The death of the former king Norodom Sihanouk on October 15th 2012 was a great loss for Cambodia.
In the kingdom of Cambodia, at the end of the Rainy Season, we celebrate Pchum Ben a Cambodian religious festival known as Ancestors’ Day for 15 days. It is the best gathering time for families. On October 15th 2012, at a countryside home in Battambang, my mother was preparing food for Buddhist monks based in a nearby monastery in the village, I was still in bed and my dad was listening to the radio. Suddenly, he came to us and said “the king Norodom Sihanouk just passed away”. My mother and I were shocked. Quietly, my mother’s eyes filled with tears and she seemed to start to pray. I was engulfed by silence, but at the same time I was thinking that I had to do something. Then I said to my parents “I have to come back to Phnom Penh”. I went to the bus station and tried to find a returning bus ticket. But all were sold out. On October 17th 2012, accompanied by the King Norodom Sihamoni, the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the body of the king father was returning back from Beijing, the capital city of the Republic of China while I was sitting on the extra plastic chair on the bus back to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. During my journey of over 6 hours, I sent messages to many friends to inform them that I would be heading to the Royal Palace. As it was almost reaching the city, my bus went slower and slower because of the traffic jam was gridlocked. I was impatient. In the middle of the road, I asked the bus driver to stop and then I went on by motor taxi. It helped, as it could go faster. When I arrived home, I immediately changed my clothes as every other mourners, white shirt, black trousers, black ribbon on the left hand side of my chest with one camera and one lens heading straight to the palace via Sisowath Quay (along the riverside). It was completely filled by the crowd. I was looking around and I saw most of my friends were also out there. Policemen as well as security guards were working on their responsibilities: chasing us, stopping us from standing there, and there and there too. A question was in my head, “Where should I go to be in the right place?” Finally, I managed to stand with other regular citizens just close to the main entrance. Within a few minutes, the vehicle which was carrying the royal coffin of the king father was just in front of me. The sounds of old and young people were all mixed together, praying and crying. It was quite hard. My heart seemed to be stuck. My tears were dropping down uncontrollably and I was crying heavily. A friend of mine said “Hak, put your camera down.” But, I just could not stop and I kept shooting without any preconceived story in my head. Later on, I learned that TVK (Cambodia Television Channel) had declared that on the day of the coffin returning, there were 1.2 million people lining up from Phnom Penh International Airport down to the palace including myself, as normal citizens. Officially, the royal government announced 7 days of mourning from October 17th to 23rd, 2012. Mourners came from the entire the Kingdom of Cambodia to the palace to pay their respect to the king father. The smoke from lightened incents and candles were making the palace look ablaze. It created an atmosphere, which became a spiritual mystery. Buddhism is a state religion of the kingdom and the king himself was Buddhist. So, the practices were seen in Buddhism’s ways. Buddhist monks and nuns shave their hair to offer to the Buddha on every holy day. Here, mourners shaved their hair as offerings along with the lotuses and jasmines. On October 20th 2012 was a first and remarkable moment when without any prior planning, over 5,000 Buddhist monks were united in front of the palace for meditation and chanting. People turned the palace into an open pilgrimage and sacred place. More than praying for the soul of the king father alone, people also prayed to live peacefully inside the country and in the whole world. Rain fell as a heavenly blessing under which, people kept gathering and chanting. The ground of the cremation building was constructed very quickly and nicely in traditional Khmer ways, within a period of less than 2 months and a half, while the king father’s body remained for 3 months inside the palace before the official royal cremation ceremony on February 1st – 7th, 2013. While the flame touched the body of the king father at 6.30PM, on February 4th, 2013, I raised my hands up on my head as a sign of farewell respect as last song which the king father sang “Goodbye Cambodia”.
“Unity”, with love and respect dedicated to the king father, royal families and fellow citizens. Being part of the nation and history of the kingdom of Cambodia, I was there with the ordinary citizens to capture things happening around me. I want people to see what I saw and feel what I felt.
Phnom Penh, 2012 – 2013