Cambodia’s King Father Norodom Sihanouk died on 15 October 2012, bringing Cambodians together to mourn the loss of their beloved former king for 10 days in their capital Phnom Penh. On the anniversary of his passing, we thought we’d share the story of covering a nation in mourning for a British newspaper.
In October 2012, we rented an apartment for a month in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to find out if it was a city we could live in permanently. It began uneventfully with me holed up in our new home a few blocks from the phnom (hill) after which the capital was named, working 14-hour days editing an Asian travel magazine I’d just been hired at as editor-at-large. Terence spent his time shopping the markets every morning, teaching himself to cook Cambodian food.
It was the last month of monsoon. Every day brought intense hours-long downpours that we watched from our balcony, gobsmacked at how much rain could fall all at once upon a place. In between those jaw-dropping torrents we smiled at the cheeky monkeys that passed by each afternoon, climbing over the rooftops across the street, and sneaking into a local restaurant to steal food.
Then the rains stopped. And so, too, did the nation with the news that the Cambodian King Father Norodom Sihanouk had died in Beijing. Suddenly we found ourselves documenting the country’s mourning of their beloved former king, and the return of his body to lie in state, for the British newspaper The Independent and the Asian magazine I was editing.
Night after night Terence and I went to respectfully observe and sensitively photograph Cambodians as they grieved for the former leader for whom so many had such immense and intense affection. We learnt a lot about Cambodia and its people. So much that we decided that we might make the country our home for a while. We’re still here.
Every anniversary of the national holiday marking the commemoration of the death of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, we find ourselves recalling that time we covered a nation in mourning. We thought we’d share the slightly longer version of the story we produced for The Independent based on our experience that October observing Cambodians mourn their former king, night after night.
What I found interesting re-reading the story all these years later was that it describes what was then a very different Phnom Penh — a low-rise, low-key little capital where the streets emptied in the sweltering October afternoons and residents still returned home for a Southeast Asian siesta, where monkeys still climbed over the roofs and swung from power lines, and a mahout and his elephant offered rides around the base of nearby Wat Phnom.
King Father Norodom Sihanouk – Remembering Cambodia in Mourning
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 out 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 touting for rides.
But today Cambodians have made an exception — for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
October 17 marked the beginning of a period of mourning for the late monarch. The body of Cambodia’s beloved King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had died of a heart attack two days earlier in Beijing, had been brought home to rest and lie in state.
Tens of thousands of Cambodians came out in the sweltering heat to offer their respects, including many elderly survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge. They lined the broad boulevards of this former French protectorate, all the way from the airport on the outskirts of the capital to the Royal Palace in the heart of the old city.
I waited with the people on the waterfront near the palm-lined promenade of Sisowath Quay and the Tonlé Sap, a tributary of the Mekong that at its widest is like an inland sea.
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 child with matted brown hair, grubby clothes and blackened soles of barefoot feet, 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 lotus flowers, 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 touched their manicured fingernails. It was their money at the top of the nun’s heap of notes.
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 close to the ground 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 crisp white shirt and long black skirt or trousers, a black ribbon pinned to their chests. They held clusters of incense sticks, candles and lotus flowers, while at least one in every group held a portrait of a dapper-looking grey-haired gentleman in a gold frame — the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Others flapped lace fans in front of their faces. Some stood behind their family and friends, 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 late King Father Norodom Sihanouk had died at 89 years old — an age that countless Cambodians never had the chance to reach. It’s estimated by some that 300,000 died in the conflict that brought Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to power in 1975, with millions tragically falling victim to the notorious ‘killing fields’ of the Khmer Rouge regime over the next four and a half years.
Some younger Cambodians appeared to have joined the crowd 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 Cambodians, however, were not here just to capture the spectacle on their camera-phones. They had come to pay their respects. The elderly 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 the King Father.
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 sat cross-legged with the grieving groups, chanting prayers.
The mourners gently threw their lotus flowers onto the growing piles and placed candles on the concrete to create circles of light that they kept illuminated throughout the night, night after night for weeks to come.
The people 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 sometimes controversial. Lauded by many for taking his country from a French protectorate 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 the them later on.
At various times the King Father Norodom Sihanouk had been a king, a prime minister, a leader in exile — even a filmmaker — and later, once more, a king, until 2004 when he abdicated to allow his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, to take over.
Whether in power or not, whether in Phnom Penh or Beijing, the King Father Norodom Sihanouk believed he was Cambodia. And so too, it was now evident, 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 with acrid smoke. At times it was so difficult to breathe, it was almost suffocating, and I had to retreat to the area of parkland close to the waterfront to catch my breath.
For many Cambodians, the late King Father’s death was symbolic. It seemed that many hoped that with the departure of their beloved former King would go Cambodia’s tragic history.
Maybe now, I wondered, after witnessing ten days of mourning, and ten days of tears, maybe now Cambodians could finally move on from their dark past. Maybe now there would be light and a brighter future.
If you’d like to learn more about Cambodia and Cambodian history, see our recommended Cambodia reading list. Last Updated 15 October 2022