King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s body returns to the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Copyright 2014, Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Learning About Places By Observing Public Rituals

Over the years there have been times during our travels when we’ve found ourselves caught up in momentous events and unexpectedly learning about places by observing public rituals, rites and ceremonies and the outpourings of emotion — whether at a national demonstration, celebration, commemoration, or the mourning of a beloved leader.

Soon after we moved to Cambodia‘s capital Phnom Penh in October 2012, the Cambodian King Father Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing and we suddenly found ourselves documenting the country’s mourning of its former king for a British newspaper and Asian magazine.

Night after night Terence and I returned to watch and photograph Cambodians as they grieved for a leader for whom many had immense affection. We learnt a lot about the country and its people that week.

We just had a long weekend here in Cambodia to mark the enshrining of the late King Father’s ashes in the capital.

Several days of ceremonies began with monks offering prayers last Thursday, an elaborate royal procession through the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday, and the interment of the King Father’s ashes in a stupa at the Royal Palace’s Silver Pagoda on Saturday.

On Sunday I expect many people might have enjoyed a quiet, reflective day off. I thought it was timely to share our experience of October 2012 when we watched Cambodia mourn…


At 3pm it is blisteringly hot in Phnom Penh. This is not an hour when Cambodians, accustomed to the fierce heat of their sultry tropical climate, would normally be on the street.

This is a time when the city’s locals are ordinarily returning to their workplaces after an hour or two of eating and sleeping, when tuk tuk drivers prefer to doze in a hammock strung over the passenger seats— the only time of day when they’re disinterested in a ride.

But 10 days ago, Cambodians made an exception.

October 17 marked the beginning of a week of mourning. The body of Cambodia’s beloved King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had died of a heart attack a few days earlier in Beijing, had been brought home to rest and lie in state.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians have come out in the sweltering heat this week to offer their respects, including many elderly survivors of the tragic Khmer Rouge period, lining the broad boulevards of this former French colony, from the airport on the outskirts to the Royal Palace in the city centre.

I waited with them on the waterfront boulevard near the palm-lined promenade of Sisowath Quay and the Tonlé Sap, a tributary of the Mekong.

Near me, an elderly bald Buddhist nun, her head bowed so low her chin touched the tips of her tiny wrinkled hands, clasped together tightly to her chest, sat serenely on the scorching concrete softly chanting a prayer.

The nun’s smooth head glistened with glass beads of perspiration. Her worn white cotton blouse and lace sash had seen better days. A long white skirt concealed her tiny legs, folded beneath her.

Close by, a barefoot urchin of a child with matted brown hair, grubby clothes, and blackened soles, hopped across the road, wincing from the burning bitumen.

On a red plastic tray on the pavement beside the nun was a messy pile of incense sticks, stems of crimson water lilies, and crumpled riel notes. In front of the nun, three pretty university students, their shiny black hair pulled back in ponytails, their slim legs tucked under their petite frames, also held their hands in prayer, their heads bowed so that their foreheads touch their manicured fingernails. It was their money at the top of the heap.

When the nun finished chanting, they got to their feet and took sticks of incense from the tray. Catching me watching them, the young women darted toward me. One reached into her handbag and pulled out a black ribbon which she swiftly pinned to my chest, before bowing her head and saying “Okun!” (Thank you).

It was so hot that a Cambodian family of eight crouched in the shadow of a colossal black four-wheel-drive to shelter from the blazing sun.

Others sat cross-legged on the kerbside, dressed in their mourning clothes of white shirt and long black skirt or trousers, a black ribbon pinned to their chests. They held clusters of incense sticks, candles and water lilies, while at least one in every group held a portrait of a dapper-looking grey-haired gentleman in a gold frame— their late King.

Others flapped lace fans in front of their faces. Some stood behind their groups, shading them with umbrellas.

A group of dazed looking backpackers, wearing too few clothes for such a significant and solemn event, ambled along the nearby waterfront, searching for some shade. I joined the family squatting beside the big fancy car.

The King died at 89 years old— an age that few Cambodians have reached. It’s thought some 300,000 died in the conflict that brought Pol Pot to power in 1975, with some two million more falling victim to the notorious killing fields of the tyrant’s Khmer Rouge regime over the next few years.

Some Cambodians appeared to have joined the crowd merely out of curiosity, keen to catch a glimpse of the gold casket atop the extravagantly gilded funeral ‘barge’.

This majestic vessel, which traditionally transported royal figures along rivers, took the form of a flamboyant Naga-headed float on wheels to carry the former king from his plane to the palace, where his body was due to lie in state for three months.

Most, however, were not here just to capture the spectacle on their camera-phones. They had come to pay their respects.

The older Cambodians were clearly more moved, many weeping openly.

Later, once the casket had passed by and was through the palace gates, many moved closer to the glittering Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya, or Moonlight Pavilion, festooned with fairy lights and flowers and a monumental portrait of their Father-King.

They knelt on the manicured lawn in the front of the pavilion, on the concrete paths that criss-crossed the square, and on the gravelly road traditionally used for parades, listening to the many monks who sit cross-legged with them, chanting prayers.

They gently threw their lilies onto growing piles and placed candles on the concrete to create circles of light that they kept illuminated throughout the night.

They crowded around a table of bound blank-paged books where they patiently waited their turn to record their feelings about the Father-King, their friends shining their mobile phones so they could see to write.

King Norodom Sihanouk was a complex man whose 60-year career was significant, if controversial.

Lauded by many for taking his country from a French colony to an independent state, he was also criticised by some for not doing enough to prevent the Khmer Rouge from coming to power in 1975, nor to topple them later.

At various times he was a king, a prime minister, a communist, a leader in exile, and later, once more, a king— until 2004 when he abdicated to allow his son, Norodom Sihamoni, to take over.

Whether in power or not, whether in Phnom Penh or Beijing, Norodom Sihanouk believed he was Cambodia. And so too, it seems, did many Cambodians.

The Cambodians who stayed in front of the Royal Palace lit the incense sticks that they had carried all afternoon, poking them into the grass and sand, creating bonfires that were intermittently put out with water bottles by whoever was around.

At first the incense produced fragrant plumes, initially pleasant, but later, late into the night, and over the course of the following week, the air became thick and pungent.

For many Cambodians, the King-Father’s death was symbolic; some hoped that with their King would go Cambodia’s tragic history.

Maybe now, I thought, after witnessing ten days of mourning, and ten days of tears, Cambodians could finally move on.

A shorter version of this story, Cambodia – for King and Country, appeared in The Independent on Friday 26 October 2012.

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