Tens of thousands of Cambodians gathered Friday for the start of a lavish funeral for revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who towered over six tumultuous decades in his nation's history.
The body of the late monarch, who died of a heart attack in Beijing in October, aged 89, was carried out of the royal palace before a procession through the capital that more than a million people are expected to witness.
Sihanouk's coffin will be paraded through Phnom Penh atop a golden float shaped like a mythological bird, to an ornate, custom-built crematorium in a city park.
Loudspeakers reeled off the achievements of Sihanouk's long reign to expectant crowds who arrived before dawn -- many wearing white shirts and black ties as a sign of respect.
A 101-gun salute will mark the start of the procession, as Cambodians bid a final farewell to their colourful king, who was placed on the throne by the French at the age of just 18 but swiftly developed into a canny political survivor.
A father of 14 children over six marriages, Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 after steering Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile and finally peace.
Many elderly Cambodians credit him with overseeing a rare period of political stability in the 1950s and 1960s, following independence, until the emergence of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
"I am full of sadness that the king-father will soon disappear," 63-year-old Buth Nakry told AFP on Thursday as she prayed outside the Royal Palace on Thursday with a black ribbon pinned to her white blouse.
"It is a great loss for all of us. He brought peace to the country."
But Sihanouk's record is not without reproach.
After being ousted by the US-backed General Lon Nol in 1970 he aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge, only to be placed under house arrest as the communist regime terrorised the nation, killing up to two million people, including five of his own children.
Before the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sihanouk took exile in China, regaining his throne in 1993, although his influence was greatly diminished.
For the past three months his body -- embalmed with the help of Chinese experts -- has been lying in state in the royal palace, where foreign leaders and members of the general public have paid their respects.
Relatives have taken turns to sit with him -- a custom also followed in 1960 when his father King Norodom Suramarit passed away.
Sihanouk's body will be kept at the cremation site for religious ceremonies until Monday when his wife and son King Norodom Sihamoni are expected to light the pyre.
Foreign dignitaries including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan's Prince Akishino and a host of Asian leaders or high-ranking officials are due to attend the cremation.
In stark contrast to his father, Sihamoni has taken a quieter role in Cambodian life since ascending to the throne in 2004, preferring to carry out his ceremonial duties rather than engage in the political jousting that characterised Sihanouk's reign.
After the cremation Sihanouk's remains will be put in a gold-coloured urn that will be placed in a stupa inside the royal palace, in line with his wishes.