The golden casket bearing the body of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk made its final journey through the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday before coming to rest at Veal Mean, where an elaborate site has been constructed for the royal cremation on Monday.
Government officials and mourners quietly gathered in front of the Royal Palace as the sun rose. A red carpet marked out the path that the casket—bedecked with fragrant jasmine flowers—would take before being placed upon an ornate carriage out of which dozens of naga heads emerged.
The King’s body left the Royal Palace for the last time at 8:10 a.m. and was placed on the carriage.
As it began to move forward at a somber pace, members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Special Force Airborne 911 Brigade discharged 101 deafening rounds of 105-mm shells from 12 Howitzer artillery guns pointed over the Tonle Sap River.
The shells exploded with such force that the ground reverberated, ash fell from the sky and pigeons took flight with each detonation. Many people had to cover their ears.
In some ways, it was through dying that the late king, who peacefully won independence from France in 1953 and continued to mediate ends to the country’s conflicts into the 1990s, was brought back to life in Cambodia.
Despite spending the majority of his last years living in Beijing, where he ultimately died of a heart attack at the age of 89 on October 15, he remained one of the most venerated personalities in the country. The country’s young and old have been united in a sense of loss since his passing, and the reverence was amplified as they lined the streets together on Friday to watch the final funeral procession.
The cortege, which organizers put at about 20,000-strong, provided a number of contrasts. While mourners were clad in black and white, the march was embellished with splashes of color, which, in many ways, typified the late king’s joie de vivre.
Two of the most notable floats bore a menagerie of exotic, plaster animals from polar bears to sharks and tigers atop rocks, greenery and waterfalls. The procession was also made up of military officials, Red Cross youth members, indigenous groups and apsara dancers.
As it made its way up Sisowath Quay, over to Wat Phnom, down Norodom Boulevard, around Independence Monument and on to Sothearos Boulevard toward Veal Mean, the park in front of the National Museum where ambassadors, government officials, monks and scouts awaited, people knelt clutching lotus flowers and the late monarch’s portrait.
Kun Pov, 80, had traveled to Phnom Penh from Pursat province for the fifth time since the King Father’s death.
“I’m still very sad and I miss him,” she said. “I used to work for [Queen Monineath] before she got married to the King. The king was very nice and kind.”
Srun Phallin, head of the Mondolkiri provincial department of culture, said Norodom Sihanouk “took care of not just the Khmer, but also the ethnic minorities.”
He said he and his 90 indigenous community companions from Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces would leave Phnom Penh on Saturday.
Van Nget, a 69-year-old Banong man from Mondolkiri, said he wanted to represent indigenous people during the King Father’s procession.
“I am very sad,” he said. “He was a very good king, a shade for the people.”
At Wat Phnom, crowds scrambled with their cameras to capture the moment the procession passed by. Some called out the names of participants. Others kneeled quietly with their hands clasped together and cried.
For all intents and purposes, the parade proceeded without a hitch, although Deputy Prime Minister Sok An fainted before it began and had to be escorted into an ambulance.
Sok Sokun, director of the municipal health department, said the 63-year-old Mr. An was aided by a doctor at the Royal Palace.
“He had a problem with his health, but now he is fine,” Dr. Sokun said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan insisted that Mr. An’s collapse was nothing serious.
“He is alright, he is at home at his residence and he was just exhausted from a long trip to Paris,” he said. “He went to Calmette Hospital to have a general check up and he was released before 10 a.m.”
Outside the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, two people fainted in the heat and were whisked away by waiting ambulances.
As the late king’s body arrived at Veal Mean, the second 101-artillery gun salute shattered the relative silence.
Onlookers peered through gaps in the surrounding wall at Veal Mean as the body of Norodom Sihanouk made three slow rounds of the crematorium, before being placed inside.
Once the casket was laid to rest, the surrounding streets slowly filled with the business of everyday life and the wait began for Monday, when Norodom Sihanouk’s body will be cremated.
(Lauren Crothers, Kaing Menghun, Khy Sovuthy, Denise Hruby and Colin Meyn)