The Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, then, is a single-storey affair, and quite obscured, except from the river’s bank, by other buildings. It is pagoda architecture and one feels that if the pinchbeck glitter of the gilding could be subdued it would provide, perhaps, a charming and discreet lakeside ornament. We have seen buildings of this kind so often in Colonial exhibitions that we have come to associate them with impermanence, and even suspect that they may be supplied in sections with simple instructions for erection. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Palace was built by the French soon after Cambodia became a protectorate. But even the ancient and notable pagodas of Luang Prabang turn out later to be not very much better as buildings, however far superior their decoration may be.
Behind the high, screening wall, the palace proved to consist of several separate buildings, all of which, except those containing the private apartments, could be visited on a set tour, for which a guide was provided. Among this cluster of lacquered, box-like edifices, their roofs curled up as if by the scorching sun, there was one of solidly incongruous stone. This was a house presented by Napoleon III to Queen Eugenie and then taken down and sent here as a gift to the Cambodian monarch of the day. It looked like the permanent administrative offices, stolid and matter-of-fact, on an exposition site, squatting among the lath and plaster which after a few months would be taken down and cleared away. The presence of the European interloper gave a clue to the contents of the pavilions themselves.
These were frankly museum exhibits of the past two centuries of royal history. Some of them were strangely revelatory. The only building which could be described as internally impressive was the Silver Pagoda, and then it was impressive rather as a curiosity. Here for the first time one glimpsed the East of the traveller’s tale; prodigious, garish and wasteful. If the kings of Cambodia had never felt the urge to build an Escorial or a Caserta they had at least floored a pagoda with five thousand blocks of solid silver, and although the aesthetic effect was no choicer than that to be had from walking on the polished deck of a battleship, there had at least been fine, profligate squandering of precious metal.
The purpose of the Silver Pagoda appeared to be to house the royal treasure, consisting principally of a great collection of Buddhas, in gold and jade and other precious materials; some with diamonds in their foreheads. Whenever a Buddha happened to be of solid gold, the guide, padding relentlessly in the rear, inevitably announced the exact weight of the metal that had gone into its construction. Below the ranks of Buddhas, with their smiles, placid, ironic or even supercilious, were lined up rows of pawnbrokers’ counters. In these, behind the scratched and dirty glass, had been assembled for inspection the gifts of foreign potentates of the past, together with what looked like nothing more than a great miscellaneous collection of family bric-a-brac.
One brooded over enormous jewelled watches, full of whimsy and misplaced ingenuity in their methods of working; Victorian compositions of wax flowers, fruit and seashells under bell-jars; a miniature Buddha studded with perhaps ten thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds seated uneasily on the back of a tortoiseshell hairbrush; reliquaries of cloisonne and beaten gold; an ivory backscratcher; more jewelled Buddhas; china eggs of the kind that are supposed to induce hens to lay; a string of Christmas-tree decorations – tinsel and silver balls. One imagined the queen, or perhaps a succession of queens, making a periodical clear-out of their cupboards and then tripping down to the Silver Pagoda with all the attractive, useless things that had to be found a home somewhere. The family photographs were perhaps the most interesting thing about this magpie’s hoard. There were the monarchs and their queens in faded sepia, staring of eye and stiff of pose in the European clothing into which they had just been buckled and laced for the occasion. Among them was one informal and dashing scene, probably taken by one of the courtiers, of the old King Sisowath waltzing round with a very aged lady. And sometimes, under the influence perhaps of Edward VII, the ruler of Cambodia was displayed in knickerbockers, the oddest of all garments for an oriental potentate, possessing, one supposed, a plurality of wives.
Of the other pagodas’ contents I remember less, but of the waxworks jumble of exhibits two things caught the imagination. One was the genial cynicism with which the French had sent the reigning king when they had taken over the country, a statue of himself… only all they had done was to find a spare statue of Napoleon III, knock the head off and replace it with one of the Cambodian monarch roughly chiselled-up from a portrait. The other thing that impressed me was the extraordinary variety of the king’s regalia of state, which changed in style according to the manner in which he showed himself. Thus there was an assortment of crowns, with varying numbers of tiers, for use according to whether his majesty was riding on an elephant, or on horseback, or being carried in a palanquin. To these there had been recently added a new form of ceremonial headgear, to meet the case of the motor car. For such public occasions he wears a bowler hat, decorated with a diamond cockade.
It was soon clear to me that the enthusiastic Monsieur Salis of the Bureau of Information, who had arranged this visit, would never rest content until he had obtained for me an audience with the king. And as he seemed to be on the best possible terms with everyone at the palace, a man who liked Cambodians and was equally liked by them, I felt quite certain that he would succeed. However, as nothing definite had been arranged by the time we left the palace, I went off for a walk, hoping to be able to find a booth where they sold theatrical masks, which I had seen from the car on the previous night.