PHNOM PENH —
Tens of thousands of mourners packed the streets of the nation's capital as the body of Cambodia's former king, Norodom Sihanouk, was flown home Wednesday from China where he died Monday of cancer at age 89.
Eight years after he gave up his throne to his son, Sihanouk is still called the father of the nation by many Cambodians.
Outside Phnom Penh’s main airport, thousands of white-clad mourners waited in searing heat to catch once last glimpse of the man known as "King-Father" as his golden casket, placed in a golden carriage fashioned in the shape of a swan, made one last journey to the Royal Palace where his body will lie in state for three months.
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Poun Pon, a 67-year-old who journeyed from her rural home to say goodbye to a man she still calls "King," said she felt shock at hearing the of his death.
Also lining the 14-kilometer route, Long Kea, 72, only expressed a deep sorrow. "That's why I come to join his procession," said Kea. "It is all I could do."
"He struggled all his life and the country gained independence because of him," said Chhuong Chy, a popular comedian who also happened to be among the masses. "So as a son or grandson, I have been waiting for him, because I want to welcome him for the last time."
Some brought their young children to watch the mournful procession, wanting them to know the highly revered former monarch, who came to the throne in 1941 and ruled Cambodia off and on for more than 60 years, was much more than just grainy images on a television screen.
Although Sihanouk remains a hero to many Cambodians, he also leaves a mixed historical legacy. Unable to safely navigate the Cold War politics that engulfed his country, he sided with Khmer Rouge rebels who would later devastate his homeland and ultimately be blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians.
Yet for those who came of age during Sihanouk’s golden years of the 1950s and '60s, he is heralded for bringing his ancient kingdom through independence from France, war and genocide to form a fragile democracy.
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Sihanouk’s return begins a week-long period of official mourning, during which the Cambodian flag will fly at half-mast and all entertainment is prohibited.
In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, citing old age and health concerns.