The King’s Birthday was on Wednesday. There had been some talk of cancelling it, as it was pointed out (delicately) that it was not exactly a birthday any longer, but the Khmer penchant for holidays and the outpouring of reverence for the King held out.
And so there were fireworks – like there usually are – and people congregated in large groups outside the palace – as they have been. As I sped to the Palace on a motorbike, I watched the fireworks go off, ringed on two sides by great bursts of heat lightning. I do not know this, but I suspect the heat lightning, too, will be attributed to the supernatural influence of the King Father.
The Palace has taken on something of a festive nature: this is mourning, sure, but not really the kind where one keens and wails and doesn’t enjoy life. Kids played outside the electric walls of the Royal Palace, shrieking at one another over the sound of talking and chanting.
They have installed a large television on the side of the Royal Palace that plays a brief video of Sihanouk’s final installation in the Capital, and of his family and alternating diginatries weeping over his body. The Jumbotron has become something of a center of attention, and people arrange themselves in a fan around it. Some of them eat popcorn.
Vendors sell all manner of Sihanouk-themed souvenirs, including t-shirts, though remain unable to actually find a vendor. I purchased a lovely silvery ribbon with a portrait of the King stuck on it—a bit North Korea-esque, except no one was making me wear it—and the seller fashioned it to my shirt, to the great amusement of all present.
Young men roam the crowds with camera, offering to take people’s photos and quickly print them out. There’s people selling inflatable animal-shaped balloons, and dancing foam mice, and kites, and grilled snakes-on-a-stick, and many, many other things. Families stake out ground with mats and bring coolers and sometimes a radio. The whole affair has taken on a festival mood—a nationalist festival you could call it.
People continue to light incense and to sign the now-groaning guestbook for the King. The scent of incense in the air is almost overwhelming, and the palace is ringed in a smoky halo many nights here, after Sihanouk’s passing. People come to offer lotuses and flowers to the large display that has been put up outside the palace walls: they are passed over a tall barrier to a young man who arranges the offerings among thousands of others.
A friend tells me that the nuns have objected exceptionally strenuously to a suggestion that access to the King’s Body be limited to a lottery system. “He is our king, why can’t we just go in and see him?” they say. They are willing to wait out the government on this one.
Embarrassed to admit it hadn’t occurred to me before, those many zillion of times I’d passed the palace during regular operations, what these cauldrons are for. Are they only used for the death of a King?
Fire features large in Buddhist mourning celebrations. It makes for a gorgeous tableaux, that’s for sure.