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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    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

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices