In the early afternoon on Wednesday, as Dominic Bortoluzzi’s domestic flight from Siem Reap neared the international airport in Phnom Penh, the plane went into a holding pattern.
This was no ordinary delay, explained the pilot, who said there was “VIP activity” on the tarmac. Finally, the flight touched down. Bortoluzzi, a lawyer from Sydney visiting Cambodia for the first time on a week-long holiday, peered out the window.
“As we landed, you could see the 747 had just landed,” he said, while standing across the street from the Royal Palace yesterday,
The VIP inside the jet plane was, of course, the body of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died in Beijing on Monday. He was at the beginning of an 11-kilometre procession to the Royal Palace, where his body will lie in state for three months.
For Bortoluzzi, 45, and thousands of other tourists in Phnom Penh this week, casual trips morphed into unexpected encounters with a momentous occasion. You can’t plan for this. Only the most prescient of visitors could have factored a major historical event into an itinerary.
“It has something of the Princess Diana about it,” Bortoluzzi said, referring to the massive outpouring of grief that followed the young royal’s sudden death in 1997.
Government estimates placed the number of Cambodians who turned out at one million; and visitors from all over the map mingled among them.
They came out of a sense of respect, curiosity, or, in the case of Christine Gebrane, a Lebanese woman who was visiting her Cambodian-born fiancé, a lasting intimate memory.
“He has a connection to this country, it was important for me and him to be together at this point,” she said outside the palace.
The couple waited for hours on a packed sidewalk of Norodom Boulevard to watch the procession pass by. Standing there on Wednesday, she was wowed. “They were all silent. They were all praying. It was very impressive and very emotional,” she said.
Olena Bogdanova, a product manager from Ukraine, said she was similarly moved.
“When the ceremony finished, there were so many people” walking through the streets, she said. “It was amazing.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he saw nothing wrong with non-Cambodians taking part in what was a solemn moment.
“First of all, I really appreciate and am thankful for the good gestures, and that they give respect to my King who passed away. And secondly, it’s one world, one village, and a culture of respecting people is a common feature for human beings,” he said.
Not everyone witnessed the end of an era. Barrie Currell, a 67-year-old retired Australian man on an extended holiday, said he was only able to catch a glimpse.
“I missed out on everything,” he said yesterday outside the palace. He aimed his camera up at Sihanouk’s large portrait and snapped a shot. On Wednesday, he had waited on the lawn across the street.
“But after a while, I just went home,” he said. He only saw the golden-coloured swan boat carrying the coffin of the late King in newspapers yesterday morning. Still, he was glad to be there, if only for a little while.
“It is once in a lifetime.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]