PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Just as the twilight dims the gilded spires of the palace where his remains will rest, Norodom Sihanouk -- king, clown, prisoner, statesman, political escape artist -- is fading from a stage he dominated for a half-century of periodic triumph amid unrelenting tragedy.
His small, impoverished country was put on the world map both by the fierce battles in the Indochina region during the Cold War and by his larger-than-life character. Lovable and detested, greatly gifted and deeply flawed, he wrested Cambodian independence from France, survived wars and the Khmer Rouge holocaust, and for a time juggled the superpowers to secure peace for his country.
Now 82, in and out of China for treatment of cancer, Sihanouk has ceased to be an international player, while at home a young generation eager to plug into the globalizing present has all but relegated him to the history books.
The power of the monarchy, almost omnipotent under his rule, is waning fast. While the legacy of his accomplishments are firmly embedded in today's Cambodia, so, too, are his failures.
In Sihanouk's place on the throne, which he abdicated last year, sits King Sihamoni, a ballet dancer, lifelong bachelor, and political novice. He's an unlikely match for the wily strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, despite being coached by the wiliest of them all: his father, Sihanouk.
It is Hun Sen, peasant-born and a former Khmer Rouge officer, who has replaced Sihanouk, once regarded as almost divine, at center stage. Democratically elected but an autocratic figure, Hun Sen indicates it is he who now calls the shots at the palace, and nobody dares challenge him.
Beneath flowery, formal words runs an underlying tension and an occasional exchange of public barbs between the two men, with Sihanouk lamenting the state of affairs in Cambodia.
Sihanouk, a prolific writer, has his own blog on the Internet, where he posts sharp opinions on what he considers the deplorable state of Cambodian society and politics, highlighting corruption, deforestation, and injustice. As often as not, he blames Hun Sen, in a diplomatically indirect manner that does little to disguise his target.
Among the older generation, especially in the countryside, Sihanouk is still a star who reminds them of quieter, simpler times before the Indochina war.
''I pray in front of his portrait every day for him to be well, to have a long life, because he is so generous to his people," said Ke Khat, a toothless, 66-year-old villager. Each night she lights incense sticks before bygone, dusty posters of Sihanouk and Queen Monineath hanging above her hard, bamboo bed.
But the predicament of Cambodia today, some critics say, is in some measure the fault of Sihanouk himself, who had decades and vast powers to make critically needed changes but did not.
Australian historian Milton Osborne points out that Sihanouk had little interest in reshaping Cambodia's almost feudal institutions. This neglect contributed to spawning the revolution of the Khmer Rouge and allowed the ills of Sihanouk's reign to persist into 2005 -- rampant corruption, a greedy elite, a dangerous gap between rich and poor.
With Sihanouk a one-man show from his ascension as king in 1941 until his ouster in a coup in 1970, popular and democratic institutions could not emerge and reformists weren't allowed to flourish.
''His greatest fault was never to let anyone else but himself have his own opinion. He was the classic tree under which nothing could grow. Sihanouk was not Cambodia but he thought he was," said Osborne, author of a critical biography, ''Sihanouk, Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness."
Cambodians who know their history still credit Sihanouk with giving birth to the modern nation by peacefully cutting the colonial yoke of France and for a time managing to keep the firestorms of Indochina at bay by playing off China, United States, and the Soviet Union against one another.
But by the late 1960s he was losing control.
Sihanouk's ouster by pro-American rightists in a 1970 coup was welcomed by Washington because it removed a geopolitical handicap it faced in fighting the communists in neighboring Vietnam. It precipitated a savage war between the new, US-backed government and the Khmer Rouge. Five years later, the communist ultras marched into the capital to begin their reign of terror.
His pride deeply wounded, the exiled Sihanouk had sided with the Khmer Rouge, a move some critics say implicates him in the deaths of at least 1.7 million of his countrymen through executions, disease, and slave labor.
''History will prove that he shares some of the responsibility for the evils which befell Cambodia," says Lao Mong Hay, a human rights advocate who has tracked Sihanouk's career.
All the same, he ended up being imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, but was freed. By 1979, he was back in the limelight leading a coalition of guerrillas against the Vietnamese troops who had invaded Cambodia to topple Pol Pot and set up a pro-Hanoi regime in Phnom Penh. Twelve years later, with peace finally attained, he returned home from an exile spent mostly in China, as the United Nations tried to stabilize the country and supervise elections. Seen as a unifying force, Sihanouk was crowned king for the second time.
But he no longer held center stage.
''I think he's a pretty unhappy person," said Osborne. ''I think he had higher hopes that once the wars and United Nations peacekeeping mission ended he would again become a significant player, but this did not happen."