PHNOM PENH —
Cambodians gathered in Phnom Penh to cremate the country’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk. In recent days, tens of thousands of Cambodians have paid their respects at the cremation sit next to the Royal Palace.
For Cambodians, the chance to say farewell to their former king has now ended.
On Friday morning, tens of thousands people lined the boulevards of the Cambodian capital to watch Sihanouk’s gilded coffin, the centerpiece of a mile-long funeral procession, pass them on its way to the cremation site.
Tens of thousands more, clad in black and white - the colors of mourning - filed past Sihanouk’s coffin Saturday and Sunday. Many had come from the rural provinces, where the majority of Cambodians live, to pay their respects.
By midday Monday thousands more were gathered near the Royal Palace as the time for Sihanouk’s cremation approached.
On Monday evening at six, the funeral pyre will be lit by Sihanouk’s widow and by his son - the current king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni.
Ambassador Julio Jeldres, the late king’s official biographer, explains what will happen next.
“Well after the cremation today the ashes are left there at the crematorium until they cool down. Then they are washed and then they are divided in two parts,” said Jeldres.
The first part will be placed in a golden urn and placed in the Throne Room at the palace until workers enlarge a stupa (Buddhist reliquary) within the grounds to take the urn. That stupa contains the ashes of Sihanouk’s daughter, who died when five years old from leukemia.
“The other part will be put in another container and it will be taken in a boat accompanied by the Royal Family and then dropped at the confluence of the two rivers - the Tonle Sap and the Mekong - which is called the Chaktomuk," he said. "It is in front of the Royal Palace.”
Jeldres expects the scattering of the ashes will take place later this week.
Norodom Sihanouk is widely seen as the father of Cambodia’s independence, which he secured from the former colonial power France in 1953. He was far more than a mere monarch, though, and after gaining a taste for politics in the early 1950s he abdicated and became prime minister of Cambodia and, later, head of state.
In 1991, King Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and two years later he was crowned king once again, nearly four decades after he had first abdicated.
But in 2004, he stepped down for the second time, frustrated at the limitations of being a constitutional monarch. King Sihanouk spent his final years in Beijing where he was treated for a number of ailments. He died there of a heart attack in October, aged 89.
Among foreign dignitaries attending will be Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister of France, and the premiers of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Some Cambodians will doubtlessly remember King Sihanouk’s ill-fated 1970s alliance with the murderous Khmer Rouge. But many others will dwell on his achievements while in office, including his drive in those early years for independence, for the country’s territorial integrity and his drive to improve education and health.