Smoke billowed into the sky last night as thousands of mourners inside the Veal Preah Meru crematorium bid farewell to King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and the nation closed the books on an exceptional chapter of its history.
The ensuing sound of gunfire and the fireworks that burst forth into the sky over the nearby Tonle Sap river shortly after 6:30pm indicated to tens of thousands of mourners, kept some distance away by barricades, that the cremation of Sihanouk, their beloved former monarch, who was placed on the throne as an 18-year-old in 1941, had begun.
“We’ll miss him forever. I’m so, so sorry,” a crying Soun Lina, 72, from Siem Reap province, said from her place behind a barricade north of the crematorium. “Already, I miss his face.”
Thousands of guests, including family, foreign dignitaries, government officials and monks, began filing into the crematorium at about 3pm yesterday to bid farewell to the King Father, who passed away, aged 89, after suffering a heart attack in Beijing on October 15.
“In our hearts and spirits, we will remember the King Father and believe that his spirit will be close to us, helping us develop and bringing us peace,” Som Chandina, from the National Election Committee, said outside the crematorium.
As the final day of a four-day funeral service turned to night and darkness descended on the crematorium, thousands of lights that line the walls illuminated the splendid structure and its immediate surroundings.
Royals, local officials and foreign guests, including Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Japan’s Prince Akishino, shuffled past the casket, bowing as they offered their final respects.
King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath lit the pyre just after 6pm and the nation stood still in an official moment of silence as fire consumed the body of the King Father.
Over the course of the next two days, the king and Queen Mother will set off on a royal barge to scatter some of Sihanouk’s ashes on the river. The rest will be placed in a diamond urn, which mother and son will parade through the cremation site before storing it at the Royal Palace.
The 3,000 in attendance sampeahed as Buddhist funeral chants filled the air and drifted over the near empty streets immediately outside the square.
Sum Saveith, 48, from Kandal province – granted access after pleading with a friend who is an official – was one of few civilians who stood on Sothearos Boulevard outside the crematorium. Tens of thousands of others had been kept behind barricades blocks from the Royal Palace.
“I’ve spent many hours waiting here so I could see it with my own eyes,” Saveith said, pointing through the open entrance. “I have been standing here since 10:30am. I want to keep this picture in my head so I can describe it to my family.”
Dom Sun, 80, from Kampong Cham province, was another who had made it beyond the tight security to a spot outside the crematorium.
“I feel indebted to the King Father,” she said. “When he was alive, he had time for all people — even the poorest of the poor. No hero of Cambodia has done what he did.”
The majority of mourners who made a pilgrimage to the capital yesterday to farewell Sihanouk were kept behind barricades blocks from the palace, leaving the entire Royal Palace Park — where 10,000 monks gathered on October 23 to pray for the King — empty during the cremation.
Ouy Than, 59, from Banteay Meanchey province’s Thmor Pok district, said she had wanted to get close to the crematorium, but had been stopped by police at a barricade north of Veal Preah Meru.
Those barricades had been erected at 9am, keeping mourners away, despite many being under the impression they could enter the crematorium until early afternoon.
“The schedule was set for the roads to be closed at 1:30pm,” Pao Pisey, director of the Ministry of Information’s media centre, said. “But the authorities needed more time to prepare security.
“During the three months after the King Father passed away, the authorities allowed people to worship and pray to the King Father inside the Royal Palace.
“On the second and third day, the authorities allowed mourners inside, but today is the cremation day – many foreign delegations have to come to pray. The government apologises to people for not letting them in.”
As crowds mounted on Sisowath Quay after the cremation, mourners surged forward, attempting to jump the barriers before being blocked by a phalanx of military police.
Just before 8pm, authorities pulled back barriers, sending thousands pouring into the streets abutting the Royal Palace. Thousands more flowed in from outside Chaktomuk Theatre, where armed forces had kept mourners at bay since morning.
“In the morning, I tried to go inside the crematorium to pay respects to the King Father, but the police used the barricades to block us at about 9:30am,” Khieuv Sokmean, 50, from Kandal province’s Takhmao town, said.
“So I went back home to prepare lunch for my family.”
In the afternoon, Sokmean returned to the capital for the cremation, and was ultimately allowed to sit near the road and watch the screen on the front of the Royal Palace.
Sokmean said she had been overcome with emotion at the sound of the guns that signified Sihanouk’s cremation and tried to rush closer, only to be stopped by the police. All she wanted to do, she said, was pay tribute to the King Father.
“If I could bring our King Father back, I would, but I cannot. This is life — people are born and they die,” she said.
To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at [email protected],