Va Sin was just 27 the last time Cambodia said goodbye to a king. It was 1960 and King Norodom Suramarit, the father of Norodom Sihanouk, had passed away, ceding the throne to his son, who was serving as prince and head of state.
It was a humble affair, Ms. Sin remembers, without the outpouring of emotion that has followed the death of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
“It was much different from the King Father’s procession. At the time, there were less people at the parade because there was less sadness,” said Ms. Sin.
In Sok was 24 when King Suramarit was carried to his cremation site 53 years ago. Now 77, he joined the tens of thousands of people who lined Norodom Boulevard on Friday morning to watch the procession that delivered the late King Father’s body to its cremation site in front of the National Museum.
“King Suramarit’s cremation procession was accompanied by elephants, horses, and a lot less people,” Mr. Sok said. “But the King Father’s procession is so sad. Even the kids are crying.”
Though emotions were not as raw on Friday as they were among the crowds that poured into Phnom Penh’s streets when the King Father’s body was returned to the Royal Palace from Beijing on October 17, many people still bowed their heads and cried as the golden casket carrying the king’s remained moved past them.
And for the older generation of Cambodians, who grew up during a time when Norodom Sihanouk was at the height of his power, it was a particularly meaningful farewell.
“I and all Cambodian people will never forget [the late King Father] because people all over the country, especially those who lived during the 1950s and 1960s, received affection and care from him,” Ms. Sin said.
In the 1950s, she remembers then-King Sihanouk giving a speech at a silk factory that had recently opened in Kompong Cham province, where she lived at the time.
“He chose to sleep in a small shelter without concern for himself because he would do anything to meet his people,” she said.
Sum Kul was just 17 and when he first saw then-King Norodom Sihanouk in person. It was 1946 and King Sihanouk had come to visit Cambodian troops stationed in Prey Veng province to offer encouragement.
“We only had wooden guns,” recounted Mr. Kul, now 84, as he waited to see the funeral procession pass.
“But the King Father always made us strong and courageous.”
Although Norodom Sihanouk’s legacy has been widely debated since his death almost four months ago, the reverence of Cambodians for their former king, prince and head of state is without question.
To the generation who watched Norodom Sihanouk lead Cambodia to independence from France, who had ruled the country for 90 years, he was “quite simply, a god,” said historian Henri Locard.
“He was an exceptional personality, an extremely strong character, and he united in just one person the independence movement,” Mr. Locard said.
Chuob Pov Rousette, 85, a doctor who returned to Cambodia last year after 45 years working in France, said that she first fell in love with King Sihanouk as a student at the University of Health Sciences.
“I think the Cambodian people love all their kings,” she said.
“But King Sihanouk is buried deep in people’s heart because he was the only King that brought Cambodia independence and he loved his people from the bottom of his stomach.”
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