Present at Sihanouk's Fire

Sometimes a journalist can get a little too close to the story. As a correspondent who covered Indochina events off and on from the Vietnam War onwards, I sent a letter to King Norodom Sihanouk's widow, Queen Monineath, and delivered it to the palace in early January, three months after the king's passing in Beijing at age 89 on Oct 15, 2012.

"I covered and interviewed King Sihanouk in Pyongyang, Peking, Jakarta, Pattaya, Bangkok, the Dangrek Mountains of Cambodia, and Paris in search of peace for Cambodia," I wrote. "I would be most grateful if you would permit me to be present at his cremation."

To my surprise, I got a call from the palace to pick up my royal credentials.

It was just at dusk Monday and I was standing about 35 yards from the atrium where the king had lain for three days in state, since his body had been transferred from the palace next door.

The curtains were open and I saw that King Sihanouk's body appeared to be out of the sarcophagus  though I could not see the body itself  and in a coffin atop thick carpets with a cover over it. I watched King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Monineath lifting the cover and presumably arranging the king's vestments. Then they each lit a candle close to the sandalwood oil-soaked coffin.

At first there was a small flicker of flame, and later, after the royal family had moved away, there was a roar of fire inside the atrium, a temporary but beautiful building constructed for the funeral.

I never imagined I was going to see King Sihanouk burning. I had seen him in chortling good humor, and also with his face contorted in furious anger, as his mood changed during interviews. Now it was over, and a heavy smoke arose on top of the flames.

Two hours later, when I returned from visiting the crowd of thousands outside the palace, the flames were still burning fiercely.

On Tuesday morning, I returned to the palace at dawn to watch King Sihanouk's ashes taken away, some to the royal palace, some to a barque where the River Mekong meets the Tonle Sap and what remains of the Bassac rivers, and some conveyed away by different sects of monks.

A Royalist insider showed me some ashes tapped into the figure of Buddha wrapped in a tissue. "This was given to me," he said.

"Look, the ashes are still warm."

He offered me the chance to touch them, but I could not bring myself to touch the late King Sihanouk like that.

There was a ceremonial walk to the river behind a military band. The streets had been emptied of people. We went to a landing stage opposite the royal palace. The ashes and holy objects to be placed at the confluence of the rivers were, surprisingly, just in plastic bags. The ones for the palace had been in golden urns.

The Brahman priests took out their conch shell musical instruments and began blowing them as the vessel pulled away from the pier.

The boat with members of the royal family in it was towed out and the ashes then deposited into the murky waters of these rivers, where they would eventually be washed down to Vietnam and the South China Sea.

The ashes at the palace would be put in a golden urn and placed in a stupa, where they could be worshipped afterwards.

During King Sihanouk's life and reign he won independence from France in 1953, was later held as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge in his palace, travelled the world and was a prominent member of the non-aligned movement. Now it was well and truly over.

King Norodom Sihamoni, son of Sihanouk and Monineath, and now the monarch, had said in a speech after the cremation: "May his Majesty go to paradise and Nirvana, to be close to our Buddha.

"Please, King Father, take care and protect the Kingdom of Cambodia and Cambodian people forever."