It was a Saturday morning and I cut down the short street from Preah Sisowath and Boulevard Samdech Sothearos to the Royal Palace, on the Phnom Penh riverside. From the side of the road the tuk-tuk driver asked where I was going. “Palace closed” he said “but Killing Fields open” and grinned.
I have been to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh once before, but have never been to Cambodia’s second most popular tourist attraction, the mass execution ground outside Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek.
I’d rather go to the Palace and headed to the main entrance where the commoners and foreigners, and the common foreigners like me, can enter.
The Palace is a large compound of manicured gardens and a collection of buildings located on an entire prime city block adjacent the Tonle Sap river and surrounded by a peach-coloured crenellated defensive wall (kampaeng) interspersed with quaint pill boxes, most of which are deserted.
The buildings include the: Throne Hall, Moonlight Pavilion, Chan Chhaya Pavilion, Hor Samran Phirun and the famous Silver Pagoda. The spire of the Throne Hall, which in Khmer is called the “Sacred Seat of Judgement, is 59-metres high and at night is lite up all the way to the top.
The Palace is home to the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, the latest in a line of Norodoms, and now, after his return from a long stint in China, the King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s highest profile statesman.
The Palace opening hours are 8am-11am and in the afternoon from 2pm until 5. Earlier in the day is best, as most tourists don’t fire up until after lunch. Aside from being cooler then, mornings make for better photos as they face east. The entrance fee is $6.25 which also allows you to take photos, though pictures are not permitted inside the main buildings.
There is a dress code, so be discreet and don’t wear anything too revealing. Visitors are not allowed to wear hats or footwear in the main buildings. Visitors seem evenly divided between locals and tourists. Khmers come in family groups. The Chinese and Koreans rarely seem to travel alone and are accompanied by guides. Westerners by comparison come along in ones and twos. The pigeons outnumber everybody.
Work began on the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh in 1866 after the then King Norodom, another one, relocated the capital from Oudong, three years after he signed the Treaty of Protection with France. Previously on the site was the Banteay Kev, or “Crystal Citadel” built by King Ang Chan in 1813, before the capital moved to Oudong. The Citadel was razed to the ground along with the rest of Phnom Penh in 1834 by the retreating Siamese forces, and the Cambodians only returned the seat of power to the city after the French moved in.
Roughly modelled on its counterpart in Bangkok and built gradually over time, the complex has three main compounds divided by walls. On the north side is the Silver Pagoda, to the south is the Khemarin Palace, and the central compound has the Throne Hall. Many of the Palace buildings dating from this period were constructed using traditional Khmer architectural and artistic style but also incorporating European styles, as if in deference to their new French protectors.
Around the First World War, King Sisowath commissioned work including building the Phochani Hall in 1907, and demolishing several old buildings, and replacing and expanding the old Chanchhaya Pavilion and the Throne Hall with the current structures, which were more in the traditional Khmer artistic style including the Throne Hall.
His successor during the 1930s, King Monivong, undertook more work including demolition and replacement of the old Royal residence with the Khemarin Palace (1931), where the royals live today. Other significant additions since then were in 1953, with the Damnak Chan originally installed to house the High Council of the Throne, and the Villa Kantha Bopha in 1956 to accommodate foreign guests.
The signs point the way for visitors with the caveat not to go back. A few officials are stationed along the route as the visitors meander through the complex. Some of the visitors, usually the foreign ones, come with an amazing array of camera equipment.
Some of the buildings are undergoing renovation and are closed. Great swathes of the palace grounds are unfortunately permanently out of bounds. This includes the royal residence compound, which comprises half of the total palace grounds area. There are several buildings there including Khemarin Palace, Villa Kantha Bopha, Serey Monkol Palace, gardens and ponds, and a number of less significant buildings and pavilions.
The Khemarin Palace is the common English name for a building called Prasat Khemarin, which in Khmer means the “Palace of the Khmer King.” This compound is separated from other buildings by a small wall and is located to the right of the Throne Hall.
The Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya or “Moonlight Pavilion” is an open-air pavilion still used for Khmer classical dance performances. Its ceilings are covered in murals and home to the palace birdlife and larger-than-life portraits of Cambodia’s living royals. It is the most conspicuous of the palace buildings situated overlooking the Riverside, and easily seen from the outside as it was built atop a section of the palace walls.
The Pavilion has a balcony that was used as a platform for viewing parades marching along Sothearos Boulevard. The King Father recently gave a speech on his birthday here marking his permanent return to Cambodia, and witnessed by a crowd of over 40,000.
The Silver Pagoda is another compound located on the south side of the palace complex. The main building houses many national treasures, many of which are gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Amongst there are a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha. The so-called “Emerald Buddha” and another, a near-life-size statue encrusted with over 9500 diamonds. Following independence in 1953, King Sihanouk had the Silver Pagoda inlaid with more than 5000 silver tiles and not satisfied with that had some of the outer facade remodeled in Italian marble.
A number of smaller contemporary displays mark the exit of the palace compound. Most are “opt-in” except for the photographic display marking the life of the King Father.
The former King Norodom Sihanouk, who retired in 2004, had dominated the political life of his country in the way few other king-statesman have anywhere in the world in recent times.
He held so many positions since 1941 that the Guinness Book of World Records identified him as the politician who has occupied the world’s greatest variety of political offices. These included two terms as king, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia’s non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile.
The walls of the display are lined with a photographic record, some of the copies now much faded, of the former king’s political life, a veritable who’s who of world leaders from the mid to latter part of the 20th century. Sihanouk seems to have met most of them, and he’s still going having outlasted them all.
As a warm-up for Sihanouk’s life in photos large maps of Cambodia’s glory days are displayed featuring the Khmer Empire at its height dominating the neighbouring lands. Accompanying the maps are the words of the Pongsavada, brazenly nationalistic, antagonistically so some might think, in a region where border issues and territoriality are still sensitive subjects.
Nearby is the exhibition hall dedicated to the current king, Sihamoni tucked away by the exit gate, almost as an afterthought. His name is a composite of those of his parents. He has 14 half-brothers and half-sisters by his father's various relationships. Sihamoni is the world’s only Czech-speaking monarch.
A rather youthful looking 57, slight of stature and baby-faced with a shaven head, he trained in ballet. He’s referred to by some mirthful expats as the “Queen of Cambodia” as he’s gay, in a region where such things are barely acknowledged. The display hall is narrow and features a large central display cabinet with a model of a Khmer coronation.
The walls are lined with portraits and photos of the King being crowded and performing several of his royal duties. In one of the coronation photos, he’s seen signing up to the position flanked by officials of the throne council which had appointed him. These included his half-brother, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who when it was offered turned the job down.
The current monarch is as circumspect as his father was vocal. His father was one of the first heads of state in the region to have his own website and was, at one time, the world’s most prolific royal blogger.
Common to all Buddhist rulers of mainland Southeast Asia was a belief – held by themselves and by their subjects – in their divine or semi-divine character, the King-Father, in Khmer Preahmâhaviraksat. The position of king was not only sanctioned by the Buddhist faith, he was removed from the rest of mankind and credited with possessing powers that only the divine or near-divine could hold. This is especially true of Thailand, but now less so in Cambodia, where the role is more ceremonial.
The Royal Palace opening hours 8-11; 2-5 on Sothearos Boulevard. Entrance fee US$6.25, children under 6 free.