Wednesday, May 21, 2014


The impressive throne room in the King's Palace, Phnom Penh
Back when I was in Vietnam, I saw what little remained of their pre-colonial royal kingdom. There were only the meager remains of a palace in Hue, and that had been destroyed years ago.  

Over in Laos, the last king's residence in Luang Prabang was a palace in name only. It was really only a cheap wooden substitute.  

Here in Phnom Penh, the king has a palace that Laos and Vietnam can only envy. Today I’m entering his palace, for a view of Cambodia’s royal world. 

Despite years of war and political instability in Cambodia, the monarchy still survives. Under the current constitution, Cambodia is a ‘kingdom’, (with some semblance of democracy.) Although no longer powerful, the king of the Khmers still has official ceremonial functions, and remains an integral part of traditional Cambodian life. 

Only a block from the river, I walk in the gate, and I’m awed. The royal palace complex is certainly the most elaborate and luxurious looking place in all of the captial. I’m surrounded by glorious buildings, as though transported to an ancient Asian past. Fantastic Khmer architecture is decorated with gold trim. Rooftops are peaked with stupa like towers. Colorful gardens are meticulously trimmed. Stylish French streetlights line the pathways. 
Old photo of King Sihanouk on palace platform, where king reviews parades

The first palace on this site was built in the 1400’s, with the present layout finished in 1870. About a third of the royal palace grounds are open to visitors like me, with the current king and his entourage occupying the rest. I gaze around at this magnificent site, the stuff of dreams. 

Approaching one of the larger buildings, I’m looking at what may be the most fantastic looking edifice in all of Cambodia. This may not be as well known as Angkor Wat, but it looks more spectacular. This is the throne room, a place of ceremonies and royal traditions. One of the larger palace buildings, this is where the current Cambodian king and those before him, had their coronation ceremonies. It shows the glory of traditional Khmer architecture, although it was rebuilt in the early 20th century. 

Khmer style towers, reach high into the sky, narrowing to pointed spires. The center tower has a large white face built into it, as if the spire is a tall ceremonial hat. Reaching to 180 feet high, I wonder whose face it is; probably the face of Buddha, or a Khmer king. Thin white pillars stretch around the long building. Golden snake-like naga heads rise from every corner of numerous rooftop layers. I’ve never seen that many nagas on one building. I can count 29, and that’s only from this side of the structure. Fanciful colors of gold, yellow, red, white, and green, present an image of royal grandeur. 

Workers lacking safety lines renovate palace building
Inside sits the golden throne of Cambodia’s current monarch. In addition to the rare coronation ceremonies, the king accepts the credentials of foreign diplomats from this throne, one of his official ceremonial duties. 

The throne room was finished in 1919 during French rule, when King Sisowath was the Khmer puppet ruler. An older wooden throne room built here before on this site,  wasn’t holding up to the tropical weather, or the aging process. 

Walking to the far side of the immense building, I’m surprised to see repairs underway by workmen on scaffolding, scraping away old paint. Scaffolding is a relative term; they are standing on bamboo poles lashed together, with few platforms for stability. All of the workers, men and women, wore neither safety harnesses, nor hard hats. Some wore the traditional red Khmer scarf wrapped around their heads like turbans. More worked on levels above, even from the towers on the roof. There were no harnesses at all. 

As they labored above, I wondered how often there were accidents on these sites from the lack of safety precautions. If these workers fell, how much, (or how little) would they receive for disability?
Many buildings need renovations

Repairs on this old palace complex have been going on for years. In fact, the palace and the previous king only barely survived the communist Khmer Rouge era. That monarch, Cambodia’s most famous leader, was known throughout the world as King Sihanouk. 

Born as a prince during the colonial era, Norodom Sihanouk was small of stature, with a notably high pitched voice. Handpicked by the French, they installed him as a figurehead king at the young age of 19. The colonials thought that his youth and inexperience would make him a fitting puppet king that they could easily control. 

They were wrong. 

Instead, Sihanouk became the country’s greatest advocate for independence. He eventually led Cambodia to freedom from French rule, not through violent rebellion, but through political maneuvering and peaceful negotiations. Cambodia became independent from France in 1953, even before Vietnam did. It was freedom from the French without communist revolution, and the Khmers adored him. Sihanouk soon became Prime Minister, and he would lead Cambodia for 17 years.

The popular king led his country on a peaceful path for as long as he could. But Cambodia and its king would later be overwhelmed by events far beyond his control. The Vietnam War would soon spill over its borders, bringing the king and his country down with it. 

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