Saturday, 2 February 2013

The King and I

The King and I

No, musical fans, this story isn’t about Yul Brynner and Thailand; it’s about Cambodia in mourning.

By sheer accident, my trip to Phnom Penh coincided with the ceremonies leading up to the cremation of King Norodom Sihanouk, a beloved father figure to Cambodians. He died in October, apparently, but the state funeral was postponed until February. In fact, he has been lying in state at the Royal Palace for the past few weeks as his subjects pay their last respects.

I was in the capital for the procession that kicked off the events preceding the funeral. The parade of people accompanying the king’s casket wound through the streets, to a Buddhist temple for prayers and back to the Royal Palace. My hotel was a couple of blocks from the palace, and it was right at the start of the procession route, so I made sure to be there.

It has been interesting to watch the preparations for the procession and the funeral/cremation. The Royal Palace has been readied, draped in white – the Buddhist colour of mourning -- and adorned with huge bouquets of white flowers, with platforms erected to seat dignitaries.

Throughout the city, billboards draped in black and white, featured the likeness of the late king, and many buildings, both public and private, displayed his photo draped with mourning colours. 

Bomb-sniffing dogs were checking the street Friday and along the nearby riverfront, a search for hidden bombs below buildings was also underway.

The area was crawling with police and military, some of whom were stationed on the roof of the hotel for the procession. Men with machine guns were not an unexpected sight. Loudspeakers were set up along the route so mourners could listen to the television/radio commentary as they waited.

And wait, we did. The original word was that the procession would start at 6 a.m. I awoke at five, and since I was restless, I dressed in my official Cambodian mourning gear -- white blouse and black pants or skirt -- and went downstairs. Women were already seated on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, and uniformed troops were gathering: army, navy, bodyguards and others, ready to march in the procession.

My group of onlookers was  joined by some elderly Buddhist nuns with shaved heads dressed in flowing white robes. Soon, some of the hotel staff joined us, too. I was the only Westerner in the group, and few of my compatriots spoke English, but it didn’t matter. Sign language and smiles ruled the day.

By six, we were more than ready, and so were the troops. But word came that the action was delayed, probably until 8 a.m. I slipped into the hotel to fortify myself with breakfast, but returned in plenty of time. The actual procession didn’t start until 9! We were waiting patiently on the sidewalk, and the troops – in uniform in the hot sun – gave in and sat down in the street.

The procession lasted about 45 minutes, with contingents of military, civil servants and scouts in uniform following the army band and the palace guards, who wore glittering regalia. 

Then came the golden floats with open pagodas sheltering their guests, who were also shaded by attendants holding lotus leaf-shaped fans: the prime minister and some high-ranking officials and the late king’s coffin, golden, too, and borne on a massive pedestal high above the crowd.

His daughter-in-law  came afterward, wearing mourning robes and blessing rice, which she threw on the street to the people. 

Finally, the other female family members passed by, followed by more dignitaries, and the procession had passed. (The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, son of the late king, stayed at the palace with his widowed mother, waiting to welcome the procession’s return.) People waved their pictures of the king, and one of the nuns sitting nearby broke out in sobs. People felt a real connection with him.

The event lasted until about four hours as it moved slowly through the area, and most stores were closed until it was over. Even then, many places remained closed out of respect. In the tourist district, where I’m staying, there were many locked doors. But by evening, the promenade was even more crowded than usual, since so many people had the day off. Many still wore their mourning clothes for their stroll along the river. A welcome respite from the sad tone of the day, I imagine.

Today, as I left Cambodia for Vietnam, people were wearing mourning clothes, hoping to gain entry to the palace in a final chance to pay their respects. Vendors were selling mourning badges and photos of the late king, and police were preparing for the arrival of numerous dignitaries.

Here’s hoping this marks the beginning of a new era for Cambodia, one of prosperity and peace. It's long overdue.

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