Outlaw Religion and Money, But Let's Keep the Solid Gold Buddha Statues
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.
He broadcast radio messages encouraging loyal Cambodians to oppose Lon Nol by joining forces with Sihanouk’s newfound ally, Pol Pot. Sihanouk also visited the Khmer Rouge in the field. The Khmer Rouge ranks grew from about 5,000 to 50,000. Sihanouk had calculated that he and Pol Pot’s only common ground was that they both wanted Lon Nol out. He did not adequately consider that they both also wanted to rule the country. In 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces rolled into Phnom Penh and emptied it of the living in less than a week. Pol Pot held the power. He let Sihanouk hold a title only.
It was the beginning of Year Zero, a new start for a new country of simple peasants working the land, utterly equal in the eyes of the educated middle-class men who ran the show, who did no manual labor and who skipped the privation aspect of their gruesome regime. Photos show them to be well fed while their country starved. Anyone with an education was tortured and killed or worked to death.
These communist puritans were so dedicated to the end of class distinctions that they blew up banks, burned down schools and banned money. But they left the Royal Palace pretty much intact. When foreign dignitaries visited, it was useful to tour them around the palace grounds as evidence that these new bosses were not as barbaric as you might think if you heard bits and pieces of the truth leaking out of the countryside. But with no journalists allowed in the country, not much information got out.
Not only did they preserve the royal palace, but they kept Norodom Sihanouk alive and made him part of the government, at least nominally. Maybe it was payback for his spectacular success in recruiting for the Khmer Rouge. Some had joined out of loyalty to the king, not to Pol Pot. Still, it is hard to imagine a person who more completely represented the very things the Khmer Rouge professed to despise. He had sat on the throne. He had fought and bought his way to the prime minister’s office. He had oppressed the Cambodian leftists in the ‘60s, even while forging alliances with China and North Vietnam. He had been married to multiple wives (at the same time. It’s good to be the King). Politics makes extremely strange bedfellows.
For reasons beyond logic, the Khmer Rouge attacked Vietnam in 1978. It was a mistake. Once the Vietnamese assembled the personnel and equipment necessary, it took them almost no time to march into Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge fled, many of them to the Thai border. The Vietnamese kept the peace in Cambodia for ten years, despite opposition from both the Khmer Rouge, Norodom Sihanouk (who opposed any national authority that did not include him) and the United States (which still insisted that the Khmer Rouge was the legitimate government). In 1993 Sihanouk got his old job back. Not prime minister – king. He voluntarily abdicated in 2004, leaving the throne to his son who resides in the palace we are not entering today.
The long building flanking the royal residence to the south is the Throne Hall. The king only sits on the main throne for his coronation. From then on, he sits in less commanding chairs. The Throne Hall is symmetrical, decked out in gold and red, decorated in thoroughly Khmer motifs and stiflingly formal. On rare occasions it is the place to see and be seen, but most of the time it is a tourist curiosity.
The next building to the south is the real deal – the Jade Pagoda. At least that’s what Cambodians call it. Westerners call it the Silver Pagoda because it is entirely paved with slabs of silver two inches thick. The Silver Pagoda is also loaded with gold in all forms: carved, beaten, extruded, pressed, perfectly worked and polished. There is an abundance of Buddhas. Did I mention that most of them are made of gold?
Among the diamonds gracing one statue is a 25 karat specimen. The only thing separating me from it is a velvet rope, decent upbringing and the fact that it is countersunk into a metal that is not quite malleable enough for me to free the gem with a quick twist of a pocket knife (which I don’t have with me anyway).
The only thing separating my boys from truly appreciating the jewel is some modern perspective. I explained that when multi-millionaire Kobe Bryant needed to get out of the marital doghouse, he bought his wife a ridiculously huge diamond ring. The one in the statue in front of us is five times bigger. Now the boys are paying attention.
Again you may wonder why the Khmer Rouge banned money, privilege and religion, but left alone these idols to all three. Maybe it was part of the ruse to show foreigners that gold was not important to the new regime, and that they had more important things to do with their time than melt down hollow symbols of the old world. I could understand that. Destroying all the vestiges of religion and capitalism would not stop with the Silver Pagoda. It would drain resources from the rice fields, where arbeit macht frei.
Also, if they were wholly rejecting capitalism in favor of honest work and equality, how odd would it be to buy their way into the proletariat paradise with funds left over by the old guard? It could be an admission that the old guard did something useful and possibly even right.
On some level the Khmer Rouge had to be painfully aware that money wouldn’t go away quietly, and that it might not even be the real problem to begin with. They worked their countrymen to death in part because they needed bumper crops of rice. It was not to feed their countrymen - that would have been easy. They needed ever more rice to sell or trade for weapons. Currency might have been erased, but in the end it is just shorthand for other things, like weapons to defend against enemies who might pollute their new, pure culture with things like money.
Or it could be that the Khmer Rouge were as impressed as everyone else is at the art, the tradition and the mind-blowing wealth contained in the building and just decided to let it be.
We don’t know, but it is possible that some of the money for weapons did come from the Jade/Silver Pagoda. Although there are tons of gold and enough diamonds to make a Sybarite blush, there used to be more. We were told by our guide that what we saw was only 40% of what had been there prior to the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know how they fit it all in the same building.
After the boys and I finished the tour, we sat with sodas and talked about what we had seen. It was grand and impressive, but we had all noticed one missing element: security. We had stood before ancient treasures representing the finest workmanship and piety possible and we had all thought “You know, it wouldn’t take too many guys with Uzis to make off with a bunch of this stuff.”
If the goods are well guarded, the guarding is well hidden. The only guards we saw with guns were outside the compound walls. They were not terribly imposing.
The boys and I agreed it would be a really bad idea to knock over the Cambodian Fort Knox, and that we were terrible foreigners for even thinking about it. We noted that just the name “Jade Pagoda” implied that Cambodians have values that are indeed foreign to us. We never even considered stealing the jade.
We finished our sodas and let our sweat dry in the shade of a bo tree, the species that Siddhartha Gautama was reposing under when he reached enlightenment and became the Buddha. Bo trees are very tall. They have odd, beautiful flowers that bloomed twenty to fifty feet above us. Those blooms give way to a dangerous fruit.
It is not poisonous (that I know of), but it is compact and dense looking. It is chocolate brown and looks for all the world like a perfectly round coconut. The tree is also known as a cannon-ball tree. I wondered what the relationship might be between that pendant mass, that hard looking potential energy and feelings of euphoric enlightenment. I have never heard Buddha’s enlightenment compared to Newton’s. I don’t know why not.
We left the palace compound for the short walk back to the hotel. On the way we met many friendly locals and told all of them that we did not need a tuk tuk.
Note to readers: I enjoy writing about our wonderful trip, but I don't know if anyone out there enjoys these stories or wants more. I will be grateful for any comments you care to post. Many thanks -
Published on 12/27/10