Our second destination in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace. This brings us as close as we will be to the king of Cambodia. Visiting the Royal Palace is really a visit to a walled compound. The royals’ actual residence is off limits for obvious reasons. From the outside, it looks very royal in a Khmer kind of way. The current king is Norodom Sihamoni, 57, who has reigned since 2004. Previous to this, he was a cultural ambassador to UNESCO, classical dance instructor, and oldest son of King Norodom Sihanouk. That last credential may be slightly more important than the other two.
Kings used to be chosen by Brahmans (wise men) who rated king candidates in ten categories. Of course, in many cases it did not hurt the candidate’s chances if his father happened to be the current king. If wise men choosing kings sounds archaic, consider that the US constitution orders pretty much the same procedure. Voters do not vote for president. They vote their instructions to electoral voters, who vote the will of each state. The idea was that electors could use their very sound judgment in choosing the president instead of leaving the decision to John Q. Gullible. We have pretty much gutted the system, so presidential candidates appeal to most of us but not necessarily the best of us.
Frankly, I am surprised that Cambodia still has either a Royal Palace or a king. Start with the fact that the current king’s father, Norodom Sihanouk, abandoned the throne in 1955. It was two years after the French had granted Cambodia its independence. He preferred real political power to the safety of a neutered monarchy. He became prime minister in elections that might not have been free or fair.
Twenty six years later the US was embroiled in the war next-door. Sihanouk figured the US was backing a loser. He agreed to let the Viet Cong set up permanent training camps on the Cambodian side of the border. He allowed Chinese arms to be shipped through Cambodia to the Viet Cong. He was in the ring with heavyweights and doing what he could to keep his country from being knocked out.
Cambodian General Lon Nol preferred the South Vietnamese side of the war. Or maybe he liked the fact that supporting the South Vietnamese meant the US would support him in a coup. When Sihanouk left town, Lon Nol seized control. He would lose it five years later. In the mean time, the exiled Sihanouk worked to get his job back.... READ MORE