Old Cambodia

Feeling nostalgic – and indeed the past is always better than the present. I regret that WordPress won’t allow me to add my sources. If WordPress keeps this up I’m abandoning this blog.


Women, undated. Women wore their hair cropped. These might, just might, be women from the royal harem, although the figure on far right looks very boyish. In the earliest days of Phnom Penh the king kept the royal women in a special section of the palace. They included wives, daughters, and sons who had not reached puberty, and they were never allowed out of their quarter.


Indochine-Postcard-Buddhist.gifA monk. From the chair, a very senior monk – you don’t get to sit in one of those unless you’re Somebody. It’s a chair for preaching from, the Buddhist equivalent of a pulpit. The fan on the right is both a symbol of his rank and something with which he could hide his face if any women were present – monks were not, and are not today, supposed even to look at women. They do, of course. I saw some lovely thrones like this in Burma, for sale in the antique shops on the approaches to Shwedagon Pagoda – but that was many decades ago, and I doubt you’d find one outside a museum or an expensive private collection today.





Pagoda school, 1930 to 1950. Pagoda schools still exist of course. It would nice to make a photographic study of them.


Belle Indochinoise

“Indochinese beauty” it says. Myself when young did eagerly frequent my father’s back-copies of the National Geographic, and I’m sure the same the same noble anthropological impulse is at work here. I think she’s Vietnamese from the hairstyle. I’m also pretty sure that this was not the normal day-to-day style of dress.

Elsewhere I’ve read that Cambodian girls were extremely modest, Vietnamese ones far less so. Colonial Frenchmen seem to have prefered Vietnam to Cambodia, and Laos to either.


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Cambodian houses, Phnom Penh. Undated.

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Catholic church, Phnom Penh, undated. Was this the former cathedral? Don’t think so, too small.

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The son and heir of King Sisowath, who reigned 1904-1927. The legend  says:

Although small in stature, he stands second only to his kingly father, Sisowath, in importance. The impressive gold and jewelled ornaments with which this royal personage is heavily laden must severely embarrass his movement, but the prescribed princely dignity will not allow of the smallest diminution of court etiquette. The heir apparent is usually nominated by the king, or elected by the five chief mandarins of the Court.



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Kampot, 1886.

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Two views of Independence Monument and its park and fountain, undated. The naga fountain looks new if you see it today, but it’s actually been there many decades.

Barefoot Diplomats


Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

January 1979. The Vietnamese are closing in on Phnom Penh. A messenger from the Khmer Rouge leadership arrives at the Chinese embassy: the KR army has collapsed, there’s nothing between the Vietnamese and the capital. Prepare to evacuate within four hours. Papers are burnt, food prepared, and at midnight a convoy of diplomats, not only Chinese but the Yugoslavs, Burmese and others (in truth not that many) leaves the city headed for Battambang. Once there a new message from the KR government: the threat has been overstated, please return to Phnom Penh. Most of the embassies decline the invitation, but recognising that his duty is to represent Beijing to his hosts, the ambassador and his staff return to PP  immediately. The date is January 4.

The situation in Phnom Penh continues to worsen. Artillery can be heard in the distance and Vietnamese reconnaissance aircraft are overhead. On January 6 a Chinese Boeing 707 arrives. There are 180 people at the airport pleading for seats, among them Prince Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and some two dozen members of the royal household. The aircraft can safely carry only 150.

Now read on.

That’s just the first five pages of this document, The Collapse of the Pol Pot Regime, January-April 1979. It’s the story of the Chinese embassy as they retreated with the KR into the Cardamom Mountains in the face of PARVN (Peoples Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and was written, I gather, as part of an internal history of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The  Chinese tried to stay with Pol Pot and keep on being an embassy, but in April they crossed the border into Thailand. It’s an extraordinary story – you’ve heard of barefoot doctors, but here’s barefoot diplomats.

Nice blogspot here with photos of Phnom Penh when it fell to the PARVN – this is what the Chinese would have seen as they left the city. The photos used here are from another blog, Travis J Thompson’s Ten Pics a Day – unfortunately I don’t know who took the actual pics, especially that one at the top.

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979


The Story of Angkor

angkorSilkworm Books has recently (September) published The Story of Angkor. It must define the idea of a “slim volume” – just 134 pages.The author, James DiBiasio, blogs here: he has some quite fascinating entries on books both fiction and non-fiction.

Intended as an approachable, entry-level history of ancient Angkor for tourists, Story of Angkor presents the revolution in scholarly understanding of ancient Cambodia that’s taken place over the last decade or so. No visitor to Angkor, and no one interested in Cambodia, can afford not to read it.

Here are some excerpts from an article he was invited to write for New Mandala recently (full article here). He notes that the paradigmatic understanding of the subject was laid out by the great George Coedès in the first half of the 20th century:

“Coedès … argued that Southeast Asia represented a ‘Farther India’, a land of gold that was conquered and colonized by waves of Indians from around 200 BC through 400 AD. His work also gave us the basic timeline of the kings and therefore the monuments. He helped lay out a narrative of a pre-Angkor Cambodia trapped in a dark ages. He and other scholars documented wars between the Khmers and the Chams that defined the rise of Angkor’s first Buddhist king. The shadow of Coedès stretches so long because the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese invasion and destructive poverty have kept international scholarship at bay. Only in the 1990s did meaningful work on Angkor resume.”

Coedès research remains relevant, but “his conclusions seem fanciful. … Most scholars today argue against the idea of Indian colonizers … others suggest that Indian ideas came from Malays and other travellers visiting India and Sri Lanka, rather than from Indians actually settling in Southeast Asia.”

On Angkor, Coedès “believed an early Khmer-speaking civilization grew up around southern Vietnam, based on a port called Oc Eo and a nearby city called Angkor Borei. This fell into disunion and chaos, and was assaulted by enemy invaders, perhaps from Champa or Java.” This is what we read in every guide book and history of Cambodia, but  there’s no evidence to back it up. “The evidence is going the other way, actually: the epicentre of Funan may have not even been where Coedès believed, [but] further west in the Menam Basin.” I don’t think my Cambodian friends are going to like that idea – though perhaps they’ll see it as yet further evidence that the wicked Thais are a bunch of brigands.

My friends will like this: “This year, scholars announced the discovery of a city, Mahendraparvata, on Mount Kulen, some 50 kilometers distant from Angkor… a vast urban civilization on par with the biggest pre-industrial societies of China or Europe.”

The final surprise for me is this:

“Even the dating of the Bayon and Angkor Wat are now under fire. The chronicle of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor in the 13th century, makes so little account of Angkor Wat that some scholars question whether it was even built until after Zhou’s visit – which would completely upend our understanding of it. So the story of Angkor turns out to be far more fluid than the stone remains suggest, and the history of pre-modern Southeast Asia is still up for grabs.”

Story of Angkor should be available from Monument Books, but if you can’t get there, here’s the Amazon page.

(Update: now available on Kindle, $9.99)