Tens of thousands of Cambodians, young and old, turned out over the weekend to pay their final respects to late King Father Norodom Sihanouk ahead of his cremation today.
Crowds of people clad in white shirts and wearing black ribbons lined up for a chance to walk through the newly constructed cremation site and garden at Veal Mean, the park in front of the National Museum.
They walked in silence and in single file, their hands clasped together in prayer, as they skirted a large stupa flanked by giant red guards from Khmer mythology, in which Norodom Sihanouk’s body had been placed after an elaborate procession on Friday.
While members of the royal family prayed around the gold-colored casket yesterday, other mourners laid lotus flowers and prostrated themselves at the foot of the structure.
“When I saw the coffin, I was choked up. I got a lump in my throat,” said Khun Pov, 69, a nun from Prey Veng province.
Ms. Pov and a group of fellow nuns, having bowed briefly at the stupa, sat outside the compound and prayed. A businesswoman handed them brand-new 1,000 riel notes bearing an image of the late King Father’s coffin. “Now we can remember him forever, from generation to generation. I will never spend this money,” Ms. Pov said.
The weekend’s mourning again demonstrated just how popular Norodom Sihanouk was among the people of Cambodia, who largely credit him with peacefully gaining independence from France in 1953 and helping the country to navigate its way out of civil war in the 1990s.
Officials at the gate of the cremation site said 8,652 people had visited on Saturday and that at least 40,000 more had come to pay their respects yesterday.
People were permitted to enter the site on both days from the early morning until about 2 p.m., after which special ceremonies were held for VIPs and close family.
The number of mourners pres-ent over the weekend did not appear to meet estimates made by municipal officials, who said that as many as 3 million people would make their way to Phnom Penh to bid a final farewell to the late King Father.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he had no idea how many people had turned out for the funeral, but he thought it was less than had lined the streets in October, when more than 1 million people stood in the baking heat for hours to witness Norodom Sihanouk’s body being returned to the Royal Palace from Beijing, where he died of a heart attack on October 15.
“I noticed after the ceremony [on Friday] that the traffic was not that jammed. The people learned that it would be too busy, especially the Phnom Penh people…. That discouraged them,” he said.
He also said the wall-to-wall television coverage, and coverage online, may have meant that many people stayed inside for Friday’s procession.
Roads remained cordoned off yesterday, with vehicles blocked from passing along many of the roads around the Royal Palace and nearby cremation site.
Most people were allowed to access the blocked-off streets on foot, but in the late afternoon, only those who lived or were staying on the riverfront were allowed onto Sisowath Quay. While crowds were generally calm, some mourners did try and jump the barricades.
For many, the opportunity was a chance for an up-close farewell that could not be missed.
“It’s our last chance to pay our respects to the former King. It’s a great opportunity that they let us in to pay our respects,” said 19-year-old Soeun Sonyta. “I know that he’s the great king who got us independence from France, and he accomplished many great things for Cambodia. All the young people think the same as me.”
Kiet Ry, 72, said she was happy to have been close to the deceased monarch.
“It means a lot to me because we can give our gratitude to him; we are indebted to him for winning us independence,” she said.
“I walked in with the other people, lined up in a row and paid my respects. I wanted to stay there longer to express all my gratitude. But there are many people, so I had to leave without being fully satisfied.
“I prayed for all Cambodian people not to live divided, to unite so our enemies can’t touch us—like a bundle of chopsticks. Living apart we can be broken, but together we are hard to break.”