I got back to Cambodia a few days after King Sihanouk’s death. The country was holding seven days of mourning to celebrate his life. It was easy to be cynical at a time like this. Much of the media have portrayed him as a Khmer Rouge puppet who stood by when his people were murdered in one of the bloodiest genocides the world has ever seen.
He certainly moved with the political tide from peacefully obtaining independence from France to assisting Pol Pot’s rise to power, and has his own place in the Guinness World Records as having a greater variety of offices than any other politician. But the people were genuinely moved by his death, and there were shrines to him everywhere and flags at half-mast across Phnom Penh.
The taxi driver taking me from the airport to the Central Market sighed as the traffic came to another stand-still. “Everyone come to celebrate the King,” he said. “He was a good man. The people are sad. His son not so popular.”
I’d been warned the bars had been closed for seven days but it didn’t seem to have stretched to the neon bars on Street 51 or anywhere else I could see. The only sign of enforcement was the absence of music.
As I walked further on, I kept seeing huddles of people gazing upwards, pointing and chattering. I looked up at a building, half expecting someone to be up there preparing to jump. But there was nothing. Just a sickle moon with a faint yellow halo round it.
I carried on walking. More people were gazing upwards. I asked what they were looking at but they just pointed and looked slightly embarrassed. The only ones not looking were the gang of tuk tuk drivers on the corner.
“Hey! Hey sir! Hello, motorbike?” they shouted. I’d forgotten about the relentless hisses and calls from the taxi drivers. It didn’t matter if you walked past six of them, politely declining each time, the seventh would still ask anyway. They had mouths to feed. I was determined to keep my cool this time in Asia. I was determined to remember how it all worked.
The next morning, I found out what all the staring had been about. The Cambodian social media was full of it, but opinion was heavily divided. Was it really the face of the King or just the crescent-shaped moon staring down at them? From the photos it looked unlikely, but I knew from staring at the moon, and its cracks and shadows, or cloud patterns, after a while you can see anything you want.
And for ordinary Cambodians, what they wanted in their time of grief was to stare once more at their former King and hope it was a sign of better times to come. Rather than the increased power of the politicians they’d been left with.
I walked down to the Royal Palace, where the King’s body would be kept for the next three months, embalmed for all to see. Thousands had gathered outside, praying and buying lotus flowers, as the street kids mingled between them begging for hand-outs.
The air was thick with incense smoke. They had given up burning the joss sticks individually and had set fire to bundles, pouring water on from time to time to control the flames. Tears were streaming down the mourners’ faces as the perfumed smoke billowed towards them, filling the dimming light with a spectral haze.
I returned to my hotel as the heavens opened and waited for the monsoon to stop. Then I waded across the road, two feet deep in water. The stench of the sewers was overpowering. The tuk tuks were holding up a computer print-out of a photo one of them claimed to have taken. One of them held a 10,000 riel note next to it, showing King Sihanouk’s face. They kept pointing excitedly and were still going on about it five minutes later when I returned with my iPhone to take a picture.
They might have been half hysterical, they might have been on the pipes, they might have doctored the photo, but as they held the note closer, there was a resemblance. I pointed to the eye shadows on the note, and nodded my head with the rest of them, and then pointed at the corresponding shadows on the moon. It was the King - the man on the moon. I even half believed them.
I waded across the road back to the hotel. The girl on reception was walking up the stairs. “Did you see the moon?” I asked her. She stopped and shrugged. “I tried...I looked for five minutes, but I couldn’t see the King.”