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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Friends email from the USA to alert me. February 4th 2013 will surely be a day that traffic in Cambodia’s capital will be impossible. His Royal Highness, Norodom Sihanouk, God-King to the villagers, King-Father to educated Cambodian city people, is to be cremated. It is the third and final day of the cremation ceremony. There have been 100 days between the death and the cremation.

I have come to bring back the stories, not to witness the cremation of the King-Father. In my bag are print-outs of what I have written down: a section for this family, a section for that. I negotiated for award flights with Qantas: arrival February 4th 2013, departure March 15th 2013. The dates are significant beyond my expectation.

The wait in transit at Changi Airport in Singapore is long. The conversation in the gate lounge for departure to Phnom Penh is mostly in Khmer. Other passengers waiting for this early morning flight are Cambodians flying home from the vast diaspora of Cambodians from around the world. Whatever I may think of Norodom Sihanouk, His Royal Highness is certainly not insignificant.

As we wait we watch a large screen with images of the Cambodian Royal Palace, of the Killing Fields, and of the man who has died. King Sihanouk is speaking to the camera, always speaking. This ebullient little man certainly had great gifts, as well as flaws. On vintage film clips we watch him take astonishing gambles to protect a future for his country. He played politics relentlessly. Though for some years he chose a political career over kingship he never ceased to mix both roles.

His Highness was merciless in imprisoning, torturing and ridiculing enemies. Always so. He lost three of his many children and fourteen of his grandchildren to the Pol Pot reign of terror even as he lived with the Khmer Rouge leaders in the palace in an emptied Phnom Penh: first as a figurehead leader, then as a man under house arrest. He made alliances with the Khmer Rouge more than once.

We passengers are unusually subdued: thoughtful as we board the plane for the last stage of our journey from Singapore to Phnom Penh.

The jostling queue for ‘visa on arrival’ is familiar; I am ready. Beyond the cool dimness of the Pochentong Airport Customs Hall, out at the edge of the glare of morning sunlight, a larger than usual crowd waits to greet the arriving passengers. I can see only silhouettes. As I walk through the gate four arms are waving to me.

Nee is there. I thought he was in Ratanakiri. Beside him is Reaksa, free from university for the day of cremation. I step into familiar welcome.

Reaksa still calls me Yeay. His elder brother Raksmey, who is in Siem Reap today, now calls me Joan.

Nee drives; his son wants to tell me about Sihanouk and I want to listen to what he understands. There will be time for Nee and I to talk later.

Reaksa and his friends from the university are following Facebook and YouTube, watching television and, for the first time in their lives, debating about politics. In the days between Norodom Sihanouk’s death and his cremation the Cambodian television channels have been playing documentaries of his life, documentaries previously not permitted. Reaksa has been watching these forty-year-old films over and over. ‘There was healthcare for poor people, they could go to good hospitals,’ he says. ‘When there was a flood or a drought the King was there to help them. Did you know that?’

Astounding, I think. An old man now dead is spreading a political message to a bright young generation. King Sihanouk was a filmmaker in his time; anything that he left behind in archives will show him at his best.

Reaksa buys me the badge of mourning: a circular laminated image of Sihanouk mounted on black and white ribbons. He asks his girl cousin to pin it to my tee-shirt; it is as decorative as a corsage. His own tee-shirt is bright aqua and carries the words ‘BE WILD’. His mother sent it to him from the USA. His well-cut curly hair frames a face eager for excitement. We set out on his motorbike.

There is a heavy presence of armed military police close to the Royal Palace, the House of Parliament and the crematorium. Police bark messages into two-way radios. Standing in clusters in their khaki coloured uniforms with tight trousers tucked into shiny black boots, guns at the hip, the red white and blue insignia of the Cambodian flag attached to their sleeves and to their peaked caps, they wait. They walk up and down beside metal barricades freshly painted in red and white.

The barricades, blazing in the sunlight, hold back the villagers who adore the dead one. These rural people travelled in the backs of open trucks. Some sold possessions for the fare. From where they now stand blocked by the police they can see nothing. They came from distant places dressed carefully for the occasion. The women wear long-sleeved white tops, some embroidered or made from lace. The men wear white business shirts, sleeves to their wrists, top collar button open. To put aside rice-field clothes and to dress with dignity they have spent more than they can afford, though they are not treated with dignity. They sweat under the relentless sun.

Many of the older people who now push against the barricades hoping for a glimpse of the place where the coffin lies in state remember the ‘Sihanouk time’ as the only good time of their lives. Later there was Lon Nol, then Pol Pot, now Prime Minister Hun Sen. ‘Same cart, different driver,’ they sometimes mutter in private.

Mourning music surrounds and follows everyone in Phnom Penh on this day. It comes from the cremation site; it comes from the continuous television coverage; it is in the air that everyone must breathe.

Norodom Sihanouk’s presence is everywhere. We are dwarfed by massive roadside portraits of His Highness: as an eighteen-year-old ascending the throne in 1941, as a young man, triumphant from the achievement of independence from the French in 1953, as a husband of the elegant Monineath who, from among his many wives, continues to be honoured.

At three in the afternoon we hear that official mourners, high-ranking Cambodians and leaders from many countries, are filing through the custom-built crematorium to pay last respects. The villagers still wait by the barricades, occasionally surging forward and being pushed back. Reaksa is on his motorbike looking for a chance to slip between the barricades to a vantage point.

Just after six o’clock in the evening the King, Norodom Sihamoni, and the Queen Mother, Monineath, each light a candle. Their role is to bring their candles into contact with the oil-soaked sandalwood coffin. The curtains of the elaborate crematorium move together to block the view so that the final moments in the atrium cannot be observed by the cameras.

Those who wait outside greet the start of the smoke with silent respect. A 101-gun artillery salute is heard throughout the city. Fireworks explode to honour the life that is over. Even now the ordinary people are restrained; they stand pressed against each other in grief.

Reaksa leaves on his motorbike, weaving and circling to find a way to see more, sending texts to my mobile phone. It is already dark when he finds a way through the barricades; he will bring me there.

The people who have stood waiting all day have found this new opening too. They surge forward in a white-clad crowd. We park the bike and are carried along with them around the Ministry of Arts building, past the stupa commemorating protestors slain in the grenade attack. We stand where we can watch the palace glowing with golden lights. There is a large screen replaying the events of the day.

At a makeshift shrine Reaksa buys me two bunches of deep-pink long-stemmed lotus flowers, painstakingly prepared with their outer petals folded backwards. ‘One bunch for each side,’ he instructs, ‘five incense sticks to put into the urn at a time. What will you pray?’

‘I will pray for peace in Cambodia, in our hearts and in the whole world.’

‘Same as me,’ he says.

Close to us a line of ageing women move through the throng, singing. They seem to be heading towards a truck that will return them to their village. It is difficult to distinguish any words. ‘Is it Buddhist chant Reaksa?’

‘No, not monk’s language. Women cannot sing monk’s language. They are singing in Khmer. They are singing thanks and we are proud to be Cambodian.’

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy