The King of Cambodia and me
Excerpt from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad to mark the death of the Cambodian king - King Norodom Sihanouk
“The King and I
Leaving Seam Reap by bus I have to buy a ticket to Phnom Penh despite plans to only go halfway – just another inexplicable rule that travelling identifies.
The army is repairing patches of the road; rice is being planted and at a toilet-stop a young man has a T-shirt proclaiming Stop trafficking in women and children and a shop beside the bus stop has a poster that declares ‘Corruption breeds poverty.’
In the little non-tourist town of Kompong Thom I get off and find a room – it’s a relief to be away from the nagging stallholders of Seam Reap. I stay three days, visiting a drum making family and exploring the area: drums of many sizes play a big part in ceremonies and are used to summon energy from the four corners of the globe. I also explain to a stallholder, who is positive I’m rich, it’s impossible for me to take her 10-year-old daughter to New Zealand. While I’m walking along the river bank children keep calling me. ‘Hello-what’s-your-name’: when I answer them, they respond with the same one word phrase – they don’t know what it means – just something they hear foreigners say.
Continuing to Phnom Penh on a local mini-bus, none of my fellow-passengers speaks English. A young woman prepares her fix of a mouth-numbing, ear-warming narcotic. She spreads limestone ash on a betel leaf, puts the small fruit from the areca palm into the centre of the, now white, leaf and folds it into a little parcel which she pops into her mouth. As she chews she smiles at me: her rotten teeth and scarlet lips show this isn’t the first time she’s done this. Luckily she’s sitting by the window as blood-red gobs of saliva fly from her mouth onto the road in a regular stream. I wish I’d photographed her and the huge barbequed spiders I’m offered when we stop to drop off a couple of passengers.
My bed is in a low, wooden, building perched on the edge of a lake, hanging over the water and while I’m eating, fishermen are setting their nets and clumps of water-plants float by. As I photograph the setting sun, a group of young men beside me are planning a trip to an old army camp where they will use machine guns and hand grenades – the artillery menu sounds obscene.
Tomorrow I am heading towards Laos on the Mekong River but today I’m off to the Royal Palace and the much-acclaimed Silver Pagoda. It will be good to get out of this backpacker-ghetto where it seems everyone is smoking dope and travelling in pairs, groups or are living here – eking out a living teaching English with false qualifications bought on Khao San Road in Bangkok. It makes me angry to hear people who speak basic, heavily accented English, teaching it.
Phnom Penh has had its streets cleaned so everything’s at its best: even the sky is a clear bright blue and, controversially, beggars and other street people have been sent out of town: presenting a good face for last weeks ASEAN Conference. Now President Thabo Mbeki from South Africa and Kim Suk Soo the Prime Minister of Korea are visiting.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda overlook the river and are surrounded by a high, pale gold and white fence – from outside all I can see are the vividly coloured multi-tiered roofs that are finished with wonderful naga, (snakes) spires and tinkling bells.
The pagoda is about 40 years old, each silver floor tile weighs a kilogram and contrasting with all the silver, an emerald Buddha sits among the numerous gold Buddha of different sizes. When I leave I’ve spent most of my time relaxing in the peaceful grounds, writing postcards, content with my own company and I’m one of the last to leave.
Outside the walls, huge numbers of school children in navy and white uniforms have appeared – some are carrying small, paper, Cambodian flags, others have the Republic of South Africa flag so I sit on the grass, watch and wait. I photograph army and navy men as well as a man sweeping the long red carpet with a small reed switch. An hour later I move closer to the podium.
‘Can I stand here?’ I ask one of the AK-47-wielding policemen. He looks at me blankly. ‘C’est possible pour moi . . . ‘I run out of French, ‘. . . stand here?’ I point to the ground. ‘Oui madam, c’est possible. Non problem.’ I sit but five minutes later I am being hustled further away – it seems my prime spot is no longer possible.
A man with a huge bunch of helium-filled balloons hands them to groups of girls; another arrives with more flags and I’m given a Cambodian one so apparently I’m now an official member of the welcoming party. Tanks, troops and the air force are lining up along the back of the dais; the road and footpath have been sealed off.
We’re waiting patiently. Gunshots explode – we all gasp – but quickly realise it’s merely a bouquet of balloons colliding with a prickly bush and the girl culprits giggle from behind their hands. At last a long shiny car comes through the palace gates. It drives slowly around the grassy park-like area and pulls up near the stage. Two people emerge. I assume they’re the president, Mr Hun Sen and his wife: they mount the stage and he makes a speech – I have no idea what it’s about. Minutes later they walk down the stairs to inspect the guard of honour and I try to photograph them under the ceremonial, gold parasols that are being held above them.
At the end of the phalanx of uniformed men the official group turns and walks back towards the dais. In front of me, local people sompeyer (lowering themselves to their knees with their hands in a prayer-like position) the man who had made the speech. Unexpectedly he reaches over them and shakes my hand. I mutter something inane like good afternoon or thank you and when he lets go I too acknowledge him with my hands in the respectful wai position, amazed I have just shaken hands with the president of a foreign country.
Soon President Mbeki arrives, a tall, dignified looking and handsome man. He too makes a speech and inspects the guard of honour before walking down the narrow red carpet, through Victory gate and into the palace grounds. He doesn’t shake my hand. We all leave and as I pass the guards who are still blocking the traffic and people from entering the area I give my paper flag to a little boy who greets me.
Over coffee I tell the waiter what had happened. ‘I wouldn’t shake hands with him,’ he says, ‘he has blood on his hands.’ Somewhat deflated about my moment with important people, I go back to the guesthouse to wash my clothes.
Again, I try to impress others about my brush with the local hierarchy. ‘I shook hands with him this afternoon,’ I tell a group, pointing to a poster of the couple. They are amazed. ‘You what? How the hell did you meet the King?’
‘That’s Hun Sen isn’t it?’ I query.
‘No way! It’s the King!’
‘Yes it is. You must have seen his photos everywhere – that’s King Norodom Sihanouk.’ Now I’m really impressed – I shook hands with the King of Cambodia.
In the morning I have to bang on a few doors to find someone to let me out of the building – I’m grateful of their security but I’m glad it’s not a fire I’m escaping from. A dishevelled, sleepy young woman finally unlocks the huge padlock, releases the heavy chain and lets me out and by six I’m on a long, narrow boat – its bow pointing up the river – a mattress, crates of fowls and a motor scooter are tied on the roof. I sit on the bow ready for the trip to Kratie.