In addition to doing my PhD research here in Cambodia, I’ve also been volunteering my time with the organization Heritage Watch. Heritage Watch is an NGO run by an archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly, that focuses broadly on heritage preservation. They run a wide variety of programs, one of their most prominent being a heritage-friendly tourism program. They also produce a bi-monthly magazine called TouchStone, distributed for free throughout Cambodia. It is skewed toward archaeology and preservation issues but also deals with anything having to do with Khmer culture and life in Cambodia. TouchStone always needs articles so I volunteered to write a few for the magazine. I just completed my first article on the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and thought I would post a version of it here. Click on “More” below to read the complete article.
Tourists Guide to the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace should be a stop on any visit to Phnom Penh. King Ponhea Yat constructed the original Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh 1434 after he fled Angkor when it was captured by the Siamese. The capital shifted several times, including to the nearby city of Oudong, before being permanently settled in Phnom Penh in 1866. The palace buildings were originally constructed out of wood but were renovated in 1917 to the concrete structures seen on the Royal Palace tour today. Guided tours are recommended to walk you through the many buildings in the Royal Palace compound. However here are several themes to keep in mind as you take your tour.
The Royal Palace compound is filled with symbols reflecting both the Buddhist and Hindu religious heritage of Cambodia. The colors of the buildings themselves represent Buddhism (yellow) and Brahmanism or Hinduism (white). A four-faced spire on top of the Throne Hall may remind some visitors of the faces of the Buddha at the Bayon temple, but this is actually a representation of the Hindu god Brahma. His faces represent pity, charity, sympathy, and neutrality. Within the Throne Hall is a representation of the Hindu Ramayana epic, painted on the ceiling in a French style by Khmer artists in 1917. For a more traditional version of the Ramayana epic be sure to check the Ramayana frescos, spanning 604 meters around the Silver Pagoda complex. The frescos were completed in 1903-1904 by 40 Khmer artists and are badly in need of restoration. A project was planned in 1985 to begin repairing the frescos, however the Cambodian government is still seeking support to finish the rehabilitation. Two common architectural figures often seen supporting the roofs throughout the Royal Palace compound is Garuda and the Kennorey. Garuda is the divine bird-mount of the Hindu god Vishnu. He is often depicted with a small ball in his mouth representing an elixir of immortality. The Kennorey are mythical half-bird half-human figures originally from India and common throughout Southeast Asia.
The Royal Palace was constructed while Cambodia was under the French protectorate and their influence can be seen in a few locations throughout the compound. The Throne Hall boasts many French touches from the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling to the painting and decoration on the walls. Be sure to check out the golden mirrors near the side-entrances to the Throne Hall. These are placed in front of the doors so that visitors can check their appearance before meeting the King. Perhaps the most surprising spot on the tour is the Pavilion of Napoleon III. This small French house was originally built in Egypt in 1839. In 1876, Napoleon III gifted the house to King Norodom and it was dismantled, shipped to Cambodia and rebuilt within the Royal Palace compound. The building now houses paintings and images of the former Kings.
When the palace was constructed, the Royal family still traveled primarily by elephant which is reflected in the architecture around the complex. The massive Victory Gate, one of the first stops on the tour, was built to accommodate elephant traffic into and out of the compound. This gate is still used to receive important visitors and foreign envoys to see the King, although now more traditional transportation is used. The Ho Samran Phirum building to the north of the Throne Hall, was used as a waiting room for the King and Queen to get ready to board the elephants. If you look closely you can still see where the elephants were tied, in anticipation of the Royal procession. In the southeastern corner of the compound are several buildings formerly used as elephant stables but are now used as exhibition halls, including a display of the Royal howdah collection. The closest you will come to an elephant here is a nearly life-size replica.
Several buildings around the Palace compound were built specifically to hold special treasures and Royal artifacts. The Ho Samritvimean, a small building to the South of the Throne Hall, contains a small display of many Royal objects and costumes that is open to the public. Near the door is a case containing many silver betel boxes that are given as gifts to special visitors by the King. Within the Silver Pagoda are an overwhelming number of treasures made from silver, gold, and diamonds. Be sure to look closely at the golden statue of the Future Buddha placed prominently in the center of the Pagoda. This statue represents the fifth Buddha who is believed to reach enlightenment in the Buddhist year 5000. Commissioned in 1904 by King Sisowath in honor of his deceased brother King Norodom the statue contains 2086 diamonds including a 25-karat diamond on the crown. Other cases around the room contain many valuable objects. Before a case is opened to clean or remove an object from the case, 12 members of a special commission must be present to inspect the opening and closing of the case. The case is then sealed with a sticker containing the signature of all 12 members of the commission.