Trail of the unexpected: Cambodia - for king and country

Lara Dunston watches as thousands mourn the death of their monarch in Phnom Penh

At 3pm it is blisteringly hot in Phnom Penh. This is not an hour when Cambodians, accustomed to the fierce heat of their sultry tropical climate, would normally be on the street. But 10 days ago, Cambodians made an exception.

It was the beginning of a week of mourning: the body of their King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had died of a heart attack a few days earlier in Beijing, had been brought home.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians came out in the sweltering heat to offer their respects, lining the broad boulevards of this former French colony, from the airport on the outskirts to the Royal Palace at the centre of the city.

I waited with them on the waterfront boulevard near the palm-lined promenade of Sisowath Quay and the Tonlé Sap, a tributary of the Mekong. It was so hot that a Cambodian family of eight crouched in the shadow of a colossal black four-wheel-drive to shelter from the blazing sun. Others sat cross-legged on the kerb, dressed in their mourning clothes of white shirt and long black skirt or trousers, a black ribbon pinned to their chests. They held clusters of incense sticks, candles and water lilies, while at least one in every group held a portrait of a  dapper-looking, grey-haired gentleman in a gold frame. Some flapped a lace fan in front of their faces. Some stood behind their group, shading them with umbrellas.

A group of dazed-looking backpackers, wearing too few clothes for such a significant event, ambled along the nearby waterfront, searching for some shade. I joined the family squatting beside the big fancy car.

Norodom Sihanouk was 89 when he died – an age that few Cambodians have reached. Perhaps 300,000 died in the conflict that brought Pol Pot to power in 1975, with two million more falling victim to the notorious killing fields of the tyrant’s Khmer Rouge regime over the next few years.

Some Cambodians had joined the crowd merely out of curiosity, keen to catch a glimpse of the gold casket atop the extravagantly gilded funeral “barge”. This majestic vessel, which traditionally transported royal figures along rivers, took the form of a flamboyant Naga-headed float on wheels to carry the former king from his plane to the palace, where his body is due to lie in state for three months.

Most, however, were not here just to capture the spectacle on their camera-phones. They had come to pay their respects.

The older Cambodians were clearly more moved, many weeping openly. Later, once the casket had passed by and was through the palace gates, many moved closer to the glittering Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya, the “Moonlight Pavilion”, festooned with fairy lights and flowers and a monumental portrait of their King-Father.

They knelt on the manicured lawn in front of the pavilion, on the concrete paths that criss-crossed the square, and on the gravelly road traditionally used for parades, listening to the many monks who sat cross-legged with them, chanting prayers. They gently threw their lilies on to growing piles and placed candles on the concrete to create circles of light that they kept illuminated throughout the night. They crowded around a table of bound blank-paged books where they patiently waited their turn to record their feelings about the King-Father, their friends shining their mobile phones so they could see to write.

King Norodom Sihanouk was a complex man whose 60-year career was significant, if controversial. Lauded by many for taking his country from a French colony to an independent state, he was also criticised by some for not doing enough to prevent the Khmer Rouge from coming to power in 1975, nor to topple them later. At various times he was a king, a prime minister, a Communist, a leader in exile, and later, once more, a king – until 2004 when he abdicated to allow for his son to take over.

Whether in power or not, whether in Phnom Penh or Beijing, Norodom Sihanouk believed he was Cambodia. And so too, it seems, did many Cambodians.

Those who stayed lit the incense sticks that they’d carried all afternoon, poking them into the grass and sand, creating mini bonfires that were put out with water bottles by whoever was around. At first the incense produced fragrant plumes, initially pleasant. But later, late into the night, and over the course of the following week – out of curiosity, I found myself returning again and again – the air became thick and pungent.

For many Cambodians, the King-Father’s death is symbolic: some hope that with their king will go Cambodia’s tragic history.

Maybe now, I think, after witnessing 10 days of mourning, and 10 days of tears, Cambodians can finally move on.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories