Timing is everything. Without knowing before hand, I had arrived in Cambodia in the middle of cremations proceedings for the “King Father” Norodom Sihanouk. On my first morning in Phnom Penh I had my walking tour all planned out which included the Royal Palace as my first stop. Walking past Wat Botum wide eyed and bushy tailed, I started to notice a growing crowd of people in the street wearing black pants or skirts and white tops. Some had ribbons pinned to their shirts and beautiful traditional Khmer music was playing from speakers mounted throughout the area. Finding a notice pinned to the gate of the palace that it would be closed from February 1 – 7, I gathered the closure and the crowds had something to do with one another. A Cambodian man soon saw my confusion and explained that the King Father had died and the palace was closed for that reason.
Intrigued, I ventured out of the shade and started following the crowd. Gold adorned statues and – the equivalent of parade floats, although I don’t think we can or should call this a parade – lined the streets as people posed for pictures. Vendors sold incense and sprigs of intoxicating Jasmine flowers while others offered them at no charge.
After 20 minutes of wandering, I noticed the crowd had taken some direction which I decided to follow. The procession led past security detail and gates into a beautiful courtyard with what looked like temples. I stepped out of the line for a moment to snap some photos when I noticed others stopping in front of the temple in the center of the courtyard for pictures and taking off their shoes to kneel and bow. Upon further investigation, I discovered the temple was not a temple, but a funeral pyre where Sihanouk’s body awaited cremation. Now I was feeling uncomfortable. It’s kind of like crashing a funeral. I had no allegiance to this man, no knowledge of his reign, and no idea of the impact his life had on the Cambodian people, and all of a sudden I was in a line of his subjects, some of whom appeared quite upset.
Keeping my head bowed and following the cues from locals, I found the exit at the other end of the courtyard where I turned to watch the event. I was put at ease by the smiles and nods I received from locals and policemen, and decided that since I remained respectful throughout (and was thankfully dressed modestly), I could check this off as a pretty positive experience. A once in a lifetime means by which to observe another culture.
After a few moments a woman came up to me asking if I spoke English, to which I replied in English, “Yes, I do”. She introduced herself as a reporter from Channel News Asia Singapore – an English network in Singapore – and asked if I had come from the courtyard and if she could interview me. I told her I didn’t really know anything about the proceedings, and in fact, at that point I wasn’t quite sure if it was the King Father or the King’s father who had died, but she insisted.
She asked where I was from and why I had gone to view the King‘s [father’s?] body.
Uhhhh….. Good question.
“Well” I said, “I was just following the crowd and it led here.”
“But why would you, as a foreigner, go inside to view his body when you have no allegiance to him?”
I hate you.
“Well, like I said I was just following the crowd. I didn’t know the King’s (with inflection [she nods]) body was there.”
At this point she appears frustrated. She’s succeeded in making me look and feel like a complete idiot, but not the ignorant, disrespectful tourist I think she was going for.
Realizing I wasn’t going to start giggling with excitement about how cool is was that I got to see a dead king (sweet vacation!), she went on asking me how I felt about what I had witnessed. I’m pretty sure I said “culture”, “history”, and “country” about thirty times each over the remaining 3 minutes of the interview, trying desperately to sound like I’d been to college.
Note to self: You’re no good on the spot.
She really caught me off guard. I hadn’t even had time to process the experience for myself before I was asked to share it with Singapore. Regardless, it was such a unique way to experience another country‘s culture and history. Let just hope channel news asia decided against using my sound bites…
And for days the smell of Jasmine filled the city. It was beautiful.
Later that evening I had the pleasure of watching fireworks from my balcony over Independence Monument. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.