PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's revered and charismatic former king Norodom Sihanouk, whose life encompassed turbulent years of rule, exile and war including the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, died Monday in Beijing aged 89.
Sihanouk, who had been a frequent visitor to China where he received most of his medical treatment, died of a heart attack, according to his longtime personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.
"It's painful. I am full of sorrow," he said of the former monarch who abruptly quit the throne in October 2004, citing old age and health problems.
"King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history," Prince Thomico told AFP.
The royal, a keen filmmaker and poet whose six marriages lent him a reputation as a playboy, steered his country through decades of painful political and social convulsions, from independence to civil war and invasion.
Renowned for unpredictability, Sihanouk repeatedly switched allegiances as the political climate changed, including backing Khmer Rouge guerrillas before he was himself imprisoned by them.
The fanatical communist regime caused the deaths of up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk's 14 children.
Sihanouk, who had fought a long battle with health problems that dogged his final years, including cancer, diabetes and heart problems, remained a staunch supporter of China. He saw it as a "second home" and spent much of his time there, accompanied by his devoted sixth wife Monique.
Cambodia woke to the news of their former monarch's demise on the final day of the annual festival for the dead known as Pchum Ben, when most people leave the capital Phnom Penh to spend time with their families in the countryside.
His son, Cambodia's current king Norodom Sihamoni, left for Beijing around mid-morning to collect his body, accompanied by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Both men were seen sobbing quietly as they greeted each other with an emotional embrace before boarding the plane as flags lining the airport building flew at half-mast.
In the capital, families flocked to temples to bring food and money offerings to Buddhist monks, honouring their dead ancestors who are believed to emerge to walk the earth during this time.
Young and old said they would add the country's beloved former king to their prayers.
"I heard from the older generation that he tried his best to help the people of Cambodia," said 20-year-old Sochakrya Theng at a pagoda near the Royal Palace. "I will say a prayer for him," the university student told AFP.
Television stations broadcast footage of Sihanouk, who remains hugely popular in Cambodia, while social networking sites like Facebook buzzed with condolence messages and shared pictures of the late king.
No details have emerged yet about the funeral plans, although observers predicted a lavish affair.
"I'm sure there'll be an enormous funeral in Phnom Penh and I'm sure there will be public expressions of grief," said Australia-based historian Milton Osborne.
He said Cambodians would likely remember Sihanouk's time in power "as a golden age, without very much reflection on the deeper, darker aspects of the period when he was in power, when it was very dangerous to say anything critical of him".
Sihanouk was placed on the throne in 1941 at the age of 18 by French colonial authorities.
Twelve years later he gained Cambodia's independence and abdicated shortly afterwards for the first time in favour of his father Prince Norodom Suramarit, to pursue a career in politics.
He served as premier half a dozen times, repeatedly leaving the post with a characteristic flash of theatrical anger over perceived slights, until finally becoming "head of state" following the death of his father in 1960.
He was toppled in a US-backed coup by one of his own generals, Lon Nol, in 1970, prompting his pact with the Khmer Rouge that would have disastrous consequences for the country and his own family.
The movement used him as a figurehead as they seized power before putting him under house arrest in the royal palace with his household during their murderous 1975-79 rule.
Sihanouk, who was close to Chinese revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, fled to China before the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge. He was to spend increasing amounts of time in the country as his health failed.
He also had at his disposal a 40-room palace in Pyongyang, a gift from the then-North Korean leader and close friend Kim Il-Sung.
Sihanouk was credited with helping to make 1991 UN-sponsored peace accords possible. He triumphantly regained the throne in 1993.
After abdicating for the final time, he received the title of "King-Father" to a people he referred to as his "children."