The late King Father Norodom Sihanouk made his final journey back to Cambodia yesterday to be greeted by an estimated 1 million people who lined the streets in reverential silence to witness the return of the country’s much-loved monarch.
Cambodians of all ages stood silently on the roadside as the King Father, and the man who earned the country its independence in 1953, was brought to the Royal Palace, where his body will lie in state for at least three months.
Norodom Sihanouk died from heart failure at the age of 89 in the early hours of Monday morning in Beijing.
Turnout to witness the royal procession exceeded expectations as Cambodians—the majority of whom have never lived through the death of a monarch—had their chance to collectively mourn Norodom Sihanouk.
The Phnom Penh Municipality had said it was preparing for 100,000 attendees, but estimates made by municipal officials yesterday were 10 times that amount.
“Police reported that nearly 1 million people attended to welcome the King Father’s body in the streets between the airport and the Royal Palace,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said.
At 2:50 p.m., an Air China jumbo jet touched down at Phnom Penh International Airport, beginning a formal and elaborate ceremony that went on until the early evening.
Gathered on the tarmac to welcome the aircraft and the return of the royal family were government officials dressed in white tunics with gold buttons, senior members of the Buddhist clergy, royals and foreign diplomats.
The late Norodom Sihanouk’s wife, Queen Mother Monineath, emerged solemnly from the plane and was helped down the steps by her son, King Norodom Sihamoni. The Queen Mother and King Sihamoni were followed closely by Prime Minister Hun Sen and a host of government officials and royals. A monk’s incantations blared through the airport’s loudspeaker system.
At the rear of the aircraft, Royal Palace guards carried out the coffin of Norodom Sihanouk, where it was adorned with golden panels and a jasmine covering, to form a larger, ornate sarcophagus. A blue flag bearing the Royal Arms of Cambodia was laid on top.
As the casket was lowered from the plane, it was greeted by a trumpet call and a salute from a troop of riflemen. The guards then lifted the casket with difficulty onto a processional carriage in the shape of a golden mythical bird. After a pause, traditional musicians began to play on another carriage and the procession started on its route to the palace.
“The monks pray for the King Father and wish that he ascends to paradise,” said Sao Chanthol, chief monk at Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka, prior to the King Father’s body being hoisted onto the funeral carriage. Before the King Father’s arrival, the venerable Sao Chanthol said monks had been praying for the King Father since they heard of his death.
Kandal province resident Phorng Phaly, 66, quietly spoke at the airport of her love for the late King Father as she stood with others holding pictures of Norodom Sihanouk.
“The King worked hard for us and demanded that we get Preah Vihear from Thailand,” she said, in reference to the case the King initiated at the International Court of Justice that awarded Cambodia the border-hugging temple in 1962.
Russian Confederation Boulevard from the airport to the center of Phnom Penh was lined with people, standing four or five deep in places.
Spectators were almost all dressed in white, the traditional mourning color, and wore black ribbons, or simple pieces of black cloth, pinned to their clothes. People clasped their hands in prayer, some holding the national flag or lotus flowers, some with tears in their eyes. All looked on in silence as the casket passed by.
The King Father’s body took just over an hour to reach the Royal Palace at about 5:20 p.m. For the thousands of people who waited for hours, it was a welcome but equally bitter sight.
The air around the palace was filled with a collective cry as the carriage moved along the last stretch of the 10-km journey.
Onlookers, who remained mostly seated, fell silent as the procession passed on toward the palace, where several hundred monks had patiently waited since midday. The monks began chanting as the carriage turned in to the palace gates. It was followed by King Sihamoni and Mr. Hun Sen, whose cars drove up to the gates.
The King Father’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, got out of his car further down the boulevard and walked with his own son, greeting onlookers as he did, to the palace.
As the King’s body entered the palace grounds, the yellow bulbs that line the palace walls lit up. The scrum around the gates began to dissipate and move toward the late King’s giant portrait.
The King Father’s body will lie in state for at least three months and will then be cremated, most likely in a pyre on Veal Mean, the gardens in front of the National Museum.
Wiping away her tears, Pheoun Vann, 40, from Kandal province reminisced of the days under King Norodom Sihanouk.
“Now that he has passed away, I have no feeling or trust, not even to vote,” she said. “It is getting harder to live. The people are becoming poorer. During the King Father’s days it wasn’t this hard. We lived very happily. Everything was much cheaper.”
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers and Kaing Menghun)