King Father Norodom Sihanouk on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebration, Chanchhaya Pavilion, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Today (October 30,) the occasion of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s 90th birthday and the 20-year anniversary of his return to Cambodia was marked with a public celebration in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. All of Cambodia’s most important dignitaries were in attendance as well as thousands of well-wishers including students, police, military and citizens. King Father Sihanouk’s actual birthday is October 31, 1922 and the day of his return to Cambodia November 14, 1991, but October 30 was apparently close enough. In fact, when Sihanouk was King his birthday was held over a 3 day period, from October 30-November 1.
The celebration this morning was festive in appearance, if a bit formal in atmosphere. I arrived early, around 6:30, walking up Street 240 into the Palace area with a stream of hundreds of students on their way to the event. Students, scouts, police and military in their formal best filled the park in front of the Palace opposite the Chanchhaya Pavilion. Citizens lined the roads, many holding flags, flowers and photos of the Kings. Almost no foreigners were present in the crowd. I counted less than 15 in all, including journalists. Too busy sleeping off their authentic Cambodian experience from the Saturday night before, I guess. I managed to get to the very front of the crowd with the TV crews, but it was still quite a ways to the side. I had hoped to get closer for the purpose of photography, but was kept back by security. Over time we (the photog crowd) did manage to work our way another 10 meters closer using the journo shuffle, but that was as much as security would tolerate. It pushed the edge of what I could do with my 200mm lens.
As dignitaries arrived, announcements were made and a high school band in the park played various songs both Cambodian and western, including, somewhat incongruently in the blazing sun, Jingle Bells…’in a one horse open sleigh.’ Dignitaries of lesser importance filled the uncovered seating at the face of the Pavilion and slowly baked in the direct morning sun. King Sihamoni, King Father Sihanouk, Queen Mother Monique, Prince Ranariddh, Prince Chakrapong, Prime Minister Hun Sen, H.E. Sar Kheng and other high royal and government officials were seated in the covered balcony facing the crowd that filled the park across the road.
Once all were assembled there were announcements and music. A troupe of traditional Cambodian dancers performed, and from what I could see though my telephoto, much to the delight of King Father Sihanouk. The dance complete, His Excellency Sar Kheng (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior) came out to the facing podium and made a short address of well wishes to the King Father. After H.E. Sar Kheng, Prime Minister Hun Sen took to facing podium to address the King Father, making a speech that seemed to last at least 20 minutes. The children in the crowd began to grow restless in the increasingly hot sun. They tittered amongst themselves and ooo’d and ahh’d at a flock of pigeons that circled overhead and swooped occasionally toward the crowd. The Prime Minster finished, the King Father sampeahed him profusely as he returned toward the Pavilion.
Then King Father Sihanouk stood to address the crowd. His son the King and Queen Mother occasionally braced him as he stood and sampeahed to the people and those around him. His voice was weak and difficult to hear, but he showed great stamina, speaking for at least as long as the Prime Minister. The adults in the crowd focused their attention on his words. The children continued to shuffle restlessly about. It was difficult to catch his words, but he seemed in good humor, spoke much of Cambodian unity, ribbed that his wife says that he speaks too much, and from what those around me repeated, he promised to remain in Cambodia. There was occasional applause and seeming general appreciation of what he was saying.
His speech complete, the crowd cheered genuinely. There seemed nothing forced or formal about it. Balloons were released from the park and floated appropriately toward and over the Palace. And so it all finished, quite abruptly. The VIPs from the balcony disappeared through a back entrance in very short order and the baked dignitaries from the exposed seating dashed from their chairs seeking cover from the sun in their luxury vehicles parked at the edges of the event area. Military officers and police lingered, taking pictures of one another with the festooned Palace as a background. Also well cooked, I wandered up the riverfront in search of an air-conditioned restaurant and bowl of kui-teo, which I found only a couple of hundred meters away.
Apsara dancers with a side of baked VIP
H.E. Sar Kheng addresses King Father Sihanouk
King Father Sihanouk addresses the People
Son and Father. King Norodom Sihamoni and King Father Sihanouk
King Norodom Sihamoni, King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk Monique
King Father Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen
High school band
Balloons over the Chanchhaya Pavilion
Officers lining the road for the passing procession of dignitaries.
More officers line the road
Wat Ounalom on the riverfront, festooned for King Father Sihanouk's birthday
Sign in front of National Museum commemorating King Father Sihanouk's 90th birthday and 20-year anniversary of his return to Cambodia. Note that 2011-1922=90 (not 89.) I'd say 'only in Cambodia' except that this is how the math of age works in several Southeast Asian countries. Unlike western countries, people are born 1 and the counting begins from there. 90 in Cambodia is the equivalent of 89 in the west.