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Slow erosion for crematorium

Chipped paint can be seen at the blocked-off entrance to King Sihanouk’s crematorium site
Chipped paint can be seen at the blocked-off entrance to King Sihanouk’s crematorium site. The structure, erected from temporary materials, continues to stand nearly seven months after the funeral. VIREAK MAI

Slow erosion for crematorium

In February, the nation watched as the late King Father’s body was carried across the threshold of an ornate castle-like wall, into a gilded crematorium at the grassy park in front of the National Museum.

Nearly seven months later, the grand structure stands with buckled yellow paint and freckles of dirt on its white pendants. Chains, rope and caretakers stop people from walking under the wall’s arch and a fence surrounding the area deflect them from the park.

“I sometimes wonder why the government still leaves it up and keeps people out,” said Moen Sophy, as she and two of her children sheltered themselves from the rain under a clear plastic tarp set up in front of the wall. Since Sophy, her husband and their five children were displaced from the park where they used to live in relative comfort to make way for the crematorium, that sliver of sidewalk has served as their home.

Construction of the crematorium began shortly after King Father Norodom Sihanouk died of a heart attack last October at the age of 89.

A $1.2 million contract to build the temporary structure went to Vispan, a company owned by Kong Panya, the daughter of Minister of the Royal Palace Kong Sam Ol. Vispan completed the project about a week before the funeral.

The actual crematorium was moved from the site a few months ago, but the wall, fence and other specially made structures remain in the park.

Although Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said about a week after the funeral that the display would be removed before the May 28 ploughing day festival – typically held in the park, but moved to Kampong Cham province this year – there has been no movement. Instead, 10 workers still remain on site, performing only the most minor upkeep on the crumbling structure and shooing away anyone who tries to wander into the grounds.

“I do not know what the Ministry of the Royal Palace [the ministry in charge of the site] plans to do,” said one of the groundskeepers, who declined to give his name because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “The fence is kept for national and international tourists to visit.”

But the cremation sites of deceased Cambodian Kings are traditionally temporary structures, not meant for fanfare after the funeral, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former aide to the late King Father.

“A crematorium site can’t be used as a tourist site or a museum,” Thomico said.

One mitigating factor, Thomico added, is the lack of precedence for a wall and fence built around the crematorium, since no previous king cremations included these structures.

Calls by a Post reporter to the Royal Palace yesterday and Tuesday went unanswered. Despite the fact that the wall and fence’s continued existence keeps Sophy and her family living on the sidewalk, she holds no ill will, she said.

“[Sihanouk] is the hero of Cambodia,” Sophy said. “It is the residents’ obligation to obey the king.”

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