On the Eve of King’s Return, Unity at the Royal Palace

The news of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death drew large crowds at the Royal Palace yesterday as mourners swarmed about lighting candles and incense sticks and offering up lotus flowers as a way of marking their respect.

By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to at least 1,000 as the late King’s portrait was positioned at the front of the palace.

An estimated 100,000 people are expected to pay tribute today to the late King when his body arrives in Cambodia from Beijing where he passed away on Monday morning.

“We are expecting tens of thousands of people, monks, and officials to accompany the arrival of the body of the King from the International Airport to the Royal Palace,” said Chea Kean, deputy secretary-general with the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals. “We are trying to get as many people as we can to come to pay their respect for our King.”

Yesterday morning, however, Phnom Penh stood largely idle as celebrations of the annual Pchum Ben festival came to an end. All was quiet on Sisowath Quay. A group of students laid a wreath for Norodom Sihanouk and knelt down together before forming a procession past the palace bearing a sign that read: “We, together for Kantha Bopha.”

Overall, the scene was not too dissimilar to a regular day on the riverside with families playing with their children and vendors selling cold drinks. Elsewhere around the city, all was relatively quiet. Flags continued to fly at half-mast, but Phnom Penh’s main boulevards and streets were mostly empty.

On the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 154, opposite a large portrait of the late King Father, Luxe Cinema security guard Lim Sa Em instructed staff to erect large swathes of black fabric over movie advertisements ahead of the King Father’s procession and the official mourning period that begins today and is set to end on October 23.

“We are preparing black fabric to mourn for the King,” he said. “We are still showing movies today, but we will stop showing starting from tomorrow for seven days.” Today marks the beginning of a week-long period of mourning across the country.

According to Battambang provincial governor Prach Chan, public portraits of the late King Father have been decorated with black fabric, while flags are hanging half-mast.

Kompong Cham deputy governor Lon Limthay said flags were also lowered in respect.

“I have sent out a message to districts to ask people to gather at pagodas at any time to pay respect and to mourn for our King,” he said. “I have not heard any loud music in town today.”

By the afternoon yesterday, city workers were hauling bags of sand and filling in pavement cracks ahead of today’s expected crowds. By the evening, the park area in front of the palace was a hub of activity and the smoke of burning incense filled the air. Large crowds of people young and old huddled over a table laden with books of condolence.

Yorp Saody, 30, from Meanchey district, said that he had come to pay his respects to the King and would be at the airport at 12 p.m. today so as not to miss the arrival of his body.

“I come to pay respect, offer flowers and light incense. I also signed the book of condolence. I wrote that I would like to share the sadness and condolences for the King,” he said.

Palace worker Prom Rotha, 38, said the books would eventually be kept at Phnom Udong to the north of the city.

As the day wore on, activity behind the palace walls picked up. A large golden ceremonial carriage was driven in the front gate, out of which a huge portrait of the King followed about 30 minutes later.

In an operation that seemed more stop than start, the portrait was falteringly hooked up to a crane that at one stage jolted and nearly dropped the picture, drawing horrified gasps from the crowd—many of whom were documenting the episode on iPads and smartphones. Another close call came when a section of the scaffolding came down, but workers scrambled to right the picture and it was eventually put in place. Only then did the huge crowd begin to dissipate.

According to Seoung Chankosal, 33, who was also there to mourn Norodom Sihanouk, the King Father’s death is bringing people together.

“This is a time when Cambodia feels unity,” he said. “The King symbolized Cambodian unity. He always helped to unite the opposition and ruling parties. He was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement. He was very influential because of his good leadership, and we had national pride.”

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