The Death of a King

View of the water at Sihanoukville on the eve of the former king's death - Sokha Beach, Kampong Som

View of the water at Sihanoukville on the eve of the former king’s death – Sokha Beach, Kampong Som

I am Sihanouk, and all Cambodians are my children.

Norodom Sihanouk

I was sitting alone for an episode of morning me time on the balcony of the Golden Sand Hotel in Sihanoukville (the popular beach town also known as Kampong Som) when I learned about it. (Note – I did not observe the presence of any golden sand at the Golden Sand Hotel, but that’s okay because there were fresh coconuts, and I’ll take fresh coconuts over golden sand any day.)

There I was, alone and zoning out into a complete oblivion, a tad intoxicated by the early coastal breeze, when I heard my cousin Sokha call me.

I rotated atop my stool of meditation to glimpse her leap forward and take a seat beside me. Her face is usually lit, so I could tell she looked tired. She gave a recap of her unpleasant experience from the last night. Apparently the crab fest from yesterday’s dinner didn’t agree with her system. After recounting the gastroenterological horror that befell her, we proceeded to discuss what else happened in the last eight hours:

“Sihanouk is dead,” she said.

“What …” I replied.

Wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed, I listened to her give a rundown of the quick facts that she saw on TV that morning. (It’s times like this when I think perhaps I really should watch more television. Otherwise, I’m never going to know who’s dying or what commercials would be good to bring up in small talk.)

But here is the news: The former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, died of a heart attack in Beijing, at the age of 89. He would have been 90 years old on October 31st. The man was a leading figure in Cambodian society, having played a role in French-controlled Indochina, rallied in the nation’s independence movement after World War II, dilly dallied in the civil war of the 1970s, gotten involved with Khmer Rouge politics, and re-entered the scene as a reinstated king during the uneasy years of Cambodia’s transition after the genocide. Sihanouk spent more time abroad and tended to his failing health after he abdicated the throne to his son and the current King Norodom Sihamoni in 2004. (See BBC News, “Cambodia former king Norodom Sihanouk dies aged 89”)

I’m going to be bold and colorful and say Sihanouk was the 20th century Cambodian version of Henry VIII of England. The man was married six times, had (at least) 14 children (maybe Henry can’t compete on that level though), was very well educated and versed in the arts and humanities, and was a prominent figure during the whole of Cambodia’s most turbulent history in modern times. Though he did not boast a pristine political or personal track record (“Cambodians are all naughty boys, and that includes me,” he once said), it is an inarguable fact that Norodom Sihanouk, the king father, was what you call an icon. What’s more significant is that his death falls during Pchum Ben, the much-celebrated holiday during which Cambodians remember, honor, and pray for the dead.

We made the drowsy drive from Sihanoukville and back to Phnom Penh today. And as I was told before, the capital city indeed was quiet. People have shut down their bustling businesses to head out to their family villages or to stay home. I can cross the street tomorrow without having to fear for my life in the face of traffic. There’s an added eerie silence to it all though, and it’s not just because of Pchum Ben. The skies are dark and the familiar red and blue-striped flags are hanging at half-staff on street corners. Listen, the spirits are quietly crying. That is the sound of the death of a king.

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