There has been a very large buildup to the last 5 days here in Cambodia, ever since I arrived last November 1st. The King Father Norodom Sihanouk died last October in Beijing and his body was returned in mid October to the Royal Palace here in Phnom Penh, just across the park from my apartment. The Royal Palace has been closed to the public since I arrived while his body lies in-state. Usually Buddhist funerals do not wait this long before cremation but there was time needed to build a ‘proper’ crematorium fit for a King and for the people of Cambodia to come pay their respects.
I will try to be brief… King Father Sihanouk helped Cambodia get it’s independence from France in 1953. He’d go out to the villages to talk to the people and they loved him for that. He later abdicated the throne so he could become a politician and became Cambodia’s Prime Minister for some 15 years until he was overthrown in a coup in 1970. He sided with the Khmer Rouge in the early years, which isn’t talked about much, then was bestowed the title of King again in 1993. Then in 2004 he abdicated the thrown to his son King Norodom Sihamoni, the current king. So he is very well loved and thought of as the founding King of the independent Cambodia.
There have been stories for weeks about 1, 2 even possibly 3 million people coming into Phnom Penh for the 7 day mourning period and funeral. I’m registered with the U.S. State Department and I received an email telling us all to be very careful, there are 4 million people coming to Phnom Phnen for the four-day funeral and to stay away from crowds. Yeah right!
It’s been a concern though living right here what would it be like. People sleeping in our alleyway? Could I move around? Even get to my apartment? Would there be places to eat? No one really knew but we did know we would soon find out.
There was an entire square block park right across the street from my apartment called Veal Mean, between my block and the Royal Palace. I remember when I first moved in that it was kind of nice to have a park right here. Within one week there was a crew of maybe 5 guys doing some kind of work out in the very middle and I didn’t think twice about it other than maybe they’re fixing up the park, it needed it.
As the weeks passed it got bigger, steel was being brought in, the crew got larger and larger. Well they’ve had a crew of about maybe 100 working 16-hour days every day for almost 3 months working in the park. Finally last December I read in the paper what was going on. They were building the crematorium for the King-Father’s funeral along with viewing stands for hundreds, mostly VIP’s and Heads of State of other countries. I read that a fence was being built around the park, I wondered to keep the rest of us out? As time passed and I started to better understand the current politics here, it all made more sense. Security for Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has had unrivaled power for the last three decades, was a main concern.
This is the park, from my alley entrance about the 3rd week of November.
( All Blog Post Photos: © Bartay )
Here it was about one week ago. Snake flags flying and just the need to remove the crane and the plastic around the flowers that’s been keeping them clean.
The police barricades have been being stacked at intersections for the last week so I still wasn’t sure what was really going to happen. All the restaurants were being told to close for 4 days, the police removed all the street vendors and stalls from outside my market around the corner. I’ve been reading the papers trying to find out but they’re just not telling the public much of anything. Then I noticed that all the buildings on my street and on Sotheros, the two streets along the park, are being shrouded in netting. Then I find out its all security for the Prime Minister.
I noticed a couple of weeks ago when I came back from Battambang that all the streets were freshly re-striped. People were starting to show up and they were re-striping Sotheros at dusk the night before the whole ceremony was to begin
Just down Sotheros on the other side of the park is the Royal Palace. The street has been closed to traffic since I moved into the neighborhood because since October people have been coming by day and night to pay respects to the King. Every day at 09:00 in the morning and 17:30 in the evening monks chant for the King. There is a small park between the entrance to the Royal Palace and the river that is filled with people at all times and has become the place for Cambodians to come and light incense and pay their last respects to the King-Father. The evening has seen the most traffic and as the ceremony draws closer, more and more people are showing up.
The main entrance to Veal Mean (the crematorium) was only finished about one week ago and really draws the crowds at night to check it out and take pictures with their phones and iPads.
So this last Friday (February 1) the four-day funeral began. The King’s body was to leave the Royal Palace on a 6-kilometer procession around Phnom Penh, to allow the huge influx of people to see him and pay their respects. I had no idea what to really expect. I was originally thinking maybe I should leave the city for the weekend and then I thought how often do you get to see a Buddhist funeral of a King. So I decided to stay, deal wth the crowds, all the closings, and take some pictures.
7 am I walked out my apartment and down the alley to the street, very few people so I started over to the river to see the procession. I was ‘inside’ the barricade zone. All the people were being kept 4 blocks away from the crematorium. I wore a white shirt, (in Asian countries white is the same as the West’s black, the mourning colour) a black tie, my black ribbon with the King’s photo on my shirt pocket and with my camera gear around my neck, I could somewhat look like the photographers who had press passes. If I hid my front from the police!
So my neighborhood was the staging area for the procession to get started and everyone was lining up along the river in front of the Royal Palace. There are hundreds in the parade from scouts to police to military and Buddhist traditional symbolisms. It was so hot even at 8 am, some of the people in the procession were fainting while waiting to get started.
Then around 9 am the procession started. It was to go up Sisowath, around Wat Phnom, down Norodum Bvd. to Independence Monumnet’s round about, back over to the river and up to the crematorium in Veal Mean. I’m sure you all know exactly what I’m talking about? I saw this group of young monks behind a group of older monks in front of the Royal Palace just as the procession was starting.
The King’s coffin being carried along Preah Sisowath Quay.
Prime Minister Hun Sen being carried on one of the many ‘floats’; I’m not sure what to call them. I’m not sure float would be the proper word for a funeral procession.
All the VIP’s had been arriving and going to their seats, while the Cambodian general public was being kept 3 blocks away. So my neighborhood was rather quiet from what I was expecting thousands of people to be like. I was able to stay because I live in the neighborhood and most of the police thought I had a press pass. Now and then one would notice I didn’t and they would grab me and kick me back across the street. I’d just wait awhile and then sneak back.
The main entrance where the VIP’s entered was on the front street, the entrance right across from my alley was a side entrance that everyone who was in the procession used to go inside and through metal detectors. So it got rather hectic when everyone started to arrive.
After most everyone was inside there was still quite a long wait, then the King’s body finally arrived. It made three revolutions around the crematorium building for all the people inside to pay their respects.
Immediately followed by the Queen-Mother and the King-Father’s son, the current King Norodom Sihamoni.
So did the crowds ever really appear? The ‘schedule’ was that on Friday there would be the procession and the formal arrival of the King’s body to the crematorium at Veal Mean. Saturday and Sunday were for the masses to pay their respects and on Monday was the formal cremation. Tuesday was the removal of the ashes to the Royal Palace, then on Wednesday a portion of the ashes to be scattered in front of the Royal Palace at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. The remaining ashes are to be placed in the Stupa at the Royal Palace.
Well I went downstairs Saturday morning and the masses did show up. They finally let the people through the barricades but no automobiles or motorbikes. This is my normally quiet Street 178.
All day Saturday and Sunday the masses were allowed to come in and pay their respects. They were allowed to go inside Veal Mean and file by the main crematorium. I also tried to go inside to look and take some photos. I got in line, went by all the check points, then at the very last one before going inside two guards grabbed me and pulled me out of line. I’m not Khmer.
So for two days the entire neighborhood was filled with people walking around, praying, and chanting their final respect. I couldn’t even enter one of the alleys to my apartment due to the masses. It seemed everyone was quite sad to see their King-Father go but with the Buddhist tradition, he’s just moving on to his next life..
Monday evening around 16:30 the neighborhood was once again void of the masses. Then the VIP’s started to arrive and slowly the Veal Mean filled once again to capacity. We were all waiting and watching with great anticipation for the cremation ceremony. Which in the Buddhist faith is only the end of one life and the beginning of another. The cremation releases the spirit from the body so it may enter it’s next life.
Well it seems no one at the press stand where I was shooting knew what was going on either. We all just kept watching, as did most of the people inside. Very formal, many monks in orange and many in bronze would enter the crematoria structure and then monks surrounding the building would start chanting. The monks who entered the crematoria were inside for the better part of an hour with the curtains drawn. Then the VIP’s and Heads of State all took turns going up inside and returning. Another half hour went by with anticipation, then all of a sudden fireworks went off inside Veal Preah Man and all along the river front. Seems as though they couldn’t get the fire started, but finally….
Today on Wednesday they scattered part of the King’s ashes in the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, in front of the Royal Palace and moved the urn to the stupa inside the Royal Palace grounds. I am hoping that soon the Royal Palace will once again be open to the pubic so I may go take a look.
There is one thing that is rather amazing about the crematorium complex across the street? It’s temporary and will be torn down and returned to the original Veal Mean.