In thinking about Cambodia, I always remember Norodom Sihanouk. I first heard about Prince Sihanouk in the late 60s when I read an article about him in the excellent weekly newsmagazine the National Observer. He preferred the title of prince then, although he was the king. He was well-loved by his people, and well-respected by most of the diplomats who came into contact with him. He was in his mid forties, then, but that didn't stop him from having a full-court basketball court somewhere in the palace and challenging all comers to play! As I recall it, the article surmised that the average diplomat lacks the endurance to play full-court well (no surprise), and reported that not many fared well against their host. Obviously the people of Cambodia didn't exactly have a democracy, but as time has shown, it's difficult to impose a democracy on an agrarian people with little tradition of literacy or politics.
You might have heard about a local conflict called the Vietnam War which took place around this time right next door. Sihanouk put Cambodia first, and tried to remain neutral to avoid being sucked into the war. That attitude was insufficiently US-centric to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger so they orchestrated a coup in 1970 when Sihanouk was out of the country, supporting a humorless army officer named Lon Nol as dictator. Lon Nol had little support among the people, and his elevation to power indirectly led to the Khmer Rouge takeover of 1975. Sihanouk did support the Khmer Rouge for a while as the opposition to Lon Nol, but broke with them before most of the atrocities occurred.
Sihanouk did return in 1993 and served as King, finally abdicating in 2004 due to ill health. Interestingly enough, he died in late 2012 at 89, and was cremated the day before we arrived in Phnom Penh. His story was on my mind, and there were plenty of reminders of it in the city, big and small, fancy and simple, as these two posters show.
When someone important dies, the Buddhists don't just bury them within a week or two and then forget about it. There are ceremonies running into the months. In fact it was several months later on our first night in Phnom Penh that the monks were winding up the funeral ceremonies with chanting. Only important political and religious figures could get near the palace to see and hear the actual chanting, but it was broadcast over loudspeakers throughout the city. Check out our brief video below which gives an idea of the ambience created by these sights and sounds. If my 25 seconds of chanting isn't enough for you, you can go to YouTube and get five minutes of that, with video. (The monks all have cell phone cameras; they're not like the Amish, you know.) If you're not a video person, the picture at right shows some of the locals hanging out downtown where the chanting was pervasive.
I was happy to have made it to Cambodia in time for a little bit of the Sihanouk history, although it certainly had major ups and downs. Remembering him was really the good part of recent Cambodian history. The next day, I took a deep dive into the Khmer Rouge era and legacy, a far more depressing dose of history.
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