PHNOM PENH - Amid a deeply superstitious population, another rumor is spreading, with mourners claiming they have seen the face of the late former king, Norodom Sihanouk, in the moon and other places.
Photographers and designers along the city’s riverfront, near the Royal Palace, where the late king lies in state, have begun selling posters with his face superimposed over the moon to illustrate these visions.
“I really saw him, although some people say it is an illusion,” said Pich Lamey, 73, from the city’s Dangkor district, who held one of the illustrations in her hands.
So too with Thou Phal, 62, from Battambang province. “It’s not so clear, but you can see the king’s face,” he said. “You can’t see it if you aren’t paying attention. But if you truly pay attention, you will.”
Photographer Phat Vireak, 22, said the visions have helped him earn a lot of money, between $1.25 to $2 a picture. “I have sold more than 100 pictures,” he told VOA Khmer recently.
The late king’s visage has appeared in other places, too.
“I didn’t believe in the pictures of the king in the moon,” said Touchyim Vannith, a 23-year-old student. “But it was unbelievable to me when I saw the face of the king father in the smoke of the candles.”
Others say he has appeared in the clouds.
Sihanouk, a revered figure throughout much of Cambodia, died in Beijing on Oct. 15. He will not be cremated until February, giving many people a chance to travel to the capital and mourn in front of the palace.
For social scientist Somchan Sovandara, a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the appearance of the king’s image in inanimate objects is “an illusion.” “It happens when people feel like they miss or love someone so much,” he said.
Cambodians are especially superstitious, he said. This is due in part to traditions that are handed down from one generation to the next. But they were also traumatized by the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed educational institutions and killed intellectuals, he said.
“People no longer have critical thinking to judge whether it’s true or not,” he said.
Kim Ley, an independent researcher, said some Cambodian beliefs are healthier than others. “In Cambodia, because there are many things that science cannot prove, they are superstitious,” he said.
This can be dangerous, he said. It allows economic opportunists to pray on the unwitting, allows gossip to spread and frighten people and can have negative health effects, such as when people believe soy beans will protect them from disease, he said.
Venerable Tormou Pang Soda, head monk at the Phnom Penh Thmey pagoada, in Kampong Cham province, said that Buddhist teachings ask people to think carefully on something before putting their belief in it. “But for some Cambodian people, they are so traumatized they no longer use their thinking,” he said.