A mural in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh depicting court life before the arrival of the French in Cambodia.
Life at Court in Middle Cambodia
The centuries between the alleged fall of Angkor in 1431 and the accession of Ang
Eng in 1796 tend to be perceived as somewhat dull despite many civil wars and relocations
of the capital several times, to Oudong, Longvek, and Phnom Penh among other sites.
The Cambodian Chronicles, however, reveal a rich and diverse court life, awash with
intrigue, usurpations of the throne, and a surprisingly licentious existence.
A staggering number of incestuous liaisons, marriages and re-marriages between Cambodian
kings and their sisters, nieces or aunts is recorded.
One of the earliest Chronicles, referring to events that are legendary rather than
historical, relates that Prince Padum, a scholar-monk, was told that to perpetuate
the royal line he must leave the monastery and conceive a son with Princess Sobhavatti,
his half-sister and aunt.
A later text relates that King Paramaraja IV (reigned 1603-1618), "secretly
had sexual relations" with Sujati, his younger sister, eventually making her
his principal queen. Shortly afterwards, an incestuous love affair between a prince
and princess initiated a civil war.
When King Jai Jettha II died in 1627 his younger brother, the ubhayoraj Paramaraja
Udaiy, married his niece Ang Vatti, renaming her Mae Your Vatti, despite her pre-existing
engagement to her brother and the heir-apparent, Dhammaraja I (reigned 1627-1632).
The siblings accidentally encountered each other while travelling across the Tonle
Sap and fell in love. So great was his feeling for Mae Your Vatti that Dhammaraja
"forgot to bathe or eat," and made plans to seduce her away from their
uncle. Accordingly, Mae Your Vatti asked her husband for permission to take another
pleasure trip to the lake and stay there for one or two nights. In reality, she fled
to her brother's palace at Oudong.
The ubhayoraj Paramaraja Udaiy immediately retaliated by sending troops against Dhammaraja,
who had a substantial army of his own. Realizing that drastic measures were required,
Paramaraja Udaiy enlisted the support of Portuguese mercenaries who had maintained
a presence in Cambodia since the late 15th century.
Having superior weapons and strategies, the Portuguese quickly subdued Dhammaraja,
who before his execution saw the error of his ways and lamented, "Because of
a woman, I am in a deplorable state.... Because of passion, I am now facing death.
Better to go to my death, so that I may once again know dhamma!"
The Portuguese mercenaries brought Mae Your Vatti back to her husband's palace, where
his officials determined that she should be beaten to death as punishment. Her body
was, however, cremated with due ceremony and her ashes placed in a monastery, as
befitted women of royal birth.
Not all Cambodian kings had marriage on their minds. Paramaraja III (reigned 1599-1600)
forgot "his royal consorts and the ladies of the palace; he forgot his reputation
and all criticism" in his pursuit of neang Dev, the wife of one of his courtiers.
He ordered her to his bedchamber, where "he tried to seduce neang Dev in different
ways," including jewels, gold, and titles to land.
When these inducements failed, he used physical force. She resisted, thinking "it
is not proper for [a woman] to unite herself to a second man after a first, or she
will not be a woman who is virtuous, grateful and faithful to her husband."
Paramaraja III was killed by neang Dev's husband.
But the next ascendant to the throne, Ngom, was even more licentious. Just 16 upon
his coronation, Ngom sent his pages and servants to nearby villages so that they
could bring back women and girls for his pleasure. If they resisted him, he ordered
them imprisoned; if one of them did not please him in the way he wanted, he would
"order a page to unite himself to her in front of her husband's very eyes."
His grandmother, Queen Devikshatri, removed him from power for his behavior, saying
that he "did not think of the affairs of the kingdom, abandoning honesty and
justice... in the kingdom there was more and more unrest, and that brigands, assassins
[were at large and] abductions of young girls... were carried out with impunity,
without anyone reprimanding these deeds."
Princesses were also accustomed to having their whims obeyed in matters of love.
According to the Chronicles, a 15-year-old princess single-handedly brought about
the accession of a fisherman to the throne of Cambodia.
Princess Suvann Mali, sister of King Suvann Padum, fell in love with the 16-year-old
son of the chief of a fishing village, named Prades. She sent servants to inform
the boy in question of the honour about to befall him and ordered a fortified palace
to be constructed, soldiers commandeered from neighbouring officials, and the palace
defended. Suvann Mali and Prades then married despite the opposition of the princess's
counsellors. Although very angry, King Suvann Padum eventually forgave the couple,
and upon his death the ministers and advisers of the court nominated Prades to the
Women as wilful and dangerous forces constitute a prominent theme in the texts. According
to the Cbpab Broh [Code for Men], there are three great follies: Women, intoxication,
and gambling. After enumerating the dangers of gambling with Chinese merchants, the
author set out a lengthy and salacious description of the pitfalls of sexual congress
with women. "Do not throw yourselves into sensual pleasure as it will always
enslave you.... it always brings sadness," he warned. Women should above all
else practice chaste behavior, as "women who have lost their virtue" are
unable to follow the path of Buddhism. Moreover, according to a popular maxim, "necks
of cattle are soon rubbed bare; pretty women are soon used up."
Despite these admonitions, the queens, princesses and other women of noble birth
during the period under discussion seem to have acted in a manner contrary to expectations.
The best example of this is Queen Ang Cuv, widow of King Jai Jettha II (reigned 1618-1627).
After the death of her husband, the queen was sorting through his apartments and
happened upon a bottle of what she assumed was medicine. Feeling faint, she took
a draught of the mixture.
It was, in fact, an aphrodisiac. The potion resulted in an insatiable sexual appetite:
"She chose men to come one by one, continuously. But if a page did not please
her, she would drive him away or have him killed to prevent him from talking."
She eventually took a permanent lover, a lesser prince named Dham.
Not surprisingly, the version of the Chronicles that contains the story states that
the "official" Chronicles kept the true history of the queen secret.