Around Phnom Penh yesterday, the news of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death just shy of his 90th birthday appeared to resonate with both the young and older generations.
By mid-morning, many people had heard of his passing from friends, the news or the Internet, though activity was relatively quiet around the Royal Palace. But by the late afternoon, ranks of onlookers and those wishing to pay their respects had swelled at the palace gates and traffic came to a near standstill on Sisowath Quay.
Heang Yat, 57, sheltered from the morning rain under a tree in front of the Royal Palace, cried as she clutched pails of food intended as offerings for the Pchum Ben festival.
“I came to Wat Botum and heard the news of the death of the King from a motorcycle-taxi driver,” she said. “I feel very sad and pitiful for him; he had fought so hard for Cambodia.”
Ms. Yat said she clearly remembered the feeling of pride in 1962 upon hearing the news that the International Court of Justice had awarded the disputed Preah Vihear temple site to Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk, then a prince, ascended the hill to the mountaintop temple the next year and presided over a flag-raising ceremony, much to the delight of a large crowd of Cambodians that gathered at the temple.
“Cambodians still love him, even if he had been staying in China for a long time,” she said. “He was like a father of the country. I wish he could have lived longer to watch over his children.”
Ms. Yat said she witnessed a man kneel in front of the palace and shave his head—a traditional mark of respect made by sons or grandsons when a parent dies.
At about 10:45 a.m., a man in a white suit walked down a set of steps leading to the Tonle Sap river in front of the palace, and slowly offered up clumps of his freshly shorn hair to the current. He stood up, rubbed his head with water and solemnly walked up the steps, refusing to speak with reporters.
Along Phnom Penh’s mostly empty boulevards, both Cambodian and international flags flew at half-mast. At Independence Monument, where the flag was also at half-mast, some drivers and passersby stopped to take photographs.
The King Father’s portrait, which typically hangs alongside that of his wife Queen Monineath and his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, was removed from the outside of several government ministries.
Thirty-three-year-old Ben Navy from Stung Meanchey district said her family was devastated to hear the news, which they read online, and that her mother took it particularly hard.
“He was like the last King for us,” she said, “and I feel very sorry that he did not die in his home country.”
At Wat Pur Yaram in Russei Keo district’s Chroy Changva commune, the sound of devotional chants filled the air as families packed into the pagoda where worshipers were instructed to pay their respects to the King Father.
Kim Long, the 72-year-old chief of Village 2, said he was informed of the news at 2 a.m., shortly after Norodom Sihanouk passed away of a reported heart attack in Beijing.
“The people in the entire village were very sad,” he said. “A lot of the older ones shed tears for him and the villagers kept asking when his body will be brought back to Cambodia,” Mr. Long said.
But these feelings of grief were not reserved for those in whose lifetimes Norodom Sihanouk would have been a larger presence—Hi Sreypich, 24, said she too was sad to hear of his passing.
“When I first heard it, my body seemed to stop working,” she said. “He was the great King of all. He was like a father in our Cambodian family.”
By the afternoon, interest outside the Royal Palace had piqued. Scores of people parked their motorcycles alongside the barriers that block off the stretch of Sothearos Boulevard in front of the palace. Curious onlookers gathered at the palace gates, kneeling to pray or pressing their faces up to the bars to see inside, where there was no activity save for the occasional security guard standing around.
Two palace sentries stood duty outside the gates, where a 60-strong group of nuns, monks and laypeople from Takeo province’s Wat Phnom Chisor gathered and prayed en masse for about 45 minutes.
“We’re here to pray for the King,” one of the women said. “May he rest in peace and may his spirit come back to bless all Cambodians.”
In Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, where about 500 people gathered to watch water buffalo and horse races yesterday morning, Sok Keng, a 58-year-old Cham Muslim woman, said the death had made her sad.
“I feel very sorry and sad now. It’s so sad we lost him because he was a good King, and very kind,” she said.
Speaking by telephone from Kompong Speu province’s Samraong Tong district, Long Sin, 65, said she was shocked by the King Father’s death and recalled meeting him as a youngster.
“I remember he built houses for widows in Kompong Speu province, which had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge,” she said. “I met him and touched his hand when I was a schoolgirl.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Denise Hruby)