PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – Standing before golden statues of his ancestors and blessed by monks whose chants filled a hall in the Royal Palace, former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni – a man little known in Cambodia – took over the throne Friday from his father and ended the reign of one of Asia’s most colorful rulers.

Sihamoni, who has no political experience, was enthroned in an elaborate ceremony that included the blowing of conch shells and traditional music played with drums and gongs.

Shaded by a large parasol, Sihamoni was brought to the throne room on a litter led by palace guards and musicians. He repeated his oath to serve the country and its people three times while bowing before the golden-hued throne.

Fifty-two Buddhist monks – one for each year of the new king’s life according to the traditional Cambodian zodiac – chanted blessings for about 40 minutes. By the Western calendar, Sihamoni is 51 years old.

“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 the tradition and glorious achievements of my father,” King Sihamoni later told a few hundred dignitaries in the throne room.

They included Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni’s half-brother.

Absent from the ceremony was Sihamoni’s father, Norodom Sihanouk, who was put on the throne by Cambodia’s colonial ruler, France, in 1941 and led the country through wars, revolution and the building of a shaky democracy. He was a godlike figure for many Cambodians, and apparently sought not to take any attention away from his son.

Sihanouk earned the description of “mercurial monarch” through decades of political feints and jabs, shifting alliances and self-dramatizing pronouncements delivered in his high-pitched voice or, more recently, via his personal Web site. He also painted, composed music and led his own jazz band.

Sihamoni’s ascension came two weeks after he was selected by a panel of political and religious leaders to succeed his father, who abdicated three weeks ago citing ill health. For most of the past two decades, he has lived abroad, especially in Paris where he served as his country’s envoy to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

He appeared calm during the coronation, often greeting dignitaries by pressing his hands together and bowing in traditional Cambodian fashion. He called Friday “the most auspicious day in the history of Cambodia and history of my life” and said he had “greatly been honored as king succeeding our heroic father, who is the father of the nation.”

The swearing-in ceremony was the pinnacle of the three-day coronation. Earlier Friday, Sihamoni paid respects to past kings and divine spirits guarding the throne.

In a ritual bathing ceremony, monks and Sihamoni’s parents – Sihanouk and former Queen Monineath – poured water from the Kulen Mountains on their son 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.

Sihanouk wished his son “great success and prestige” in his role as monarch.

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

The area in front of the Royal Palace filled with onlookers who gathered to watch fireworks late Friday. Portraits of the youthful-looking king also dotted some of the streets in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia’s king is seldom involved in day-to-day politics, but the position carries huge cultural significance for the Cambodian, or Khmer, people, and the king has some influence on government decisions.

Sihamoni had reluctantly accepted the job, expressing concern that his inexperience might hamper his ability to carry out his duties.

But some observers expressed optimism.

“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.”

As for Sihanouk, Ray said the former monarch – who turns 82 on Sunday – has been “a figure on the international stage for over sixty years and he deserves a peaceful, quiet retirement.”

AP-ES-10-29-04 1740EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.