Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

He Was a Goodly King

Ten days ago the body of the King Father arrived in Cambodia.

He died in Beijing on the actual morning of Pchum Ben- the day of honoring ancestors. His body was flown in and thousands upon thousands gathered to honor his transport to the Royal Palace. This marked the beginning of an intense and emotional nationwide memorial which saw hundreds of thousands of Khmer citizens coming to the city.
I knew he had died, but I was unaware of the arriving flight until I went out into the street and saw the waves of mourners filling up the streets.

It was an odd atmosphere- somber and sad, but with a tremor of celebration too- just a certain moving unity of purpose and identity.

Initially tentative with my picture taking, I relaxed when embraced with typically welcome smiles and generous comments. I chatted with several other photographers about lenses and shooting in the bright sun. Everywhere people pinned these ribbons on each other and later, unasked, a young woman came up and pinned one on me.

Hours and hours went by, the patience of the Khmer seemingly bottomless.
I moved up to the balcony at Java Cafe, where, thanks to the fact that we were all jammed in, drinking coffee, and waiting, I had a terrific conversation with two young successful Khmer women. We talked about Sihanouk's incredible lifetime journey, gaining independence for his country from the French in the 50's, being buffeted back and forth by enormous political forces beyond his control- used by the USA, then China, then the Khmer Rouge. He did also oversee the regaining of certain territories from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.  Certainly he made some unfortunate choices, and he was far from an ascetic or selfless- but given his choices? My new friends indicated that they found him to be a worthy representative of his time- charming, artistic and most often trying to benefit his people as best he could. God knows the Khmer deserve a benevolent figure to bring them together and allow them a measure of pride.

Finally the police cars came down the street and then this set of royal vehicles. One had a small band. It rocked a bit as it rolled, but the music was anything but rock and roll.
 Then came this dragon monk-mobile. I think it might be the coolest thing I have ever seen go down the road- and  purpose built for this rather than some tacky Macy's Day-NBC crap.

Then the casket of the King Father passed. All became somber, as if a wave of sadness came rushing with it, as if we all finally remembered why we had gathered and sat for 4 hours.

I saw him once: he was a goodly king.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

I did not travel to the following days of mourning which took place in front of the Royal Palace because I left the next morning to Kampot. Even when I got back, every day the city traffic intensified, and the emotions rose day by day.

One night a rumor that the King's face could be seen in the moon went viral, and all over the city people stared up and pointed. Several foreigners crossed boundaries and raised the ire of the crowds- first a Thai reporter who stood with the King's portrait at her feet, and then two Chinese factory managers, one who tore up a photo of the King because the workers were "distracted", another who folded up a picture of the face/moon. It was lucky the former was not killed. She was ordered to prostrate herself in front of the King's photo publicly, was thrown in jail, fined and deported. Though I condemn absolutely ideologically inspired violence, I couldn't help but feel these fools' insensitivity deserved harsh measures- and with the horrible conditions of the garment factories, I found myself gloating at the story of the manager. I hope she felt a little of the fear and degradation imposed on the poor daily, though I know she herself is most likely an underpaid and simple pawn in a much larger machine. Though the Chinese government condemned her actions and actually branded her "an idiot", it is the Chinese who use and abuse Cambodia for their benefit.

And I felt lucky to be here as a witness to this historical passage, to see so many Khmer join together, even if it was in sadness.

1 comment:

  1. I'm finding this whole mourning period quite strange. I think it's because I'm so divided over whether he deserves it or not. At least Siem Reap's not quite as hectic as Pnomh Penh is over the whole thing.