Monday, October 15, 2012

The retired king is dead

Official portrait — Hosted by Wikipedia

Norodom Sihanouk — former king of Cambodia, filmmaker, autocratic despot and all-around renaissance man — has been described as influential, volatile, crafty, charismatic, and above all mercurial.

And, at age 89, he's dead.

This is both shocking and unsurprising as the now-retired king has been in poor health for many years. It's not uncommon to hear he was in France for medical treatment when he was deposed in 1970, though other works describe it as a vacation or a quiet diplomatic round through Europe and the Soviet sphere. But whether he was in country or in exile, firmly in control or a pawn, he was still the "pres moha ksat," the god-king.

I was in Cambodia before Sihanouk abdicated the throne. (He retired in 2004 to bounce between Beijing and Pyongyang, where he apparently felt at home.) His face, and that of Queen Monineath, was inescapable back then. Their portraits were displayed in every schoolroom, government building and in most private businesses.

I saw them during the Water Festival in 2003. I found myself caught in a massive, hot crowd of revelers outside the National Palace. I didn't exactly blend in, but being taller than everyone else did allow me to enjoy the occasional cool breeze — and see the royal couple waving and smiling as they were driven by in a convertible.

The king looked thinner than his portrait, and the queen a bit heavier. But it was the first time I had seen royalty, and they were only a hundred feet away.

Cambodian politics is notoriously messy, but it's something that the king and queen could ride around without worry in front of a huge crowd. His absence will be felt.

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