Phnom Penh - Fireworks lit up the night sky over Phnom Penh on Monday as Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk was cremated in a royal ceremony.

The elaborate rituals, attended by the country's reigning king, Sihanouk's son Norodom Sihamoni, and Sihanouk's widow, began in the late afternoon.

Buddhist monks chanted at a specially built cremation site in the capital, where Sihanouk's body had lain since Friday. As darkness fell and the sound of birdsong filled the air, the cremation began.

The late monarch's casket was shielded from view with tall screens.

Thousands of dignitaries, including the prime minister of France, were present at the ceremony, though the grounds and surrounding streets were largely cordoned off from the general public.

Hundreds of mourners were however able to watch from the compound's sidelines. Many wept while clutching photographs of Cambodia's King Father.

“His loss is one that we can never fathom - losing someone like this is beyond compare. That is why we came here today,” said 61-year-old Chan Sarin.

Norodom Sihanouk was a significant political figure in Cambodia for nearly 60 years before abdicating in 2004 because of poor health. He died in Beijing on October 15 at the age of 89.

The charismatic monarch lived through turbulent times, including the 1975-1979 ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime when an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million people died from forced labour, starvation, disease and summary executions.

But many elderly Cambodians associate him with the country's independence from France in 1953, and the prosperous late 1950s and 60s.

Some of Sihanouk's ashes were to be scattered at the meeting of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers in Phnom Penh, with the rest placed in an urn in the capital's royal palace, local media said. - Sapa-dpa