They told me to be serious, but I like to goof around”
Standing in for the king of Cambodia for a day isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, says Prince Sisowath Vic. Especially when the regal duty involves manhandling a team of pampered royal oxen around a field in front of thousands of spectators, all eager to see what omens the Royal Ploughing Ceremony will reveal for the coming rice harvest.
“I was really scared. When we drove up there were crowds of people there. Before, when I agreed to do it, I thought ‘No problem, it’s just leading a cow around a couple of times right?’ But when we drove into the area and everyone was gathered, I really started to get nervous,” Vic told 7Days.
Prince Sisowath Vic – or “Vic” as he prefers to be known – was born in Phnom Penh in 1973 to Prince Monirak Sisowath and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, but was raised in France and the US during the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge eras. In March, he moved to Siem Reap to work as a regional manager for ANZ Royal Bank. But occasionally – like with last year’s Royal Ploughing Ceremony – he’ll be called to don the crown.
“The king has to perform the ceremony but he can’t do it every year so he uses a proxy. Basically I was king for a day and I got to be transported in a palanquin and they had the porters and carried me around. They give you a sword to carry and things like that, and then you lead the cows around. They told me to be serious, but I like to goof around, and I was waving, and winking when I saw a pretty girl. I just sacrificed one morning in my life and it meant a lot to people. In the beginning, to be honest, I didn’t want to do it. But I warmed up to it when I saw how much it meant to the people who were there and the smiles on their faces.”
Vic said he was reassured by the enthusiastic reception of the crowd, which cheered him as he made the laps in his palanquin. But his main concern at the time was the reception he would receive from the unruly pair of royal oxen he was expected to lead three times around a field, to officially kick off the rice planting season.
“I heard the cows can get rowdy, so I told the cow-handlers to make sure mine behaves, otherwise I’m going to roast him tonight. The plough was following the governor of Siem Reap around the field, so I figured if anything happened it would happen to him.”
Vic explained that his duties as substitute king also included supervising the placement of bowls of rice, grass, water, whisky, and other refreshments in front of a judging panel of royal oxen. The culinary preferences of the oxen are taken to determine how favourable the coming rice harvest will be.
Vic said his overseas upbringing meant that the ploughing ceremony was one of the first times he saw direct evidence of the connection between the monarchy and ordinary people. Another reminder was when he returned to Cambodia in 2007 to work for ANZ Royal Bank.
“When I started at ANZ I remember people were intimidated by me. I would walk over and say hello to people and they would run away from me, and I had to coax them and say ‘It’s okay.’ But little by little people who worked with me and were close to me realised ‘oh no he’s just like everyone else.’ I don’t want people to be intimidated I just want people to relax. We’re not any different from anyone else, we just have a different last name.”
Different last names was the reason his mother and father initially met, Vic explained – his grandfather cast his parents opposite each other as love interests in one of King Sihanouk’s many self-written and directed films.
“If it wasn’t for his films I probably wouldn’t be born, because my mother and father met on the set of one of his movies. My father is from the Sisowath side of the royal family and mother from the Norodom side, and they were both asked to star.
“When I was young they used to make me watch it. They would tie me down to a chair and make me watch it with them, but I can’t remember what it was called. If you write that, my parents will kill me for forgetting the name,” he joked.
Vic and his family were forced to flee Cambodia in 1973, after the Lon Nol regime imprisoned royals. The regime was concerned that people of royal blood could be a political threat. So Vic and his family embarked on a kind of exile tour. They first moved to China to live with King Sihanouk, then to France where they lived mostly in Paris. He finally arrived in the US, where Norodom Sihamoni continued his film career, in-between working as a social security fraud investigator.
“It was kind of funny; he was in the movie The Killing Fields, he had a role as a Khmer Rouge officer, and then later on he was asked to be in the movie The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, and after that he stopped. I never really discussed it with him to be honest. I never asked how he felt about playing a Khmer Rouge officer. I think he was just happy doing a movie about Cambodia, as no one really had an idea about what was going on here at the time and it really put a spotlight on it.”
His family’s abrupt departure from Cambodia meant Vic and his four brothers and sisters didn’t grow up in the opulent manner of their parents, and the need to pay for college, as well as a long tradition of military service on the Sisowath side of his family, saw him enlist in the US army in 1991.
“I didn’t join because I was patriotic, when I left high school I was determined I was going to make it on my own and did not want to depend on anyone. But I didn’t know how I was going to pay for school, so a friend said ‘why don’t you join the US army?’ I was 18 years old and didn’t know what I was getting into, so I said, ‘Sure, why not, they’ll give me money to go to school and it sounds like a good idea.’ I think it’s a good system, but at the time when I was going through boot camp I was not a happy customer. Looking back, this was something I don’t regret doing. You learn a lot: discipline, honesty, honour.
I heard the cows can get rowdy, so I told the cow-handlers to make sure mine behaves, otherwise I’m going to roast him
They are strange words to talk about in Cambodia but you learn those values when you’re in the army.”
After his discharge from the military, his time spent studying economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and his stint working in the airline industry, Vic moved back to Cambodia in 2007 to be closer to his elderly parents. He landed a job at ANZ Royal Bank as premier banking manager, dealing with high net-worth clients, before managing the bank’s central office in Phnom Penh for two years.
His workplace status as a Cambodian prince was initially both a hindrance and a help, Vic explained, and many colleagues were unsure how to address him.
“Sometimes it’s a hindrance. When I first got into the organisation I knew I had to work really hard so people wouldn’t think I got the job because of my name. So the expectations I put on myself were higher than anyone else. I remember my boss, when I first came in he asked ‘What should we call you, how should we address you?’ and I said ‘Oh no, just call me Vic’. I don’t like being addressed by my title or insist on it, like some of my family members do. I had to prove myself and I’m here today sitting at my desk not because of my last name but because I’ve worked hard.”
Promoted to oversee ANZ Royal Bank’s operations in Siem Reap and five surrounding provinces in March, the move from Phnom Penh led to Vic meeting his future wife, an as yet unnamed work colleague.
The wedding is scheduled to take place this December in Phnom Penh.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all, I thought I’d come out to the province try something new, living in a new city working in a new job, and I found something else. She works at ANZ and I proposed in secret but now our parents are meeting. My mother is handling it, she did the wedding for my sister and Ranariddh’s daughter. We have to go the palace and seek the blessing of the king and do the whole monk ceremony at the palace.”
While confessing to having some sleepless nights about the constant growth of the wedding guest list, which is expected to include Prime Minister Hun Sen and other members of the royal family, one thing Vic has no second thoughts about is the decision to uproot his life in the US and move back to Cambodia.
“I’m definitely glad I made the decision to come home. When I was in the US I was just going from job to job and now it’s a career. As you grow up, you identify your weaknesses and your strengths. I’ve identified what I’m good at, whereas before I had no clue. I love doing what I do. I have no regrets about coming here, my life would be very different and I don’t think I would be as happy living in the US. Cambodia is just my country. I feel that indescribable link you have to your homeland where you were born.”