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Published: November 7th 2014
Even though I have the luxury of air, owing to the fact I’m quite a bit taller than most of those around me, it still feels crushingly claustrophobic as I surge and sway with the motion of the crowd. Over to the left a dozen or so people break through the barrier and make a run for it. Neither the police nor soldiers holding the line seek to chase them, deciding instead to hold their positions and stem the tide, lest there be more attempts to break loose. Seeing this opportunity I attempt to squeeze my way through toward the breach. Reaching the spot it’s clear the escapees have managed to jump the fence, which is now being fortified with extra barbed-wire and police reinforcements.
Flying into Phnom Penh last week, we hadn’t known of the king’s death until reading about it in the local newspaper on our first morning by the pool. Actually he’s been dead for four months, and the city will be in virtual lockdown for the official mourning, over the next few days. Shocked that something so significant was about to occur, our initial concerns centered on how this might affect our own travel
Royal Palace Park
plans. The ladies at reception said it would most likely hamper our movement in and out of the capital, with many Cambodians over the next days descending on the capital to pay their last respects during this period. At this news we conjured up a plan to skip our Phnom Penh itinerary and taxi out from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap ASAP. For $70US - ten dollars more than the price for four bus tickets – taking a taxi door-to-door was a no-brainer. And now, here we were back in Phnom Penh, having taxied back, Angkor Wat safely in the bag.
It was said over a million Cambodians lined the route from the airport to the Royal Palace for the return of Sihanouk's body from China some three months ago. His embalmed body had lain in state at the Royal Palace ever since in order to allow people to pay their respects. Just before we left for Siem Reap last week, half-a-million people gathered on the streets of Phnom Penh to bid one last farewell to Sihanouk, as his body was carried through the city one last time. Tonight, with world dignitaries assembled he will be cremated
in a specially constructed palace/crematorium at Veal Preah Man; at the climax of seven days of mourning, Cambodia will say goodbye.
We made our way down to the palace only to find that all streets leading there, and to the king’s recently constructed crematorium, were blocked off with row-upon-row of roadblocks and checkpoints. Initially I believed cunning, guile and charm would see us through, but after trying every ruse in the book we made absolutely zero headway.
Trying to probe for a weak spot we traveled around the perimeter and headed down to the river where a hundred and one gun salute and fireworks display would mark the lighting of the funeral pyre by the King’s wife and son, as the sun went down in less than an hour. Seeing the crush of people backed up on the streets, it was decided the kids probably wouldn’t enjoy the wait, or get to see the fireworks anyhow.
With the streets so crowded, I made my way to the river where crowds of mourners dressed in white gathered in ever-increasing numbers on the steep grassy embankment. Even here, down to the water’s very
edge, barbed-wire marked the demarcation point where, just yards from us, through the fences and police lines, the empty streets stretched towards the distant palace, where world dignitaries gathered to pay their last respects.
As darkness descended the fireworks were set off - themselves not much of an aesthetic spectacle, rather a symbolic manifestation that the king’s cremation had begun.
I could go home listening to this on the radio, watch it on TV or read about it in tomorrow’s newspapers. But where I really want to be is inside. This isn’t viewing vestiges of Cambodia’s past – a bunch of old ruins or a metal bed in a museum, and imagining how it used to be. I have to get inside. This is history in the making, right now.
I decided to back up a couple of streets to where the crowds were less dense. I staked out the first checkpoint of the outer ring. It seemed lightly manned, considering. Probably because not many people were even attempting to get through anymore, by this time everyone knew attempts to talk their way inside was futile. I decided to stagger my
approach from shop-front to shop-front, along the one side of the road, trying to appear as innocuous and uninterested as possible. Once I got up to the barrier I decided to remain there, surveying the police officers to-ing and fro-ing, trying to blend in…waiting for an opportunity…
It seemed that some people who lived on the other side of the barrier were being let out at the edge of the cordon. So when the police guarding the blockade turned the other way I jumped the barrier, remaining to the side, walking briskly and purposefully. I heard a shout from behind, which reverberated down my spine, but didn’t look back, didn’t change pace. I simply kept walking …
Success, but I was only a third of the way through as there were two more blocks and two more barriers to pass. Inside this buffer zone there were far fewer people. The atmosphere here felt more relaxed, less desperate. People in here clearly had authorization to be here, which I assumed would make the next hurdle considerably easier.
Hopping the barrier had worked before and so there was no reason to believe it
wouldn't again. This time, however, as I waited for my opportunity, a car approached from the other side, wanting to be let out. The policeman dragged the barriers across the street to allow its passing, and then as the car eased through, momentarily shielding me from their view; I slipped on through too, in the opposite direction.
If the last barrier marked the end zone I was now in red zone territory. On the other side were the tens of thousands of mourners dressed in white. If I made it through this one, even if I were spotted and or even chased, I could melt into the crowd almost immediately, escaping to victory. Surmising this and knowing just how close I was to my goal made me even more brazen. Almost as soon as I reached the last barrier I put one hand upon it and hurdled it, confidently and matter-of-factly. I was in!
Inside the crowds were thick and even more feverish than those outside. To my immediate left, TV crews lined up at the entrance to the king’s crematorium to film the flames which flickered from within, as smoke drifted out of
the ornate roof, illuminated by the golden glow. Mourners were densely packed in and along the street to Royal Palace Park, where I ultimately wanted to be. It was futile to try and force my way through so I made my way down to the river’s edge, where the Tonle Sap River meets the Mekong, and navigated around. Here, waiting in the floodlit night, another sea of white sat and kneeled in the park fronting the Royal Pagoda, adorned as it was with a portrait of their deceased king. The atmosphere was electric in anticipation of something about to reach its conclusion, its finale, the turning of the page in Cambodia’s history.
I picked and weaved through the mostly-seated crowd towards the portrait of the king displayed on the Royal Pagoda. Mourners wore pins and brooches with black and white ribbons and some held photos of their king. Many had their heads shaved, reflecting the respect Sihanouk still commands in Cambodia, especially among the older generation. Many knelt and clasped their hands in prayer. I passed an animated and sweaty journalist from BBC World Service gesticulating wildly into his microphone as he attempted to portray this remarkable scene to
Veal Preah Man
the world’s listeners. Apart from a select group of journalists who clearly had the right paperwork to be admitted to this inner sanctum I didn’t spy any tourists here amongst the thousands of mourners. And so I decided to press ahead with the situational assumption that foreigner = journalist. In doing so I joined a couple of photographers at the front where mourners were cordoned off from the road which separated them and the Royal Pagoda.
King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004, holding many positions in his lifetime including two terms as king, two as prince, once as president, two as prime ministe
r, and the leader of various governments-in-exile
. He was placed on the throne as a puppet prince by the French in 1941, and turned out to be anything but; amongst many things he was a film director, a jazz musician and a renowned womanizer. But he was ultimately a pragmatist and played a central part at virtually every point in Cambodia’s contemporary history. Make no mistake: this guy was right behind the Khmer Rouge in their early years as it battled against the US-led right-wing coup, and it was in his name that many peasants were convinced to go
Royal Palace Park
along with the Khmer Rouge. He wanted his country to be independent, even if that had to be communist. He later cozied up to Reagan before going off to live in North Korea and eventually China, where he died. Yet despite the king’s checkered past, he is still revered by millions as "The King-Father of Cambodia."
In front of me the thousands in the crowd still patiently wait. Waiting for what? I ask a photographer. They are waiting for the king, he said. Of course, the current
king is eldest son Norodom Sihamoni -- and as the cortege passed, the crowd kneeled in reverence, their palms pressed together and heads bowed in a sampeah
, a sign of respect, as Buddhist monks chanted. Then after a few more car loads of dignitaries pass, I make my way up the steps of the Royal Pagoda fronting the mourners to witness the crowd rise in unison and begin moving, pushing, shoving, and the suddenly running over towards the crematorium, the resting place of their deceased king, to say their final goodbyes. From where I am it certainly feels like I had a front row seat to history, literally and metaphorically.
Mourners The Beach
Royal Palace Park
The last time I visited Cambodia I’d skipped the beach. Tales I’d heard of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s premier seaside resort, held no appeal, in fact the more I knew about the place the more it sounded like Sodom-on-Sea. Now years later, with kids in tow, it appealed even less. However, that is not to say that I hadn’t researched the various beaches and off-shore islands which regularly open and grow in popularity to accommodate demand. It was through this research I discovered the existence of Koh Kong, an as yet untrammeled Cambodian island close to the Thai border.
The reason it hadn’t recently been developed until now, I was to later learn, was because the military had usurped it for many years hence. Now, it was just opening up, and rumor had it, a small resort had sprung up there. Arriving in Koh Kong town, close to the Thai border, we spied a few small travel agencies offering day trips to the island, where travelers would be offered the opportunity of being boated out to the island and left on a beach, before being picked up and taken
back to the mainland in the afternoon. We opted to stay on the island for a few days in the new resort, which meant we shared the boat with a few of these day-trippers, for the ninety-minute-ride, before they were unceremoniously dropped off in the shallow water by a beach before we carried on in the boat to Koh Kong Island Resort.
At $70 for a “luxury” beachfront bungalow, it wasn’t cheap, particularly by Cambodian standards, but with the price inflation for beach-front location over the border in Thailand, perhaps it was good value. The resort is set on a lovely beach surrounded by the tropical rainforest which still covers this surprisingly large and unmolested island. The view from our balcony was glorious and perfect to share the bottles of wine we had procured for the purpose back in Phnom Penh. There were just six bungalows, two of which were empty, which meant we shared the place with just a few other guests. No TV, no internet and scant electricity to charge electrical devices meant there was literally nothing to do… if you consider beach, swimming, reading and relaxing nothing to do, that is.
The restaurant was fairly basic and pricey for what it was, serving mostly seafood with a Khmer twist, and evening barbeques to be arranged, if enough guests were interested. It was that type of place. Then on our last morning I ordered the eggs benedict from the breakfast menu. I couldn’t believe what came out of the kitchen. It was simply unfathomable that that
dish had come out of that
kitchen! The best eggs benedict technically and visually I’ve seen, ever. I immediately asked who’d made it and was introduced to the chef. The chef being the French co-owner, who happened to have arrived on a boat the previous evening, who just so happened to be an accomplished chef who also happened to run a successful restaurant in Phnom Penh. We spent the rest of the day discussing the resort, the island, the politics and their vision for the future.
They had several more budget bungalows planned. More tourists equals more revenue for sure, but the premium price of the superior bungalows comes with that very tentatively maintained rustic-Robinson-Crusoe-vibe, lose that and suddenly it’ll seem overpriced for what it essentially is.
Koh Kong was
an excellent respite to finish our stay in Cambodia - the yin for all that yang - and a pleasant surprise to discover such a solitary beach in this day and age in this part of the world -- particularly since the release of that Alex Garland book/movie The Beach. Ever since it seems, people have been searching for that bloody beach, and their quest, largely centered on Thailand, infects people’s psyches like a contagion. Despite the fact Garland’s book was inspired by The Philippines, where you can find your very own idyllic and isolated beach untouched by tourism, and some each for your friends too, with minimal effort. So yes, you may have to skip over barricades and dodge police in this part of the world for a slice of history in the making. But the days of paddling out to an island, jumping off waterfalls and dodging drug dealers to get to an unmolested beach are all but over… or in the pages of a novel…or in our heads.
But I digress, well sort of, because Thailand is our next destination, and after taking the boat back to the mainland and
Koh Kong Island
a short bus ride, that is where we found ourselves…looking for… The
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