, PHNOM PENH, Oct 18 – Cambodia began preparations on Thursday to embalm its revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who will lie in state at the palace for three months ahead of a lavish funeral, a royal aide said.
Chinese experts are helping with the process, which is expected to be similar to the one used to preserve the body of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the 1970s, according to Sihanouk’s assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.
“Now the doctors, the scientists are just preparing the body of the king to preserve it,” Thomico told AFP.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners packed the streets of Phnom Penh on Wednesday to witness Sihanouk’s final journey home from Beijing where he died on Monday of a heart attack aged 89.
Throughout the months that Sihanouk’s body will be on view at the palace before it is cremated, groups of relatives will take turns to sit with him, ensuring that the late royal is never alone, according to his aide.
“According to our tradition, members of the royal family will guard the body for 24 hours a day,” Thomico said, adding that the same custom was followed in 1960 when Sihanouk’s father King Norodom Suramarit passed away.
The prime ministers of Vietnam and Laos are expected to visit the palace on Friday to pay their last respects to Sihanouk, who navigated his country through turbulent decades of war, genocide and then peace.
It is unclear when the doors will open to the general public.
Grieving Cambodians have been flocking to a park outside the royal residence since Monday to pay tribute to the popular former monarch with flowers, candles and incense sticks.
Street vendors were doing brisk business Thursday selling freshly printed photos of Sihanouk’s homecoming procession and t-shirts emblazoned with his portrait.
Sihanouk, who abdicated in 2004 citing old age and ill health, is fondly remembered for leading the country to independence from France and through a rare period of political stability in the 1950s and 1960s.
But he was also a shrewd political survivor who repeatedly backed different regimes, including the murderous Khmer Rouge whose 1975-1979 reign left up to two million people dead, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children.
In a message on his personal website in January, Sihanouk said he wanted to be cremated upon his death and have his ashes kept in an urn inside the royal palace, reversing an earlier wish to be buried.