PHNOM PENH - Thousands of saffron-robed monks offered prayers outside Cambodia's royal palace Thursday to mark the start of ceremonies to enshrine the remains of revered former king Norodom Sihanouk.
Three days of religious rites for the ex-monarch, who died of a heart attack in October 2012, end Saturday when his cremated remains will be placed inside a stupa in the palace alongside those of his daughter.
Around 3,600 Buddhist monks lined up to launch the rituals Thursday morning, turning the area outside the palace into a sea of orange.
Government officials paid their respects at a statue of Sihanouk in a nearby park in the capital Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk's widow Queen Monique, his son -- current King Norodom Sihamoni -- and Prime Minister Hun Sen were due to attend a later prayer followed by classical dance performances and a fireworks display.
"It is a big ceremony... being held in accordance with the former king's reputation," said Sihanouk's long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.
The charismatic former monarch -- who steered his country through turbulent decades of war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and finally peace -- died in Beijing aged 89.
His embalmed body lay in state in Cambodia for three months before being cremated in February last year following a week of lavish ceremonies including a procession through the streets of Phnom Penh that drew crowds of mourners.
Sihanouk's ashes were lowered into the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers in the capital but some of his remains were picked out and stored in urns inside the palace.
On Friday government officials expect around 20,000 people to line Phnom Penh's streets for a 101-gun salute and procession of the remains, held in diamond-studded gold and marble urns.
In line with Sihanouk's wishes, the urns will be placed in a palace stupa on Saturday alongside the remains of his favourite daughter Kantha Bopha who died aged three.
Many elderly Cambodians credit Sihanouk with overseeing a rare period of political stability in the 1950s and 1960s, following independence, until the Khmer Rouge emerged in the 1970s.