Cambodians line streets to see ex-King Norodom Sihanouk’s coffin

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The body of Cambodia’s late King Norodom Sihanouk returned to his homeland Wednesday afternoon, welcomed by hundreds of thousands of mourners who packed tree-lined roads in the Southeast Asian nation’s capital ahead of the royal funeral.

Sihanouk, 89, died Monday of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January.

The former monarch was the last surviving Southeast Asian leader who pioneered his nation through postwar independence. He served as prime minister and twice as king before abdicating the throne for good in 2004.

A Boeing 747 arranged by the government of China — a steadfast friend of the late monarch for decades — brought back the body, which was accompanied by Sihanouk’s widow, Queen Mother Monineath.

Also on the plane was Sihanouk’s son and successor, King Sihamoni, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had traveled to Beijing to retrieve the body.

The casket was carried on an elaborate motorized float from the airport to the Royal Palace, where Sihanouk will lie in state for three months. During that time, the public can pay respects before the body is cremated according to Buddhist ritual.

Monks and soldiers both rode the float, designed to represent a giant golden phoenixlike bird.

Crowds had gathered since morning all along the five-mile route, many wearing white, a color of mourning in Buddhist tradition. Officials estimated the crowd to be more than 200,000. Long Demon, a city government spokesman, told the local news website DAP that as many as 1.2 million people in total, including many from outside the capital, had come to mourn.

When the float passed them, wailing grew louder among the onlookers. Many, especially the elderly, bowed low with hands pressed together above their heads in a traditional mark of respect. Some tossed flowers.

Thousands of people, some with tears in their eyes, gathered outside the palace in sweltering weather, many of them kneeling before a huge portrait of the late monarch on the main wall, which was also adorned with lights. They carried flowers, lit candles, burned incense and prayed.

“I needed to come here today to pray and see the body of the king because he dies only one time, not twice,” said Khy Sokhan, a 73-year-old woman in a wheelchair outside the palace.

While older people seemed more emotionally affected, younger people also came out to grieve.

A young woman who traveled with her family from Kampong Cham province in eastern Cambodia described mixed emotions.

“I am happy because I have a chance to come to Phnom Penh see the coffin of the grandfather-king with own eyes, but I feel so sad to see him passing away,” 20-year-old Kay Savath said.

A holiday atmosphere accompanied the grief.

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