Fireworks will light up the sky in Phnom Penh tonight as Cambodia celebrates the 66th birthday of King Norodom Sihamoni. In front of the Royal Palace, his portrait and congratulatory messages are displayed, while tourist sites are decorated to mark a three-day national holiday which ends on Wednesday.
Standing with a bright smile and posing confidently next to large photo of King Norodom Sihamoni, 62-year-old Sam Hoeun asks her daughter to take a nice picture so it can be placed inside of their home.
Ms Hoeun, from Kandal province, says she gathers in front of the Royal Palace every year during the King’s birthday to show her support for the monarch.
“I respect King Sihamoni because he is a good king and I love him,” she says. “He has helped a lot of unfortunate people.”
“I bring both of my children here every year ever since they were small,” Ms Hoeun adds. “We are here to cheer during the festivity and to mark the history of our king and his great father.”
Born on May 14, 1953, King Sihamoni succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, on October 29, 2004, after the former King abdicated the throne.
King Sihamoni was educated in the Czech Republic, and was best known for his work as cultural ambassador to Europe. He is also a renowned classical dance instructor.
Sok Vantha, an elderly woman who was picking up plastic waste in front of the Royal Palace, says King Sihamoni is known for his serenity and generosity toward his people.
“I have always pictured him as a flawless tree that shelters people from the scorching heat of everyday life,” Ms Vantha says. “He is everything to the country. Without him, I think the Cambodian people would face hardship and the country would not be unified.”
The celebration of the King’s birthday this year is largely the same as last year, but there’s one difference: this year, celebrations have been toned down.
This is because King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk left for China yesterday to attend a conference meant to strengthen diplomatic relations.
Yet, messages of blessing from the country’s top officials have been broadcast on television and radio, published in newspapers, and posted on social media.
“On this occasion, I would like to send blessings to Your Majesty the King,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a message. “I wish you good health, strength, wisdom and longevity in order to continue your noble royal mission to bring Cambodia to prosperity and glory.”
Oum Daravuth, the King’s cabinet chief, says the King does not host lavish celebrations on his birthday, but noted that a Buddhist ceremony at the Royal Palace was joined by relatives and senior government officials.
“It was a pre-birthday celebration held on Sunday,” Mr Daravuth says. “His majesty was offering food donations and other necessities to Buddhist monks.”
“He would not spend much money for celebrations, he would rather spend on charitable activities that help his people,” he adds.
Mr Daravuth says according to the constitution, the King shall reign, but not govern.
“His majesty is the Head of State,” Mr Daravuth says. “But he does not involve himself in politics.”
“He is responsible for approving the government’s requests,” he adds.
Mr Daravuth says the King focuses on extending humanitarian relief to disaster victims and impoverished citizens in rural areas.
Prince Tesso Sisowath, King Sihamoni’s cousin, says the King rarely stays at the palace during his own birthday.
“It has been many years that he hasn’t stayed in the palace,” Prince Tesso says. “He usually goes to one of the provinces to give gifts to his people.”
“It was a long time ago that relatives and friends would be invited to the Royal Palace for dinner, dance and song,” he adds.
Prince Tesso notes that King Sihamoni does not share the same interests as his father, King Sihanouk.
“He watches films during his spare time. He is so interested in films,” Prince Tesso says. “King Sihanouk was interested in singing and writing songs.”
Prince Tesso says King Sihamoni rarely has time for himself, due to the amount of work he does at the palace.
“He is obliged to perform a lot of work in the palace,” he says. “He is a good person and a good relative to all of our royal family members.”
Aside from talking to local residents, the King is also known for his desire to improve education and healthcare in the Kingdom.
He is also helping to reinvigorate the importance of culture in day-to-day life in the Kingdom.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Centre for Development and Peace, says King Sihamoni has been very active in humanitarian efforts, and that he would travel the country to meet with those hit by natural disasters.
“Our King represents peace, he brings hope to people, without political discrimination,” Mr Kim Eng says. “According to what I have observed, the Cambodian people love him because throughout his reign, he has created an image of generosity, serenity and honesty.”