Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A tale of two kings and the lost sax



A tale of two kings and the lost sax

Cambodian resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, head of the anti-Vietnamese Khmer coalition, addresses his civilian followers at a camp in northeastern Thailand in 1985. Francis Deron/AFP
Cambodian resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, head of the anti-Vietnamese Khmer coalition, addresses his civilian followers at a camp in northeastern Thailand in 1985. Francis Deron/AFP

A tale of two kings and the lost sax

King Norodom Sihanouk ascended to Cambodia’s throne in April 1941 at age 18, almost exactly five years before King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended to Thailand’s in June 1946, also at the age of 18.

Both were fluent French and English speakers and shared a deep appreciation for jazz, making names for themselves as saxophonists. Sihanouk died in October 2012 aged 89 and – almost four years to the day – Bhumibol followed last week, at the age of 88.

As towering figures in the modern histories of their neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the two kings’ lives and interests intersected like those of few others through history – but that did not mean the two were always so close to each other.

“It might have been expected that Sihanouk and Bhumibol, both French-speakers of similar age and predicament, would become soul mates,” Paul Handley noted in his 2006 The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Instead, Handley noted, Bhumibol came to consider his Cambodian counterpart “a nuisance, in part because in 1954 Sihanouk apparently borrowed a gold-plated saxophone of the king’s and didn’t return it”.

Little else has been written about their six-decade relationship – during which Sihanouk abdicated, was overthrown as a civilian leader, led an armed resistance and was then crowned king once more, and it is one of the few windows into their time together.

Yet the claims Sihanouk took the saxophone were always disputed by the man himself, said Julio Jeldres, a research fellow at Monash University’s Asia Institute in Australia, who was Sihanouk’s official biographer before the king’s death four years ago.

“I have seen no record of King Sihanouk meeting King Bhumibol on this occasion, but it appears that the Thai King in a friendly gesture loaned to him a gold-plated saxophone, which Sihanouk could use while in Bangkok,” Jeldres said in an email.

“Later on, the former US Ambassador to Thailand, Alexis U. Johnson, wrote that Sihanouk had taken the gold-plated saxophone with him,” he said.

Jeldres said he believed the incident in fact occurred after an ill-fated 1953 trip, and not during 1954 as noted by Handley, and that Sihanouk always maintained he left the saxophone behind in his hotel room in a huff after failing to secure Thai support for Cambodia’s drive for independence from France.

“The late King Father was very offended by this story and told me in 1988 that the saxophone had been left behind at the hotel in Bangkok after he suddenly decided to leave because of the cold reception he had received and the lack of Thai support.”

It’s an explanation accepted by Prince Sisowath Thomico, a nephew and adopted son of Sihanouk, who said he did not believe the king would have taken something that was not his – or done anything else to harm relations with another king.

“I am very suspicious about that. It was not in King Sihanouk’s personality not to return something, and he always kept very courteous relations with King Bhumibol,” Thomico said, noting that Sihanouk had once demoted a minister for criticising Bhumibol. “King Sihanouk always expected the royal government to respect a king – even though we did not have very good relations with the Thais then.”

Yet it was not only the disputed fate of the golden saxophone that made the 1953 trip so important for the future of relations of Sihanouk and Bhumibol – there were also the circumstances of the trip. In fact, Sihanouk had decided to pay a visit to Thailand on a whim, without giving notification, while driving near the Cambodian-Thai border, according to French historian and author Henri Locard.

While in a convoy between Siem Reap and Battambang, explained Locard, Sihanouk simply announced that he wished to cross at the Poipet-Aranyaprathet checkpoint to seek support from the Thais for his struggle for independence.

“When in Svay Sisophon, the King suddenly decided to split the procession: Penn Nouth, the nominal prime minister and followers were asked to continue to Battambang, while Sihanouk and his court proceeded straight west to Poipet,” Locard said.

“Neither the Cambodian delegation nor – worse – the Thais themselves had been forewarned of the new plans,” he continued. “He came totally uninvited and the Thais gave him a cold reception. They refused to support his campaign for independence.”

Jeldres said an official state visit the next year – after Cambodia gained its independence – fared better, with Sihanouk being “received at the airport by King Bhumibol and given a warm welcome” and also stressing to the Thais that he bore no grudges.

However, it was the only official state visit Sihanouk would ever pay to Thailand as king, and in the 1980s – when he led the coalition of Thai-backed resistance forces fighting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime – he would again come to have complaints.

“During the 1980s, he complained that every time he visited Thailand as President of the Cambodian Coalition Government, he would be made to wait outside King Bhumibol’s office for half an hour or so before seeing the Thai monarch,” Jeldres said. “Once he became King again in 1993, he paid State visits to all of Cambodia’s neighbours, including Malaysia and Singapore, but excluding Thailand.

“Lastly, many Cambodians were deeply disappointed that the Thai Royal Family did not send any representative to the funeral of the late King Father, as the Japanese and Lao Royal Families did,” he said.

Ultimately, though, according to Thomico, the relationship between the two kings – even with their similar backgrounds – could only ever have been constrained by their positions, as their nations followed vastly different paths last century.

“The word ‘friend’ could not be used between the two of them, because their relations were filled with protocol, but there was mutual respect,” he said. “And I never heard him criticise King Bhumibol.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Businesses in capital told to get travel permit amid lockdown through One Window Service

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration has issued guidelines on how to get travel permission for priority groups during the lockdown of Phnom Penh, directing private institutions to apply through the municipality's One Window Service and limit their staff to a mere two per cent. In

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Ministry names types of business permitted amid lockdown

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training singled out 11 types of business that are permitted to operate during the lockdown of Phnom Penh and Takmao town, which run through April 28. Those include (1) food-processing enterprises and slaughterhouses; (2) providers of public services such as firefighting, utility and