Tales of tragedy and joy, iconic images of Cambodia’s historic leaders and the record of a nation struggling to establish itself are reflected in the Kingdom’s many postage stamps.
And you thought that philately, or stamp collecting, was all about geeks staring through magnifying glasses at monarchs in profile, while excitedly discussing rarity and value?
Not so in the Kingdom.
Cambodia’s rich variety of stamps tell tales of war and peace, anticolonial struggle, international theft and forgery, safe sex, mammals-turned-fish and a good dose of cultural heritage.
Although Cambodia wasn’t formally independent at the time, February 1952 saw the print run of a special edition booklet to mark the first issue of national postage stamps.
Before that, postage stamps in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were all marked “Indochina” under French colonial rule.
Since that 1952 edition, however, Cambodian stamps have been issued under various names, reflecting the turbulent history of regime changes and struggles towards nationhood.
From King Norodom Sihanouk’s “Royaume du Cambodge” via Lon Nol’s “Republique Khmere” to Pol Pot’s very elusive, possibly nonexistent “Kampuchea” stamps.
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, the legendary stamps would have served a purpose of propaganda rather than communication.
Indeed, Phnom Penh-based Graham Shaw calls the latter the holy grail for Cambodia stamp collectors.
Cambodiastamps.com, Shaw’s Web site, refers to an entry in a German catalogue that states the possibility the Khmer Rouge had some Kampuchea-inscribed stamps issued in April 1978.
They were reputedly printed in Japan and came in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 90 denominations, without the catalogue stating the currency.
But with the discontinuance of post and telegraphic services, as well as the abolition of money under the Khmer Rouge regime, the legendary stamps would have served a purpose of propaganda rather than communication.
“To find a set used by the regime of Democratic Kampuchea would make it extremely rare and very valuable to international collectors, especially if you had a First Day Cover [the stamp equivalent of a first edition] signed by Brother Number 1,” says Shaw.
It was only in April 1980 that new postage stamps of the postwar regime became available for public use.
Before that, and in order to save time and resources after the fall of Pol Pot, the new regime used stamps from prior to the Khmer Rouge and overprinted them manually with RPK or “Republique Populaire Kampuchea”.
Shaw shows examples on his website and calls them “of interest and relatively rare”.
The high market value of Cambodian stamps was illustrated by the sale on eBay of a special set celebrating Cambodia’s independence from France and signed by King Norodom Sihanouk.
According to Shaw, who would rather the item be kept in a Cambodian museum; it was sold for “several thousand dollars”.
A quick Internet search reveals there are still high-value items out there.
On the American collectors site Herrickstamp.com, a set of five space travel-themed stamps issued in 1990 fetches US$1,100 and is listed as “the scarcest postage stamps of Cambodia”.
But what is it that turns a set of dry stamps into a collector’s wet dream?
According to Hong Kong-based stamp enthusiast and blogger, Patrick Fung, the most exciting unlisted stamps of Cambodia are the so-called “surcharges”.
When inflation ran faster than the stamp-printing machines, the postal authority started to add a surcharge to the existing stock of stamps.
Since they were stamped locally by hand for postal use only, overseas collectors have a hard time identifying and getting hold of them.
But amateur collectors beware: According to Fung, almost all 1990s surcharges have forgeries.
Shaw, on the other hand, admires “proof”stamps which show the various stages of development of a specific stamp, from its early design to the final version that is then mass printed for use by the public.
“A hand-sketched initial design of a Cambodian stamp from the 1950s or 1960s and signed by the artist can fetch a lot of money,” he says.
When Cambodia started issuing stamps again after the Khmer Rouge, most of them were designed, printed and marketed by a Cuban company called COPREFIL.
Fung mentions how, in 1993, a special set was printed in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of national independence.
As Cuba shipped part of the stock to Cambodia, it was reported stolen during transit, which forced Cambodia to declare the set illegal and prompted Russia to quickly produce a new one to present to Cambodia as a gift.
This latter set was only available in Cambodia, whereas the stolen one was only available outside the country. Fung says that it also marked the first time that English was used on stamps instead of French.
Pieces of history
According to Eth So, deputy director at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, since 2002 Cambodia’s stamps have been printed in Vietnam.
He says that about four to five sets, with a total of 20 to 25 stamps, are being issued per year.
Cambodian stamps are often used to carry particular messages, which may be political.
On his site, Shaw provides a good example via a comprehensive history of the role of King Norodom Sihanouk, as seen through Cambodian stamps.
More recently, in July this year, Cambodia issued a set of five stamps to commemorate the first anniversary of Preah Vihear’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But it’s not all political.
December 2006 saw the launch of a series of HIV/AIDS-awareness stamps, prominently featuring PSI’s Number One condom, and the same year also saw a set of five different dolphins to promote ecotourism.
They don’t always get it right, though, as Fung notes about the dolphin set, “the cachet says ‘fish’ and adverts at post offices say ‘fish’ too.
“Dolphins are not fish, they are mammals.”