“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
– Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty
I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat — there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel — the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watched monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers’ protests in the capital had forced some closures.
The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.
There are portions of the Phnom Penh Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.
The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration — there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality — a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.
As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening — I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about — a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.