A distant incident: Phnom Penh, 1955

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Post Office Square today. Post Office on the left, old Police Commissariat at the far end of the square. La Taverne restaurant was behind the tree facing the Post Office – the building still exists and is occupied by a travel agency and a Seeing Hands massage. The Hotel de La Poste has been demolished and replaced by the neo-colonial data management centre of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the right foreground.

I want you to get a first-hand report of the incident before it gets blown up out of all proportions. Howie, Hap and I had gone to the movie at the American Ambassador’s home. Around ten o’clock we could hear gunfire, explosions and goodness knows what else coming from the direction of the big square in front of the Hotel de la Poste [the Post Office square – the writer and his friends were staying in the hotel].


Hotel de la Poste, 1955 – (No it’s not; my thanks to Steven Boswell, author of the definitive King Norodom’s Head, who points out that this is definitely not the famous hotel, but an unidentified building that may be in the same general area).

We didn’t think much of it at the time – we just thought it was fireworks. However, on arriving back at the hotel we were just in time to see two big armoured cars leaving the square and hundreds of curious people beginning to accumulate. Two of our fellows who had not gone to the show with us were standing in the doorway of the hotel and here’s exactly what happened:


Post Office, 1955 – Police Commissariat on far right

These two follows were sitting in front of the “Taverne” [Phnom Penh’s best restaurant, on Post Office square] at about ten o’clock, when suddenly everyone started running for cover. They didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing until a policeman came up and advised them to please step inside the doorway of the hotel as there was going to be a little war in square any minute. Being quite willing to oblige they retired to the doorway and waited to see what was going to happen.


Police Commissariat today. Slated for redevelopment. There’s a gate on the street on right and it can be entered, but exploration is dangerous.

Well, that was just great!! Shortly after, however, the Chief borrowed some civilian clothes from one of the room boys at the hotel and quietly left via the back door. The whole thing lasted for about an hour, till finally those big armoured cars I mentioned before moved in and put a stop to the nonsense!!! Number of casualties: not one!! The damage was not too bad either, except for some bullet holes in walls and windows of the buildings surrounding the square (the Hotel de la Poste was spared) and a few places where the pavement was chewed up by grenades and mortars.



Ourmisternixon (The author was a 19 year old Canadian filing clerk attached to the ICC, the UN mission charged with overseeing the peace agreement between the French and the communists at the end of the first Indochinese War.)

Additional photos from “A History of Phnom Penh’s Buildings” (Forbes magazine, February 2010 – story by Ron Gluckman, photos by Jerry Redfern).

Charlie Chaplin’s Cambodia

be06542762fc7853bcc61171d255e34cBy 1936 Charlie Chaplin was a very famous man. He was also a controversial one. “Modern Times” was released that year,  and rumours were going round that Charlie was a communist. MT, after all, was about a factory worker who wasn’t very happy with his lot. Charlie wanted a little time out. With his young star Paulette Goddard he set off by boat for a holiday in Hawaii.

But in Honolulu the press were waiting on the dock. Charlie and Paulette hopped on a boat for Japan under false names. From Japan they travelled on to Hong Kong, then Singapore, then Java and Bali, then back to Singapore, from whence they returned to the US. They were away five months. On the way, maybe in Canton, (Guangzhou), or maybe in Singapore, Charlie and Paulette got married – or maybe not at all. Charlie says in his autobiography that they were, but there are doubts, and Paulette was remarkably coy, declining even to admit that the ring she wore meant she was now Mrs Chaplin.

chaplin3You’d never know it from Chaplin’s autobiography, but on their Asian tour he and his new wife visited Angkor. You’d also never know that they were travelling with Pauline’s mother and Charlie’s Japanese passepartout, Frank Yonamori. Charlie’s autobiography is one of the greatest no-tells in publishing history.

In fact Charlie devotes much more space to a very funny encounter with Jean Cocteau on the boat from Singapore to Saigon. Cocteau was a Chaplin fan, but a very intense one, and the language barrier meant they had to discuss art and life through an interpreter. Mr Cocteau – he say – you are a poet – of zer sunshine – and he is a poet of zer – night.

After a single marathon session together he two of them decided  that though they each much admired the other, they’d rather not have to go through that again. They spent the rest of the voyage ducking in and out of doorways and cabins, smiling politely whenever their paths happened to cross.

The party arrived by steamer in Saigon on 12 April. After a little tourism in Cochin they drove to Phnom Penh, checking in at the Hotel Le Royal on the 18th. The same day they visited the Royal Palace and saw the king, and strolled around the “Asiatic Quarter”, the Chinese district around Psar Thmei, which was then being built.


Charlie Chaplin, 1936

They were charmed by the city, and relieved to find it more civilised than they’d been led in Saigon to expect – Charlie had thought he’d be camping out, but the Royal was a superb hotel with perfect service.

Charlie and Paulette were big news, the reporters descended, and Charlie entertained them “with much courtesy and charm”  in the hotel bar (presumably the Elephant Bar). Phnom Penh, he said, was charming, the palaces and pagodas delightful, the Cambodian houses picturesque. He felt he had to question whether French Colonial villas (the ones the Europeans lived in) were perhaps a little suburban and uncomfortable, but the wide boulevards, built over newly-reclaimed canals, were the equal of those in Paris. Asked if he might consider making a movie in Cambodia, he didn’t rule it out, but also didn’t see it happening in the immediate future. He would, however, undertake to publicise Indochina as a tourist destination on his return home.


Next day they continued on to Siem Reap for the purpose of the visit, which was to see Angkor. They were shown around by Victor Goloubew, a wealthy White Russian aristocrat and archaeologist, and returned by road via Phnom Penh to Saigon for the remainder of their Indochina tour.

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Sak Lo

In French Charlie was and is known as “Charlot” (sharlo), and in Khmer this became “Sak-lo”. Charlie, as Sak Lo, remains popular in Cambodia to this day, and slapstick is still the dominant style of Cambodian television comedy. The clowns wear thick greasepaint moustaches and curly black wigs based on the Tramp. The doyen of the sak lo style is Neay Krem, who seems to have created or re-created it in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge had destroyed traditional culture in this as in other areas. Interviewed by Southeast Asia Globe magazine in the middle of 2015 he said:

The influence of Chaplin [in Cambodia] was big in my opinion. Contemporary comedy in Cambodia now just copies from neighbours in Vietnam and Thailand. It has changed. [But] Chaplin is better, in my personal opinion; [his style] is understandable, universal,” says Krem, going on to explain that while Chaplin-esque slapstick remains a core part of his act, he must constantly adapt to the crowd. “The [Cambodian] lower class is more fond of [verbal] comedy that involves some sort of sexual innuendo … the middle class, they like slapstick, action-based comedy, Chaplin style … and the upper class, they need both, the words and the action.

DSC_0179Cocteau was right, Chaplin was a poet of the little man, and in 1952 he was banned from America for his socialist views. Perhaps, when McCarthyism was over, he could have gotten a new visa, but he never tried: “Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America’s insults and moral pomposity…”.

Cambodia, however, is not America, and Krem is a Colonel in a special propaganda bureau answerable to Prime Minister Hun Sen. He criticises the opposition, and praises the establishment. What would Charlie have thought!



Charlie Chaplin, “My Autobiography”.

Kevin Ponniah, Charlie Chaplin Lives On, Southeast Asian Globe magazine, June 26, 2015.

Darryl Collins, Charlie Chaplin in Cambodia, Sarika magazine, vol.1, no.4, October-December 2002.


The last white elephant


King Sihanouk in his Cadillac, white elephants at the palace gates, 1952.

White elephants are only theologically white. To the average eye they look like any other elephant. They get their whiteness from their resemblance to the white elephant which impregnated Maya, the mother of the Buddha, when the Buddha wished to assume human form at the beginning of the present age.

In Theravada Buddhism the possession of white elephant is a mark of divine favour given only to kings, and a sign that a wise and just ruler reigns over the kingdom. In other words, if you’re a king, you just gotta have one.


One of the King of Thailand’s royal white elephants

The King of Thailand has six males and four females, which he keeps in considerable comfort at the Royal Elephant Stable, but segregated, because white elephants are not allowed to breed. The generals who ruled Burma had five and were always looking for more. (They kept them in a compound near Mingaladon airport – I saw them a few years ago but I don’t know if they’re still there). The king of Laos had some, and although the communists starved him to death in a re-education camp there they now keep their own in a special enclosure in Vientiane zoo, where visitors can stroke his trunk to gain gifts of power and strength. So what about Cambodia?

First, you have to know that white elephants are a very delicate subject. Only kings are allowed to own them. When the king of Cambodia was subordinate to the king of Siam, having a white elephant would have been very close to treason. No Cambodian white elephant before King Norodom switched from being a Thai puppet to a French puppet. The French wouldn’t have cared or even understood.


Joachim Schliesinger, in volume 3 of hisElephants in Thailand” (surely the last word on the subject) says that the last time a white elephant was seen in Cambodia was during Jackie Kennedy’s visit in November 1967.  Schliesinger also mentions, and dismisses, a story that Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice-president, presented the doomed Lon Nol with a baby white elephant during a visit to Phnom Penh in 1970. Jon Swain mentions the same story in his River of Time  and seems to accept it (“In the circumstances, it was an absurd gesture“), but it seems to be untrue. Agnew showed no sensitivity to Asian cultures (indeed, his Secret Service bodyguards trained their guns on Cheng Heng, the titular Head of State, when he tried to welcome them to the royal palace), and it seems improbable that he would have had any notion of the significance of elephants in Asian diplomacy. So, take it as read that the last royal Cambodian white elephant disappeared sometime between Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. And now there are none.


Royal (but not necessarily white) elephants outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, date unknown. From the excellent blog called PhnomPenhPlaces (click on the image for the link).

But there is one interesting factoid that deserves a mention, and it might be the origin of the Spiro Agnew story. In 1951 Sihanouk, to show his appreciation of America’s strong stance on decolonisation in general and Cambodia’s bid for freedom from the last vestiges of French rule in particular, presented a white elephant to US President Harry Truman. Ok, so Truman was a Democrat and Sihanouk was sending him a Republican icon, but it’s the thought that counts. The elephant was named Harry, a home was prepared for him at Washington zoo, and all seemed to be going well until …  Harry died in Cape Town and was buried at sea. High hopes laid low. It could have been an augury for the future of Cambodian-American relations.

(P.s.: it seems Harry wasn’t a white elephant at all. The original intention was to send a white, but then some pedant pointed out that a white elephant could only be given to a supreme ruler, which a US president was not, and Harry was downgraded).



Jesus in Phnom Penh



Mike Evans

In late November 1994 an unquiet American came to Cambodia. His name was Mike Evans, and he was out to save souls. The crowd that turned out at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium  was estimated at 180,000, and although I have doubts about that figure given that the capacity of the stadium is only 50,000, it was certainly a lot of people. Pre-crusade publicity had promised that the blind would see and the lame would walk, and so they sold their animals and land and took out loans with local money-lenders and came to Phnom Penh.

Things started going wrong on day 1. 30,000 people turned up, and Evans’ security was swamped by the crowd. The event seemed on the verge of turning from rally to riot. “We have a problem here… we will get this sorted out for tomorrow night… I want you to pray now…” The Phnom Penh Post takes up the story:

Finally realizing that things were getting out of control Evans – a big man – gave up his microphone and took off. He hurried down the platform steps and along a small alleyway between the back of the stage and a fence in front of the main stand, shouldering local people out of the way.

Attempts to interview Evans at this time were difficult. He responded to calls of “Mike, Mike” by looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide and clearly panicked, sweating and ashen-faced, answering “what, what?”, before darting through a gate to a late model van.

“Greg, Greg… where are the keys,” he yelled repeatedly , but ‘Greg’ either did not have them or was possibly still on the stage, which was now being overrun.

Evans, caught in “no-mans land” in the open – and still far too close to the main crowd for his comfort – was quickly surrounded by Khmers and, though standing perhaps half a meter or more taller, was jostled and pressed.

A Khmer evangelist grabbed Evans and said “this way.”

Evans, dressed in a fine dark suit and tie, ran as fast as his loping, straight-armed gait would take him. At least two Khmers fell as the Western faith-healer fled.

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Mike Evans in Phnom Penh

The second night saw tighter security. It went ok. But on the third night it all came unstuck. The crowd, finally realising that no miracles would be forthcoming, turned angry. A van was stoned, police cleared the stadium, 30 people were arrested carrying handguns and grenades, and Evans and his team retreated to the Sofitel. The Post again:

At the hotel, shaken workers were still trembling and dumbfounded, looking for answers and composure. The Post visited Evans’ room but he refused interviews.

His cohorts were pleasant but firm in their assurances that they would talk to the press after a meeting with Evans, but Evans was too worked up.

He emerged at the door, shouting at a security guard that the press should be removed. He appeared agitated.”This man lied to you. He is not with us.Take him away,” he yelled.

Greg Mauso [other sources give his name as Mauro, but the Post has this spelling throughout], part of Evans’ crusade tour, said: “Relax Mike, I’ll deal with this” and eased Evans away from the door . Mauso promised an interview but later in the lobby he had more pressing meetings with shaken volunteers who had been followed to the hotel by a 200-strong mob driving motos. Troops had to keep them at bay.

Evans exited by the back door and was hurried out to the airport to catch a flight to Bangkok. Local Christian leaders, who had begged him not to come in the first place, later judged that he had set back the cause of Christian missions in Cambodia by 20 years.