Fiery finale for Sihanouk

NORODOM Sihanouk, the cherubic, mercurial two-time king of Cambodia will depart as he lived - in a blaze of pomp and ceremony at dusk on Monday.

The pageantry will end the story of one of Asia's towering figures of the 20th century.

Royal astrologists will blow conch-shell trumpets, 101 guns will boom a salute, fireworks will explode and Khmer music will resound as Sihanouk's body burns in a pyramidal pyre within an ornate crematorium on Phnom Penh's riverfront.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians will watch a ceremony based on the funerals of more than 100 Khmer monarchs dating back 2000 years.

A larger-than-life character who steered Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the rule of the murderous Khmer Rouge and his own exile, the king died from a heart attack on October 15 in Beijing, aged 89.

His embalmed body lay in state at the royal palace until Friday when a giant golden float shaped like a mythical bird took it from the palace to the pyre in a city park.

After the flames are quenched, Sihanouk's wife, Queen Monineath, and his son, King Sihamoni, will scatter some ashes in the Mekong and keep others in a diamond urn at the palace, with the remains of previous kings.

The departure of the self-confessed ''naughty boy'' who fathered 14 children over six marriages will cement the dominance of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who took power in 1985.

''This is our last homage to say goodbye to the great hero king,'' Mr Hun Sen, 60, said on radio.

King Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, has played a shrinking role compared with his father, who was just 18 when placed on the throne by French colonial authorities in 1941. He quickly defied expectations he would be a compliant king.

As his health declined, Mr Hun Sun, a one-time Khmer Rouge commander, monopolised power, accused of using violence and intimidation to quash dissent.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said Mr Hun Sen had sworn a sacred oath to protect the monarchy, but he conceded the role of King Sihamoni would be different.

Australia will be represented at the funeral by former army lieutenant-general John Sanderson, who commanded United Nations forces in Cambodia in the early 1990s.

This story Fiery finale for Sihanouk first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.