Norodom, barely five feet in height, crowned king in 1864 when 28 years old, he had no doubts as to the rights he should enjoy over his country even if these were seldom translated into reality. He died in 1904.
In the second half of the opening chapter of Milton Osborne's revised version
of his book
River Road to China the six French explorers enjoy the hospitality of King Norodom
but finally decide it is time for the real adventure to begin
T HE CITY to which Norodom brought his court in 1866 is best seen for the first time
from the river. In 1866, indeed, it could not be reached in any other way during
the rainy season, and this was how the explorers came.
Phnom Penh in 1866 bore little relation to the city that in the early 1960s had a
population of 500,000 and that had grown by 1974, as war swept over Cambodia, to
a figure well in excess of one million. In 1866, Phnom Penh numbered perhaps 35,000
souls. Most were not Cambodians. There were Chinese and Vietnamese traders in the
great market. Merchants from as far away as Laos sold their wares in Phnom Penh before
making a slow ascent back up the Mekong. Malay fishermen cast their nets in the Mekong
and its tributary the Tonle Sap and sold their catches to the city's inhabitants.
Indian traders sold cloth and lent money, and by 1866 there was even a small resident
European commercial community.
These varied groups were crowded into a jumble of wooden houses that straggled along
the river bank. They seemed unconscious of the stench that rose from the garbage-filled
streets, the primitive drains and canals that inefficiently carried away human waste
matter in this city that lacked any organized sanitation.
Yet not all the smells that were so characteristic of this busy market town were
offensive, or certainly not to the inhabitants. Scents of incense drifted from the
Chinese and Vietnamese pagodas. Curries and spices added their contribution in the
kitchens behind the Indian traders' houses, as did the distinctive smell of nuoc-mam,
the pungent fermented fish sauce that was, and is, an essential of Vietnamese cuisine.
Nor was life for these merchants and coolies just a matter of philosophically accepting
an existence that promised so many of them an early death from incurable disease.
This was also a city of raucous gaiety, ceremony, and parade. Hawkers shouted their
wares with distinctive street cries, and the brassy ring of cymbals and gongs marked
the passage of Chinese processions of celebration as well as those that accompanied
the rites of death and mourning. Just to the north of the city limits the muezzins
called the followers of Islam to prayer. At the edge of the city itself, the bells
of the Catholic mission rang for the Vietnamese converts. With the onset of the sudden
tropical night the city was lit by the gaudy paper lanterns that hung outside Chinese
shops, and the click and rattle of innumerable mah-jong games sounded through the
Yet, however much this cosmopolitan bustle and bargaining were part of Phnom Penh,
there were sections of the city that were unmistakably Cambodian: the royal palace,
the Buddhist temples, and the hill itself from which the city took its name.
Built at the confluence of two wide rivers, Phnom Penh sits on dead flat ground.
The phnom (hill) from which it takes its name is not large, rising only some 80 feet
(24 meters) above the ground. It is topped by a stupa, a Buddhist monument that rises
a further 90 feet (27m) above the top of the phnom itself. In a flat land this combined
height of the hill and its monument was enough for it to dominate the city.
Then, as now, it was a favorite spot for fortune tellers and for Buddhist monks in
their yellow robes. These monks were a constant reminder that this city existed in
a different world from that which the Frenchmen had known in Saigon. There were Buddhist
monks to be seen in Saigon, some even followers of the same branch of Buddhism as
that practiced in Cambodia. But there was nothing like this.
With the dawn of each day the monks streamed into the streets from their monasteries
to beg for food from the faithful. At any Cambodian ceremony the monks would be present,
their yellow robes providing a splash of color, their voices tirelessly murmuring
the prayers and rituals that gain merit through constant, almost trance-like repetition.
The French visitors sat at a long table facing the floor on which the dancers performed, waited upon by palace servants who crawled along the floor so that they should remain below the level of the King, seated at the head of the banqueting table.
(Drawing by Louis Delaporte)
The King himself had been a monk for a time: had entered a monastery, taken the robe,
and had his head shaven. One of the French explorers was later to write that Norodom
mocked the Buddha at times when he felt well and happy. This was the mockery of a
true believer. For the King exemplified the rule that "to be a Cambodian was
to be Buddhist."
Yet to be Cambodian was also to be a follower of other religions. For the peasants,
animism was the dominant belief. For the royal family, Brahmanic rituals, borrowed
some fifteen hundred years before from India, still played a part alongside the other
Indian religion, Buddhism, that was proclaimed the faith of the state.
With their departure set for the next day, the French explorers were summoned to
the royal palace to dine with Norodom on July 6. If this was no new experience for
Doudart de Lagrée, the occasion fascinated the other, younger members of the
party. To enter the royal palace was to come close to the most vital and mystical
features of King Norodom's world.
The supreme guides to court ritual were the Brahman priests. Centuries before their
ancestors had been truly knowledgeable in the philosophies of India. Their 19th-century
descendants preserved the ritual but had little understanding of the philosophy that
lay beneath it. Their long hair caught up in the traditional "buns" of
their Indian counterparts, these Cambodian Brahmans cast horoscopes and were the
interpreters of signs and portents for the King and his family.
Possibly their most solemn duty was to guard the famous sacred sword of the kingdom,
the preah khan. This sword, that had been passed to the ruler's remote ancestors
by the gods, was a symbol and a measure of the kingdom's prosperity. It was, in the
words of the Cambodian coronation ceremony, "the lightning of Indra", the
king of the gods. None save the Brahmans could touch it, and even they were forbidden
to touch the naked blade with their bare hands. The most terrible disaster would
follow if the sword were lost or captured. Should the blade grow rusty or discolored,
the fate of the kingdom would be less terrible but grave nonetheless.
Norodom's palace was not grand, if judged against Versailles, the Vatican, or the
residences of lesser European rulers both spiritual and temporal. But it had its
own dignity, not least for the Cambodians, who saw the palace as a symbol of man's
place within the universe, the earthly center of their existence that was the dwelling
place of a semi-divine monarch.
When the explorers came to the palace, they saw but the beginnings of what by the
end of the 19th century was to be a vast complex of buildings within a compound surrounded
by a castellated wall. Already, however, there was a throne hall, a pavilion for
the royal ballet's performances, and another pavilion where the king met his officials
in daily audience and received the petitions of his subjects. These were wooden buildings,
richly carved along the eaves and lintels, painted and gilded, and roofed with glistening
tiles of blue and yellow that shone in the tropical sun and provided a fitting completion
to this architecture of fantasy.
A few years later, following the opening of the Suez Canal, the Phnom Penh palace
was enriched by a new French gift to the King: the prefabricated cast-iron palace
that had been used by the Empress Eugenie at the opening ceremonies for De Lesseps's
canal. Shipped out to Cambodia and re-erected, it became, if we may believe the repeated
claims of French authors, Norodom's favorite building in the royal compound.
It was not architecture alone that made the palace a matter of interest and wonder.
There was the abiding fascination provided by the members of the court: the officials,
the court dancers, the royal guard and the royal orchestras, the hereditary servants
who tended the royal elephants, paddled the King's barges, and daily risked death
at the King's passionate whim.
Norodom was not a rich ruler, by whatever standards were used to judge him, but his
wealth was sufficient for a court of 2000 persons. A devoted admirer of the traditional
Cambodian orchestra composed of flutes, stringed instruments, and a range of drums,
gongs, and xylophones, he listened with equal pleasure to his band of Filipinos who
played in the Western style. His cavalry was led by men from Thailand. His gunners
were the mixed-blood descendants of Iberian adventurers who had settled in Cambodia
in earlier centuries.
Guards and servants were clothed in reds and blues and wore hats that seemed to have
remained unchanged in design from those shown on the low-relief sculptures of the
temples at Angkor. The more elevated members of the court, both male and female,
wore a rich silk sarong, a sampot in the Cambodian language, drawing its hem up between
their legs to fasten at the back and give the impression of loose, floppy breeches
rather like the loosefitting trousers worn by Dutchmen in so many 17th-century paintings.
Each day of the week had its own color; the sampot worn on a Friday, the day of the
planet Venus, would be blue; those worn on Wednesday, the day of Mercury, would be
green. None of this daily exoticism, however, came near to the impression created
by the entertainment the explorers had been summoned to the palace to see: the special
splendor of the royal troupe of dancers.
Whatever judgments 19th-century Frenchmen made of Norodom - and most of them
were harsh - all agreed on two aspects of his character. He loved both banquets and
the dancing of his court ballet that was an essential accompaniment to the feasting.
There are men still alive in Cambodia who remember, from the early days of the present
century, being told by their parents of the mammoth feasting that took place within
the palace at Norodom's command. Royal banquets would last as long as the King's
endurance. European wine and brandy flowed alongside locally distilled spirits, and
course followed course in a seemingly endless profusion, served from the heavy chiseled
silver dishes made by the royal silversmiths. As the banquet progressed the royal
ballet provided an ever-changing backdrop.
The dancing that Lagrée and his companions witnessed was quite unknown to
all but a very few in Europe. When, 50 years later, Norodom's half-brother and successor,
King Sisowath, took the Cambodian ballet to France, it was a true succès de
théâtre. The artist Rodin led Paris society in lauding the dancers'
grace and beauty.
Dressed in the richest silk shot through with gold and silver thread, wearing golden
tiered crowns or the masks of chimerical beasts and decked with jewels, the court
dancers performed a repertoire that drew on the ancient Indian epics for its subjects:
the heroic deeds of Rama and the legends enshrined in the Mahabharata. But the dances
were not Indian in form. They were slower and more measured, less sensual but no
less full of meaning. Gestures with hand and finger meant as much as a sudden movement
with the whole body. In some cases, as when the monkey gods joined in battle, the
dances were realistic to an almost buffoonish degree. The dancers in their monkey
masks struck simian poses, bent-legged with outstretched arms or thoughtfully scratching
their armpits for fleas. On other occasions, the motions of individuals and groups
were as intricately abstract yet as disciplined as those of a wheeling flock of birds.
The French visitors watched the dances by the soft light of candles, with the incense
blown through the pavilion by the river breeze that floated from the water a bare
300 yards away. They sat at a long table facing the floor on which the dancers performed,
waited upon by palace servants who crawled along the floor so that they should remain
below the level of the King.
Seated at the head of the banqueting table, Norodom mixed banter with a more serious
purpose. Which of the dancers, he inquired, struck the Frenchmen as the most beautiful
and accomplished? They gratified their host by correctly pointing to the King's current
favorite; Norodom's attentive gaze had made their choice none too difficult.
More earnestly, in conversation with Lagrée, the King strove to press a bar
of gold upon the group's leader for their expenses along the way. Doudart de Lagrée
refused. He realized that Norodom hoped in offering them this gift, to ask in return
for their further delay. For if the banqueting and dancing kept the Frenchmen from
daily cares that were soon to be frequent and demanding, these diversions had a similar
part to play for Norodom. As he savored his brandy and watched with a connois-seur's
appreciation the steps that his dancers performed, he knew a rebel-lion was already
under way in the eastern provinces of his kingdom which could threaten his hold on
The real world beckoned the explorers. The river was visible from the dancing pavilion,
and it was why they were here. Fantasy would be in short measure in a little while,
but this night's experience could not be prolonged. Norodom might stay watching the
ballet, but the explorers took their leave, following the strict naval discipline
that Lagrée's orders demanded that he preserve.
The next day the expedition left Phnom Penh. Their route lay north up the Mekong,
as the smoke from their final cannon salute drifted behind them and towards the shore.