Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets of the Cambodian capital yesterday to pay their last respects to revered former king Norodom Sihanouk on his final journey home from China.
The body of the mercurial ex-monarch, who steered his country through turbulent decades of war, genocide and finally peace, returned to Phnom Penh on a special flight from Beijing, where he died of a heart attack on Monday, aged 89.
He was accompanied by his widow, Queen Monique, son King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Dai Bingguo, China's top official on foreign relations. Monks chanted prayers as the coffin was brought off the plane and decorated with white flowers.
Large portraits of Sihanouk were dotted along the main boulevards in the capital, filled with throngs of people, young and old, wearing white shirts and holding small Cambodian flags.
A convoy took the coffin to the royal palace, where Sihanouk, who remained popular after abdicating in favour of his son in 2004 citing old age and ill health, will lie in state for three months before an elaborate funeral.
Many elderly Cambodians fondly recall the 1950s and 1960s as a golden era, when Sihanouk led the country to independence from France and a rare period of political stability.
In his most controversial decision, Sihanouk aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge after being ousted by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970.
After seizing power, the Khmer Rouge put Sihanouk under house arrest. Their 1975-79 reign of terror killed up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk's 14 children.
Before the Vietnamese invaded to topple the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk took exile in China, which he saw as a second home.
Earlier yesterday his coffin was transported through Beijing to the airport in a bus decorated with yellow ribbons and flowers. Beijing showed its respects for Sihanouk by lowering a flag at Tiananmen Square, a rare gesture for a non-Chinese ruler, whose country is now China's steadfast ally in Southeast Asia.