The past few days, I had been saddened by death, while amazed, warmed and awed with the Khmer people and the depth of love and respect they have for their revered King Father, Norodom Sihanouk.
At the age of 89, King Sihanouk died in Beijing, China from natural causes on the early hours of October 15th.
That day, most of the city folks were in the provinces for the Pchum Ben holidays. And I was actually left wondering why the local TV channels were showing all old film reels of King Sihanouk. That’s when my niece told me, that the King Father has passed away. Khmers has been prepared for this, knowing about the former King’s fragile health for many years already.
As a foreigner living here in Phnom Penh, I don’t profess to know all about their history. Yet, I also felt strangely bereft at his passing. And while the royal family has just a ceremonial role here, I was surprised at the depth of connection most Khmers have for their King Father.
Most of my neighbors burned incense sticks, offered flowers and food on their spirit houses. Some trooped to the Royal Palace to light candles, incense and offer flowers. Then news filtered out that the former King’s body would be brought home on Wednesday, Oct 17th.
That day, I went out and around 12 noon, I saw people in tuktuks, in buses, in trucks, moto’s, all wearing white, some carrying frame portraits of the King Father and heading towards main roads where the King’s convoy would pass through. I was expecting to see a few thousand, but I was just so awestruck when people just kept coming, young, old. All of them wearing white, the Buddhist color for mourning. They lined up streets, under the scorching heat and waited for their beloved King.
It was a scene I find hard to describe with words. The first time I saw something like that happen here. It was just so touching and I found myself crying along with them. He was obviously a huge part of Cambodian people. King Sihanouk have led a colorful, tireless life. Some people might argue about his achievements and mistakes. But the past few days just drove home to me one thing above all else: He was loved by his people. And that for me, is the greatest achievement a King can have.
To all Khmers, my condolences for the passing of the King Father.