Death of a King

Today is an extremely significant day in Cambodian history, as the country says goodbye to former King Norodom Sihanouk, the king's father and the most influential leader of Cambodia in the past century. All work and offices have been shut since Friday, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians traveled to Phnom Penh to pay their respects at the final funeral (he actually died Oct. 15, 2012, but the final funerals aren't held til 100 days after the death, in Buddhist tradition).

The closest I got to the funeral was my television in Kampong Chhnang.

If you don't know anything about King Sihanouk, you can read about him in this article from the Huffington Post. He was basically responsible for bringing the country out of French colonialism, surviving a coup that led to the Khmer Rouge era, and eventually returning to the throne in 1993. He abdicated in favor of his son in 2004. Read his bio; he was a pretty amazing man. 

What is very different for us Americans is the reverence that Cambodians show their king. Americans love turning their leaders into media darlings, then tearing them apart when they don't like something the leader does or says. There really is no comparison in American culture to what Cambodians are experiencing throughout the country this weekend. Even the "big news" deaths of leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy, didn't draw nearly as many people or such displays of reverence as this man did. The television showed people weeping at the funeral. As we drove down from Poipet to Kampong Chhnang, Cambodian flags lined the road, all hung at half-staff. Even in Poipet, at the main roundabout, a huge photo of the king was set up, with monks chanting and people coming to pay their respects and prayers. Everywhere I went, people had black ribbons pinned to their shirts to show they were mourning the king.

The $1.2 million crematorium built for the occasion; the body, which has been lying in state since his death, will be burned inside, then the crematorium dismantled.

King Sihanouk has actually been living in Beijing for a while, and that was where he died - actually while we were back in the States on home leave. The entire country went into mourning, and monks began chanting prayers at the local temples for days.

King Sihamoni, the current king and son of the deceased, addressing the crowds - the first time Andrew and I have ever heard him speak.

His mother and the deceased's widow stands behind him to his left.

It's with a bit of mixed feelings that I watched the funeral proceedings. On one hand, the whole elaborate program seems completely foreign to me - no one in America is ever idolized like this (ok, actually the Michael Jackson funeral was pretty over the top, but still, it only lasted 3 hours, not 4 days).  But I also recognize that this is a huge deal in the lives of my Cambodian friends, an event that their children will remember - the moment they watched the country say goodbye to a legend, whom they have heard revered their whole lives. It also feels strange to know that tonight, probably 99.999% of Americans are more concerned that the power went out at the Super Bowl than of the passing of an international historical figure. So I feel a strange sense of honor, of being present in Cambodia for such an event, witnessing another important moment in this country's long history.