Norodom Sihanouk's coffin circles the crematorium at the end of the funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 01, 2013. Photograph: Andy Jones/Phnom Penh Post
To the sound of cannon shots, dirges and the quiet weeping of his subjects, the body of King Father Norodom Sihanouk was escorted around the capital today in an elaborate procession to deliver it to the royal crematorium at Veal Preah Meru.
Outside the Royal Palace this morning, the scene was a reverent one. Along with rows of generals, politicians and persons of note who lined the path of the King Father’s coterie on its way to the procession, groups of elderly women stood at attention, fastidiously sampeahing.
Some clutched lotus flowers; others held incense and jasmine petals. Many grasped all three, letting go only to dab back tears as they waited for the King Father’s coffin to emerge from the palace grounds.
Thirty-year-old Soam Chalna said that he had joined in the ceremony with a group of friends from work. “It is our final day to show our heart to our beloved King,” he said, his voice wavering as he spoke of Sihanouk’s lofty status in the region. “He was working, and would do anything for his people, like independence from France.”
At 8:30am, the coffin was pulled from the castle and loaded into its ornate ceremonial float, accompanied by King Norodom Sihamoni, Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk and Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
As they paused in front while it was raised onto the bier, teenagers quietly posed for pictures, sampeahing reverently. A young girl selling candles and incense stopped and watched in silence.
Open-air floats carrying some of Sihanouk’s sons and daughters led the way, along with the supreme patriarchs and royal musicians. Following Sihanouk’s float was an elaborate hamsa vehicle carrying Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, among others.
Ministers and governors, musicians and monks, lawmakers and lay people, police and ethnic minorities, scouts and soldiers, were among the 5,000 to don full regalia and join the procession.
As the procession moved on from the Royal Palace, observers turned to follow the return of King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Sihanouk to the Royal Palace and then moved over to the crematorium.
Only those who had received a written letter of invitation to the crematorium – more than 3,000, according to the government, including deputy prime ministers, ministers and royal family members – were allowed to enter the crematorium itself, first having to pass through metal detectors.
Indeed, security remained tight all around the area, with police at one point clearing lawmakers, their families and other spectators away from the gate through which the body would enter the crematorium because they were not in uniform – to the complaints of many.
One woman watching near the crematorium, Om Yol, 63, said she had travelled from Kandal province’s Lvea Em district with her daughter the day before to pay her respects to the late King Father.
“This is my last time to say goodbye to him, and he will not come back forever,” she said. “He helped his people and country very much. I will respect him forever, even now that he has passed away,” she said.
“It was a bit difficult to get near the cremation area, but I told the police that my house is near the Veal Preah Meru,’’ she said, adding that, in fact, she had asked around and found a house nearby in which she could stay while she was in Phnom Penh paying her respects.
Seng Sar, 67, sat on the ground near the crematorium and waited for the procession. Five days ago, Sar travelled from Prey Veng province and had been sleeping in front of the Royal Palace ever since.
“I do not want him to leave us,’’ said Sar, who met the King on several occasions when he visited the provinces in her youth. “I hope he will rest in peace and be born to be a Cambodian person again in next his life.’’
“I am worried bad things will happen to our country now he has passed away,’’ she added. “There are a lot of bad people in our country, and the security is not as good as when we were led by our late King.”
As the morning continued, many spectators began to tire as they waited for the procession to reach their location. Officials sat on the curbs around the Royal Palace, while visitors from the provinces sat in the shade of billboards displaying pictures of the late King Father.
Others shielded their faces from the sun with portraits of Sihanouk.
But though lotus flowers began to wilt, health officials said by midday they had treated few maladies.
Dr Ly Bunchheoun, sitting in one of the many medical care tents pitched near the Royal Palace, said no one had fainted by 10:30am, although several villagers, soldiers and police officials had taken advantage of the access to medical care to get blood tests, medicine and other health services.
Les E Tres, a health officer from the Ministry of Health, working standby in a tent in front of the old National Assembly, said he had seen treated just two mild cases of fainting.
“But there were about 650 people who took the medicines for dizziness, diarrhoea and headache from the tent this morning, until the time the parade finished,” he added.
They were not the only cases. Just after the coffin had passed the waiting dignitaries at around 8:30am, prompting a slow wave of kneeling and rising, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An also appeared to briefly pass out.
He was rushed by a scrum of bodyguards and officials to a nearby ambulance, which barely waited for the 63-year-old to be loaded into the back before speeding off. Medical personnel at the scene declined to comment on the matter.
Apart from a few incidents, however, the morning moved along with a still solemnity.
“We were shocked when we saw our King’s body had moved from the royal palace,” said Tin Kun, a 63-year-old nun from Takeo province’s Traing district. “I am very sorry to lose our late King. I felt like I was losing our father too.”
Kun was 10 years old when Sihanouk’s father, Norodom Suramarit, had his own cremation.
“I did not know much about his cremation compared to the late King’s today, but I can say that the procession of the King’s body today is very wonderful,” she said. “It is suitable for our late King’s reputation.”
Sombre military music washed over the streets of Phnom Penh as the procession slowly snaked its way from the palace.
Pausing for a few moments at Wat Phnom, the parade then looped around to head back down Norodom Boulevard.
Clad in white and black, onlookers fell to their knees as Sihanouk's coffin approached, and some sobbed in mourning while holding out offerings of incense sticks between their clasped hands.
Security posted along the sides of the roads instructed those who did not do so on their own to kneel.
By 11am the procession circumnavigated the Independence Monument. Members of the royal family sprinkled small hard rice cakes onto Sihanouk Boulevard, before turning left again up Sothearos Boulevard, where King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Monineath were now waiting, right at the entrance gate where the ceremony had begun several hours earlier.
Near the palace, Chum Sophat, 85, a monk at the Anchach Pagoda in Banteay Meanchey’s Mongkol Borei district observed the procession with awe.
“When I was a soldier for him, he always took care of us and worked hard for the soldiers. I respect the King so much,” he said, recalling a time he marched in formation for Sihanouk.
“I had an experience with him,” said the monk who served as a soldier under Sihanouk in the lead-up to Lon Nol’s coup. “So today, even though I come from Banteay Meanchey, I had to come to Phnom Penh to join the procession and bless him to be in peace.”
A nun, 74-year-old Oun Vet, said that nothing could have stopped her from paying her final respects.
“I am ill, but I had to try to come, even though I am so old, because we respected and loved our King so much from our heart,” she said. “The whole life of the King, he worked for the nation and all its people.”
Officials projected that one million mourners would turn out for today's procession, though the figure appeared far less than that. At screens set up around the capital – intended to be a means of crowd control – few onlookers paused for more than a few minutes.
Overcrowding was no issue at Chbar Ampov market in the capital’s Meanchey district, where a giant television screen sitting on a truck – one of at least a dozen across the city – beamed out the procession to only a small congregation of spectators.
Motorbikes slowed, but few stopped, for a glimpse of the fuzzy and loud telecast, as many sellers went about their daily work as usual in the bustling streets nearby.
Those who did stop to pay respects – no more than about 40 at any one time – spoke of what the King had achieved and the strides he had taken in achieving independence and national reconciliation for the Kingdom.
Chef Chi Sophy, 38, was busy preparing a feast for a private party, but paused outside the market for a few moments of quiet reflection to remember Sihanouk. “I did not know there was going to be a TV screen. I just came out to get food,” she said, appearing emotional. “I feel so sad, because we used to have the King Father... and now he’s left us.”
Motodop Nhim Ngo, 58, sat astride his bike on his usual turf, but the special passenger he held in his arms – his small granddaughter – showed this was a day to mourn, not work. “I remember when I was young in the 1960s during Sihanouk’s time in power. It was a simple and happy time,” he said.
Streets around the south edge of Phnom Penh bustled as usual, but main roads into the city were unusually empty some distance before they were closed to traffic.
It was along Norodom Boulevard that 76-year-old Sothea made her way on foot towards the Independence Monument to watch the procession with her daughter and granddaughters.
“I wanted to go to the Royal Palace to stay near the crematorium, but I could not walk a long way. Going to the Independence Monument is enough. I could not stay at home and watch it on TV. Seeing it with my own eyes is much more emotional. And everyone is paying attention; I had to join.”
As the procession wound its way along Sihanouk Boulevard, 80-year-old Som Thor, from Kien Svay district in Kandal province, sat at the intersection of Sothearos Boulevard clutching a razor in his hands. “I will shave my head myself when the procession goes by,” he said. “The people around me will help me finish it and make it look good.”
The people he spoke of – two women in their 60s from the same district as Thor – had been strangers to him until they sat together at 6:30am; Thor had come to the procession alone. “I came here alone on a motorbike,” he said. “My family was running late, so I could not wait for them.
“Sitting here in the sun for a long time is no problem, because the King sacrificed so much for us.”
Before the parade of floats and marchers had arrived, Thor’s hair was already gone. Losing himself in the moment, he had not been able to wait and began shaving his white locks.
“When someone we love so much dies, we have to shave our heads. I did this the first time when the King died.”
With Phnom Penh all but shut down, the normally bustling capital cut an unusual scene today. At the markets, vendors and shoppers alike spoke reverently of the late King Father to one another.
“I can’t go this morning, because I have to mind the shop, but I made 1,000 ribbons to give away for free. When Sihanouk died last year, I brought ribbons, fresh water and candles to the Royal Palace, to give to people for free to honour our King,” said Hang Bopha, a 52-year-old jewellery vendor at Russian market.
“This weekend is very important for me to be able to pay my last respects – I want to bring my daughters, for them to understand how important Sihanouk was to our country.”
Inside the market, customers dressed in white and sporting black ribbons ran speedy errands.
“I just feel that this is the last time that we can offer him respect. I just feel that we have lost a great King,” said Sokunthea Seyn, breaking down in tears as she spoke. The 29-year-old was dropping off her mother at the family’s furniture shop before heading off to join the rest of her family at the procession.
“Now he is gone, I just hope that people in the government will look at him as their role model. And also we just wish that his soul may help to bring Cambodia prosperity and development. And I just feel that maybe the younger generation could learn about his story and act accordingly, and follow his steps to lead Cambodia to prosperity.”
Though the overall atmosphere was one of still solemnity, many found themselves in an increasingly emotional state as the morning wore on.
Near Wat Ounalom, where the 55-year-old was staying during the mourning period, Pin Leap said she had travelled from Kampong Speu to catch one last glimpse of Sihanouk. Placing her suitcase and mosquito net on the ground, Leap paused for a moment to wipe her tears.
“I am very worried, because I don’t know what will happen to his country now that he has passed away, but I hope my King’s spirit will continue to help this country,” she said.
Reporting by May Titthara, Chhay Channida, Mom Kunthear, Sen David, Shane Worrell, Joe Freeman, Stuart White, Justine Drennan and Claire Slattery