Cambodia Crowns Former Dancer New King

Carried on a golden litter by eight bearers and blessed by dozens of chanting Buddhist monks, former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni (search) was crowned as Cambodia's new king in an ornate ceremony Friday, replacing his father, one of Asia's longest-serving and best-known rulers.

Sihamoni, who was little known even in his own country until a few weeks ago, prayed before statues of his ancestors in the throne hall of the Royal Palace before taking his oath in the ceremony, much of which was broadcast live on Cambodian television.

"I swear to abide by the constitution and laws of the kingdom and am committed to serve the interests of the state and the people," said Sihamoni, who wore loosely fitting light golden-colored ceremonial garments. He said the oath three times and bowed after each statement.

Afterward, 52 Buddhist monks — one for each year of the king's life according to the traditional Cambodian zodiac — then chanted blessings for about 10 minutes. By the Western calendar, Sihamoni is 51 years old.

His ascension came two weeks after he was selected by a panel of political and religious leaders to succeed his father, Norodom Sihanouk, who was put on the throne by the French in 1941 and subsequently led his country to independence and through the turmoil of the Vietnam War (search), the genocidal Pol Pot regime and the building of a shaky democracy in the 1990s, attaining godlike status for many Cambodians along the way. He decided to step down for health reasons and turns 82 on Sunday.

Sihamoni has no political experience and is better known as a professional dancer and an envoy to the United Nations cultural agency. He has spent most of the past two decades living outside his homeland, mostly in Paris.

Cambodia's king is seldom involved in day-to-day politics, but the position carries huge cultural significance for the Cambodian people, and the king has some influence on national affairs.

Friday's ceremony was the centerpiece of three days of festivities. As Sihamoni was borne into the palace, musicians played ceremonial music and other royal officials carried a golden crown, robe and sword.

The procession went from the golden-hued Khemarin Palace, where the king resides, to the throne hall, where the monarch conducts official affairs.

More than 200 dignitaries attended, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni's half brother.

Temples across the country were expected to fill with people offering prayers for the new king.

In a statement released after the ceremony, Sihamoni called Friday "the most auspicious day in the history of Cambodian history and history of my life."

"I am extremely touched to have the opportunity to devote my physical and mental strength and intelligence to serve the nation and the people and to continue tradition and glorious achievements of my father," the king said.

Buddhist monks went to temples across the country Friday night to offer prayers for the new king and to beat drums and gongs to salute him.

Earlier Friday, Sihamoni paid respect to past kings and divine spirits guarding the throne to ask for their blessings.

In a ritual bathing ceremony, monks and Sihamoni's parents — Sihanouk and former Queen Monineath — poured water culled from the Kulen Mountains on the new king to wash away his impurities, and increase his prestige and power.

Stones from the mountains, just north of Siem Reap, were used to build the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia's best-known landmark. The area's water is considered especially pure.

During the ceremony, Monineath gently patted the back of her son's head and gave him a kiss. His half brother, Ranariddh, held his hand as he walked him to the royal bath.

Sihanouk wished his son "great success and prestige."

"May also peace, happiness and prosperity prevail for the Cambodian nation and people under King Norodom Sihamoni," he said.

The streets of Phnom Penh — some dotted with portraits of the youthful-looking king — were quiet Friday, with most workers having the day off to mark the coronation. Police barred traffic in front of the Royal Palace, where a huge portrait of Sihamoni has replaced one of his mother and father.

Sihamoni was selected as new king by a nine-member throne council Oct. 14, a week after Sihanouk abdicated.

Ranariddh said his brother "will carry on the legacy" of Sihanouk, whom most Cambodians consider the father of Cambodia's "independence, territorial integrity and national unity."

Sihanouk asked for ceremonies to be kept low-key because he didn't want the impoverished country to spend too much money on the event.

In a lifetime on Cambodia's center stage, Sihanouk wrested independence from the French and led the country through a peaceful, relatively prosperous era in the 1950s and '60s. He then saw his country plunged into bloody conflict between the Khmer Rouge and a U.S.-backed regime in Phnom Penh, going several times into exile, before democratic elections in 1993.

"We're happy to see the peaceful succession," U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray said. "We hope that the new king will have every success as he works to consolidate stability and peace and freedom in Cambodia."

British Ambassador Stephen Bridges said: "I think it signifies the peace and the stability of the country that, for all the political problems over the last year, we can have a ceremony like this."