Cool breezes play off the mighty Tonle Sap River as it flows lazily past the front of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace. This magnificent compound, at once charming and grand, serves as the royal abode of Cambodia’s onarch. His Royal Majesty Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk, his wife, Queen Monineath, and their court.
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace
The Palace, set in the heart of the city, also epitomizes both the quaint charm and old-world grandeur of the Cambodian capital.
Painted in the royal yellow traditionally reserved for the King and his family, and with a giant royal portrait towering over the main gates on Sotheros Boulevard, the palace is one of the capital’s great landmarks.
The original palace was built of timber in 1866 by King Norodom on the site of the former Banteay Kev. It was officially opened 14 February 1870 and, in 1919, the timber was replaced with the current cement and stone building.
The spacious Chan Chhaya Pavillion once hosted spectacular displays of Khmer traditional dance, the dancers resplendent in bejewelled headdresses and silks embroidered with gold and silver, their feet bare as they performed the intricate movements of this ancient art.
Each hand movement, each nod of the head or turn of a foot communicates as powerfully as spoken words. Indeed, except for a period when the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Pneh, emptying the city and abolishing fine arts along with so many other aspects of the culture, the Royal Palace was long the seat of this language of dance.
The palace itself has survived all vicissitudes in good form, and any damage inflicted on it during those harsh years, when the King himself became its prisoner, has been repaired.
The Chan Chhaya is no longer open to the public now that it once again serves as the Royal Residence. But the beautifully manicured gardens and topiary of the palace grounds can be glimpsed from the Silver Pagoda, which adjoins the palace and is certainly one of the great triumphs of Khmer aesthetics.
The Silver Pogoda
The Silver Pogoda is so called because one entire floor is paved with 5,000 tilesof silver, each weighing 1.1 kilos.
That alone makes this holy place a priceless dedication to religious art. The structure is also known as Wat Preah Keo Morakot, or the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, after another of its treasures- a superbly crafted status of the Buddha, said to be made of Beccarat crystal, housed inside the main pogoda.
But most visitors begin to marvel even before they enter Wat Preah Keo Morakot. Around the outside of the Pagoda, the oldest part of the palace, frescos depicting scenes of the Reamker (the Khmer version of the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana or, as it’s known in Thailand, the Remakien) have been renderedin exquisite hetail, the colours revived in recent times by a painstaking restoration programme. The original painting was completed some where around 1900. Start your tour of the story just south of the eastern gate, and follow the epic tale as it circles the pagoda walls.
As they climb the Italian marble staircase, visitors encounter,sitting high on dais and secure on its gilded pedestal, the tiny but superb 17th century “Emerald Buddha” that gives the Pagoda its alternative name.
In front of the Emerald Buddha sits a solid gold, life-sized Buddha image crafted in the palace workshops around 1906. Weighing about 90 kilos and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds, the largest of which said to be 25 carats, this golden Buddha was created to the exact proportions stipulated by King Norodom himself.
To the right sits a silver Buddha and, to its left, sits an 80 kilos bronze Buddha. both are also magnificnt examples of fine religious design and workmanship. One more important exhibit is a Buddha relic, its tiny silver and goldstupa protected by a case. It was brought from Sri Lanka, although it remains unclear what year it arrived in Cambodia.
A group of golden images to the right of the breathtaking main display tell the story of the Buddha, and a marble rendering of the Buddha in standing position from Myanmar stands behind the main dias. At the very back two more golden Buddhas, both encrusted with large diamonds, stand in their own cases. The upper figure weighs 1.5 kilos; the other weighs 4.5 kilos. The King’s coronation litter, designed to be carried by 12 men and incorporating more than 20 kilos of gold parts, is also kept in the this main area of the Silver Pagoda.
The interior walls of the Pogoda are lined with dozens of vabinets, each of them groaning under the weight of fascianting classic Cambodia objects, gifts from various ignitaries and foreign royalty to King Norodom and successive Khmer kings. This collection contains scores more Buddha images, crafted in various mediums, as well as such unique items of cultural significance as the bejewelled masks and accoutrements of traditional Khmer dance.
What is perhaps most amazing about this array of treasures is simply the fact that it survives. The Khmer Rouge destroyed and looted more than half of the pre-1975 royal collection, keeping enough to give more than just a taste of the rich history of Khmer culture, hoping to convince foreign goverments that is was interested in preserving rather than cimating, Cambodian culture.
For this reason, the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda are especially vital contributions to the Cambodia heritage. They represent immeasurable valur to the Cambodian people- assets far beyond any mere financial worth.
The palace compound includes many other spledid areas- for instance Wat Phnom Mondap, believed to contain the Buddha’s footprint- many of them inaccessible to the public. Another notable feature is the open-air pavillion. Here the King- renowned for his love of film and sometimes called the Father of Cambodia Cinema- screened his many films, most of them produced in the 1960s.
The Throne Hall, meanwhile, may be admired from outside the compound. Its soaring tower (said to be 59m tall) takes its inspiration from the Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom. This once served as the coronation hall for kings and the center where foreign dignitairs came to pay homage to Cambodia’s kings.
Note opening hours and the price
Open to the public from 8am-11am and 2pm-5pm daily, the Royal Palace is an experience not to be missed, Join the throngs of locals coming to relive their history and enjoy the tranquillity of this majestic building.
Admission price is US$ 2 for foreigners, with an additional US$2 charge for camera and US$5 for bringing in a video camera. Photography is not permitted inside the Silver Pagoda, but post cards and other souvenirs are availble.