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Last Updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
Cambodia's muted coronation
By Guy De Launey
BBC, Phnom Penh

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni (29/10/04)
Despite the colourful celebrations, many Cambodians are indifferent
A once in a lifetime event - or a trip to the seaside? On the face of it, the former should win every time.

But even as Norodom Sihamoni officially becomes their king, many of the people of Phnom Penh are making themselves scarce, heading for the sandy beaches of Sihanoukville instead of celebrating the first real change of monarch since 1941.

Once again, the influence of the now-retired King Sihanouk is playing its part.

He turns 82 this weekend, and there is a three-day public holiday to celebrate.

Along with Coronation Day, it means that people are off work until Wednesday - and the temptation to make the most of the break is hard to resist.

Sokan, sewing machine shop-worker
Sokan, a shop-worker, says he is simply too busy to celebrate

Tenni, who works in a bank, is a typical case.

"I'm going to Siem Reap (near to the temples of Angkor), and I'll watch the ceremony on TV. We can't see what's going on inside the Royal Palace anyway."

There is no public access to the first two days of the coronation, and the low-key nature of the event has put a damper on the celebrations.

The new king specifically asked for it to be a modest occasion, as he was concerned that an extravagant display would be an insult to the millions of Cambodians who live in poverty.

Rather than a ceremonial crown and sword, the new monarch has opted to wear a simple suit for most of the three-day affair.

Yet it seems that people want a little more showmanship from their royal family.

"Why isn't the king wearing the traditional clothes?" asked Rady, a waitress. "He's our king, he should be wearing them."

I want to get to know the new king and find out what he will do in the future
Kakada, student

Other people are simply too busy to join in the festivities - like sewing machine shop-worker Sokan.

"I'm very happy to welcome the new king, but I won't take part in the parties. I always think about my family first - selling and doing business."

If Phnom Penh hasn't caught the party spirit, it is not for lack of effort on the part of the authorities. The Royal Palace is decked out in fairy lights, and giant portraits of King Sihamoni have been erected all over the city, along with stages for dancing and music.

Some of the entertainment has certainly succeeded in building the excitement.

On Thursday, a brief, early evening firework display in Phnom Penh brought thousands of people rushing to the riverside as soon as they heard the first explosions.

Many of them will head to the Royal Palace on Saturday morning to hear King Sihamoni address the nation for the first time.

Sopheak, a monk at the Wat Ounalom complex, Phnom Penh
Sopheak says he thinks the king could help the revival of Buddhism

Kakada, a student, is planning to join the crowd.

"I want to get to know the new king and find out what he will do in the future. Many people won't have heard him speak before - I didn't know anything about him at all."

The lack of public familiarity with a monarch who has spent most of his life outside Cambodia could actually make Saturday's event more popular. Thousands of visitors from the provinces are expected to come to Phnom Penh to see their new monarch for themselves.

At least King Sihamoni needs no introduction to the city's Buddhist monks.

He studied the religion himself for a time, and Sopheak, a monk at the Wat Ounalom complex near to the palace, thinks the new monarch could complete the revival of Cambodian Buddhism.

"Like us, the king is single. He only practises art and religion. I hope he will help Cambodian people with his experience in the Buddhist way," he said.

The coronation is the first step in a "getting to know you" process. King Sihamoni has looked nervous during the various ceremonies.

But while there might not have been a wave of popular acclaim, there is certainly a great deal of curiosity - and hope.


SEE ALSO:
Cambodia crowns Sihamoni as king
29 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
New Cambodian king 'nervous'
15 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: King Sihamoni
14 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
A new king for Cambodia: Your views
14 Oct 04 |  Have Your Say
Profile: Norodom Sihanouk
14 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific


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