Cambodia's new king presides over first Buddhist sacred day ceremony

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Cambodia's King Sihamoni led more than 6,000 Buddhists in a celebration to mark Visakha Puja day, one of the religion's holiest days, at a mountain where some of Buddha's ashes are kept.

Sihamoni, in his first such ceremony since becoming king six months ago, carried a Buddha image up 620 steps to the top of Udong mountain, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of the capital Phnom Penh,

Some 420 monks chanted in unison and were welcomed by Buddhists at the base of the mountain as traditional Khmer music played over loudspeakers.

In the ceremony at a temple on the summit, 80 saffron-robed monks including two supreme monks accepted the king's offerings of colourful flowers, fruit, noodles and rice.

"This Visakha Puja day is very different from the other years because we have the king coming to preside, and there are many royal relatives and also distinguished guests, even ambassadors," palace priest Heng Kim Kun said.

Visakha Puja day celebrates Buddha's birthday, his reaching of enlightenment and attaining nirvana. It is held annually on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the sixth lunar month, according to the Cambodian lunar calendar.

Dek Heam, a 75-year-old woman wearing a traditional Khmer silk outfit, said the day was a special one for her.

"I feel very happy to see many people coming to celebrate this and also to see the king coming here. It's my first time to see the king," Dek Heam said.

After he descended the mountain, the king's people warmly greeted him, shaking and kissing his hand.

Buddha's ashes were moved to Udong in December 2002 by the former king Sihanouk, and handed over at a major ceremony attracting about one million people who lined the procession route from the ashes' former home in the capital.

The ashes arrived in Phnom Penh from Sri Lanka in 1957.

Sihamoni, 52, took over the throne in October last year after the abdication of his father Norodom Sihanouk, 82, who is being treated for cancer.