WASHINGTON DC - Incense smoke drifted in the chill air outside the Buddhi Karam temple in Maryland Monday, as the Cambodian festival Pchum Ben entered its final day.
Pchum Ben is a holiday that honors deceased ancestors, and so it was a fitting place for Cambodians in the area to gather and mourn the death of former king Norodom Sihanouk.
Monks chanted and people prayed at the temple. “They have come together to mourn the death and have organized this prayer for the soul of king Norodom Sihanouk,” said Ouk Vanhan, head monk at the temple.
The temple’s chief layman, Koy Moeun, said he hoped the king would rest and peace and “receive all the merit we have done at the temple for him.”
Sihanouk first took the throne at age 19, in 1941. He led the country through independence from France and into a “Golden Age” that was short lived, as the country became increasingly mired in the conflict in Vietnam, then a civil war with the Khmer rouge.
Uon On, a mourner at the temple, said she remembered the post-colonial period. “I remember this time when my husband brought home a big paycheck each month,” she said. “That was a time when we really enjoyed our independence.”
Even those too young to remember such times mourned the death of the former king.
Srey Dalis, 27, said she would honor the king “who gave us life.”
“He was the king who made the country prosper, and he gave the people self-esteem,” she said.
And though there were those who gave the king credit for advancing the country, there were others that remembered a darker role.
After Sihanouk was deposed in 1970, who joined in common cause with the Khmer Rouge, rallying many under their banner who thought they would be fighting to put him back on the throne. When the regime came to power, in 1975, they put him under house arrest.
The former king declined to appear before the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh.
Kuch Chanly, a Cambodian-American in Maryland, said he regretted the former monarch had died without clearly answering for his role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge.