When we’d been on our City Tour (see separate journal) our guide had mentioned that at 4.00pm on 11th November the King of Cambodia and the Prime Minister would be turning off the flame in the independence monument.
The Independence monument is a fantastic memorial on the main road through the town close to the Royal Palace. It was erected to celebrate their independence, from almost 100 years of French Colonial rule, in 1953. This huge Stuppa shaped red stone monument reaches high into the sky proclaiming the joy of the people to the heavens above.
Around the square were huge photographs of the king, the previous king and his wife and banners confirming that the king was celebrating his 90th birthday alongside 20 years since the Kingdom had been restored after the downfall of the Kymher Rouge (but more about that in later journals).
We decided that we’d go along to watch the celebrations which were programmed to start at 4.30. We assumed that it would start on time as everything seemed to run on time in this country, so left from our hotel at about 4.20pm. It was only a short walk away and soon we were approaching the main road and could see a crowd encircling the Independence Monument. "Not to large" I thought to myself as we set off purposefully to join them. And then a guard, of which there were many stood around chatting, stopped our progress. I paused and saw a mobile metal detector frame (like you’d see at airports) which I momentarily assumed we had to step through. But no, we were not to proceed any further as only the chosen few with passes were allowed close to the Monument.
Not to be deterred we decided to "stick around" and check out what we could see from a distance. There was plenty of activity in the centre of the monument with local dignitaries, members of the armed forces and high ranking Buddhist Monks taking up their key positions to await the King’s arrival.
An excited commentator seemed to be whipping the selected crowd into an enthusiastic state and several false alarms, when the Cambodian National Anthem was played. With hindsight we reckon these were practice sessions for the crowd. Finally when the King arrived, in his state limousine (one of our guides had joked that this was the King’s new elephant – a reference to the days when the King would have travelled by that mighty beast). The crowd erupted in to frantic flag waving, the raising of photographs of the King and the singing of the Anthem.
Fifty eight year old King Norodom Sihamoni was nominated to be king after his father abdicated in 2004. It is strongly suggested that the former King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated so he could testify in court against the old Khmer Rouge regime (something he couldn’t do as constitutional monarch) and it is clear that the population still honor him. They refer to him as The King-Father of Cambodia and are proud that he has now been King twice (1941 -55 and then again from 1993 until his abdication) and I’m sure that he continues to be influential, despite his abdication.
It was interesting that whoever we spoke to about King Norodom Sihamoni was quick to mention that he was 58 and was not married. They would usually add something like "he was a dancer, you know" and then give a broad grin. One can only guess at their inference!
Anyway back to our experience of the ceremony! Things were happening in the monument but as everyone looked no taller than 7 or 8 cms it was difficult to discern. We saw the King bowing to the religious leaders and after a time the flame was extinguished. Then we could see little activity so we decided to return to our hotel room.
Back there we switched on the TV on the off chance that the ceremony was still ongoing and sure enough there it was. The King was systematically going around the square greeting the onlookers. This was an interesting ceremony to watch as the people’s knees were almost touching the floor as they bowed in front of the King. He too was greeting them almost apologetically with his head down. But he spoke to each and every member on the front row of the square and the whole greetings ceremony must have carried on for approaching the hour, before the King got back into his "elephant" to make the short journey back to his palace.
Did this make up for the cancellation of the Water Festival? Well not quite, but it was a great ceremony to be able to observe, albeit from a distance.