King Norodom’s Capital 4

Thereafter there was some similarity between my experiences and those of the French explorer Mouhot – or at least the first part of his experiences – when he interviewed the king of Cambodia in 1859. Mouhot had just arrived in the capital and his luggage had not caught up with him. However, weary and travel-stained as he was, the king sent for him. To quote his account, ‘I objected that I could not visit him in my travelling dress. “Oh, that is nothing, the king has no dress at all, and he will be delighted to see you,” was the reply.’ When after an hour or so’s chase round Phnom Penh, Monsieur Salis finally found me, with the news that the interview had been arranged, these were practically the words he used. The temperature was at least a hundred in the shade, and I was wearing shorts and covered in grime and perspiration, but it was nothing, Salis said. The people at the palace were all ‘des braves gens’, and they expected a traveller to look like one. We would go up there right away.
In Mouhot’s account, the ancestor of the present king is shown rather in the light of one of these comical stock-figures of an African paramount chief. ‘“Good brandy,” said the king in English (the only words he knew of that language)’ and, ‘His majesty then displayed to me his European furniture, mahogany tables covered with china vases and other orna¬ments of a commonplace description; above all, he pointed out, as worthy of notice, two old looking-glasses in gilt frames, a sofa and various similar articles. “I am but beginning,” said he; “in a few years my palace will be beautiful.” ’
The present king appeared to me to be of a quite different calibre.
Salis led the way up the steps to the ante-room of the audience chamber and introduced me to the members of the royal staff. We had hardly shaken hands before the king skipped into view through an open doorway on the right. He was wearing the smile that one saw in the photographs, and it was considerably less complaisant than that of any of the Buddhas in the Silver Pagoda. The king shook hands vigorously and we went into the audience chamber together and sat down on a settee.
King Norodom of Cambodia is spiritual and temporal head of his people, the ultimate possessor of all Cambodian land – which, however, he bestows freely upon the petition of those who wish to cultivate it – and the inheritor of all who die intestate. He is the only person in the kingdom entitled to a six-tiered parasol and being semi-divine, and above the law, his privileges include the right to contract incestuous marriage with an aunt or a half-sister. In return for his prerogatives he performs the many ancient ceremonials in use since the days of Angkor, such as the ablutions of the Brahmanical idols, which assure the well-being and prosperity of the people. Being without debts, free of crime or bodily blemish, he was permitted to serve the customary year as a mendicant novice in a Buddhist monastery. My only previous interviews with royal personages had been with Arab princes, and the King of Cambodia in his informality was like somebody whose acquaintance one had just made in a bar, by comparison. The personal splendour of the past had been reduced to mere sartorial impeccability, in the form of a well-cut grey flannel suit.
Norodom, who is a man of thirty and looks twenty-one, is said by some of the French to be the most intelligent Cambodian. It was, in fact, quite astonishing how easily he brushed aside all the polite generalities accepted on such occasions, to embark without further ado on a compe¬tent half-hour’s lecture on Cambodian politics. It was much the same story as Yem Sambaur’s, but couched in less forthright terms. Sambaur’s bloody massacres became ‘incidents of violence’. It was difficult to associate the king’s gentle manner with harsh, uncompromising words like murder. The king’s thesis, to which he returned continually, was that the French continually lagged behind the times. ‘Ils ne marchent pas a la tete des evenements; ils se laissent depasser par les temps.’ As King of Cambodia and a Buddhist gentleman he would engage his word that French commercial interests would remain untouched if only they would get out – just as the English had done in India. France had failed in its engagements as the protecting power when the Japanese had been allowed, without resistance, to overrun the country. The old treaties were therefore invalid, and in future Cambodia would prefer to protect herself. France, said the king, could not boast of having brought civilisa¬tion to Cambodia. The phrase Toeuvre civilisatrice de la France’ was an insult to their ancient culture, especially when the Cambodian countryfolk who made up nine-tenths of the population could only judge this civilising task by what they saw of the Foreign Legion.
When it was clear that the interview had run its normal and reasonable course, there was an awkward moment. The conversation lagged and the king’s smile became a little fixed. The time had come to withdraw and I waited for the king to indicate, by rising, that the interview was at an end. But it was becoming evident that innate politeness was too strong for the conventions of royal deportment. Forming the conclusion that if I did not make the first move we should both be condemned to sit there indefi¬nitely, exchanging painful smiles and trying to think of something to say, I got up. I am sure that His Majesty was grateful.

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