Saturday, October 3, 2009

A morning at the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh opens early which is just as well as there isn't much shade once you pay your 6USD entry fee and walk through the turnstile. The complex, Preah Barom Reachea Vaeng Chaktomuk in Khmer, was constructed nearly a century and a half ago as the residence of the King and his family and as a venue for the ritual symbolism of Cambodia- functions it still serves today. The Royal complex and grounds, surrounded by thick protective walls, consist of several buildings many of which have been replaced and expanded since its original installation opposite a busy riverfront park.

Not much other than distinctive golden Cambodian rooftop silhouettes and the fading painted ceiling of the Chanchhaya Pavillion hint at what lies behind the wall. Inside the noise, dirt and poverty of Cambodia's capital fades and Royal buildings sit like pretty pieces on an orderly chess board surrounded by wide swept paths and clipped, green hedges.

The Palace compound is divided into three main areas separated by more thick walls. The central space is dominated size wise by the Throne Hall but it is another much smaller building that immediately grabs your attention. Most of the buildings of the Royal Palace have distinctive traditional Khmer architectural features. One, however, stands out. A delicate silver dollhouse in a room full of boys toys. Its plaque says, in French, that it was a gift from Napoleon III in 1876 to the then King Norodom.

Originally created for Empress Eugenie to live in during the construction of the Suez Canal the prefabricated pressed iron building was later presented to Norodom and according to smug French Officials of the time it became the Kings favourite residence. They were equally self congratulatory that the doors and windows, which had already been etched with an 'N' for Napoleon, would not have to be replaced for 'N'-orodom.

Today it is rusting quietly in the humidity, it's visable ceilings peeling and cracking and is mostly closed although the guide book says it is used as an art gallery and houses a collection of oil paintings and family photos, some of the Royal wardrobe, a chart of the Royal Family tree, The Preah Moha Mokot Reach (The Great Crown of Victory), The Preah Khan Reach (The Sacred Sword), The Preah Lompeng Chey (The Victory Spear), The Kriss (The Dagger), The Preah Soporbatea (The Slippers) and The Veal Vichani (The Fan)!

Beside Napoleon's elaborate present is the Throne Hall, Preah Thineang Dheva Vinnichay in Khmer, which means 'The sacred seat of judgement'.

It is a huge cross shaped building crowned with three spires the tallest of which is topped with the four faced head of Brahma, the Hindu g-d of creation which you can see reflected in the windows of the Napoleon Pavillion in the first photo of this post. It gives the building an even more storybook like appearance that together with its already whimsical traditional Khmer features make you feel as if you've walked into the pages of a fairytale.

Here is a closer view.

The Royal Throne Hall is still used today, as it always was, for royal and religious ceremonies and as a meeting place for distinguished guests. Inside there is, as one would assume from it's title, a throne (actually two thrones) and a series of busts of past Kings of Cambodia.

On the wall, visible from the road outside, is the statuesque open air Chanchhaya Pavilion, also dreamily known as the 'Moonlight Pavilion', which serves as a venue for rare performances by the Royal dancers and as a platform for the King to address the crowds and watch the races on the river during Water Festival. In typical Cambodian style its ornately decorated ceilings are now faded and peeling, left largely to the elements.

The smaller Pho Chan pavillion has suffered a similar fate.

Two smaller buildings sit either side of the Throne Hall. One was open and had air conditioning, the only building on the compound to be artificially cooled, a welcome respite from the direct morning sun. Inside, in dusty glass cases, is an eclectic collection of Royal curios and Royal outfits.

On the the south-west of the Royal compound the Khemarin Palace, where the current King Shihamoni resides, is off limits to general riffraff and so instead it was through the poetically artistic gates to the Silver Pagoda...

...which isn't Silver at all on the outside but gets it's name from the 5 329 silver tiles, that line the pagoda's floor, protected by carpets. It's proper name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha,' after the central Green Crystal Buddha perched on a high gilded pedestal with a 90kg life size solid gold Buddha inlaid with 2086 diamonds, including a 25 carat monstrosity. But you are just going to have to take my word for it as, like the Throne Hall, there are no photos allowed inside.

The Silver Pagoda was built, in 1892, as a place inside palace grounds, where royalty could listen to sermons on Ubosoth- the 8 precepts of Buddha; no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying or slander, eating must be done at the prescribed times, 'worldly gifts' are to be avoided and the use of ointments is prohibted.

Cambodian Buddhism has changed markedly since then!

The pagoda compound, as a whole, contains several buildings surrounded by a mostly potted garden arranged on very hot reflective concrete. The other structures include a library, concrete moulded stupas or chedi, shrines, a bell tower and the galleries of the Reamker.

M and I walked around the muraled wall in the shade with the added protection of our shared umbrella.

The 604 metre fresco painted by a team of forty artists between 1903 and 1904 and is modelled on the Thai Ramakien murals of their Royal Palace and tell the story of the Reamker the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.

One of the shrines was open and further inspection revealed a rather happy, beautifully silk attired Khmer lady was having her fortune told.

She lit some incense, poked it into the mass of spent sticks in a pot outside and knelt in front of a large mostly silver effigy of Shiva's mount Nandi. The fortune teller handed her a sandlewood book which she held above her head and with eyes squeezed shut poked it's attached peg into the thin engraved pages.

The augur read the resulting fortune and she smiled broadly. By the third reading she was giggling and nodding vigorously.

The four stupas on the grounds are memorials to various Kings and Queens two contain Royal ashes.

It was getting hotter by the minute so we called it a day and retired a block or two down at the road at Cafe 33 for a round of Pink Cows and ice laden lime in tall cool glasses.


Natalie said...

What a fantastic place, and for $6 USD. Absolutely facinating. Only one question, for which I apologise, with all the grandeur you described, and I Googled it to death before asking: what IS a pink cow (drink, I assume)? Is that the brand or something else? I'm intreagued!

Tanya said...

It's a drink- a smoothie with strawberries (since this is Cambodia I presume of the whole frozen variety) banana, crushed ice and ice cream and the kids just loved it especially Hayley who is pink mad :)It's a cafe 33 speciality.