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).



Jackie in Cambodia, 1967


Jackie and Prince Sihanouk, driving.

Did you know Jackie Kennedy visited Cambodia in 1967? I sort of did, I mean I’d heard about it, but then I’d forgotten. It didn’t seem so important. Lots of people visited Cambodia, even back in the 60s. It’s normal.

But when you’re the glamorous widow of Jack, nothing is normal.

The 60s – it seems another civilisation. It was. Nothing is the same, all has changed. The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the war in Vietnam, pill-box hats and funny hair. Anyway, when you’re the glamorous widow of Jack, you don’t just go for a holiday in Cambodia. You go for a reason. You get sent. It’s a State visit. (Though this one had private moments).

1967-03-Jackie-07Jackie was sent by the White House to charm Prince Sihanouk. Da Prez wanted out of Vietnam, but first those damn Commies had to be beat, and maybe Sihanouk could help. So jump on that plane, Jackie, with a pillbox hat and a gaga smile, and go charm.

Jackie visited Angkor, of course. To see Angkor was “a lifelong dream,” she told reporters (and folks like Jackie never travel without reporters – read all about it at the estimable devata website).

The apsaras were adorable, their breasts divine. Then to business: charming the prince. Sihanouk was a handful, not easily charmed: he lectured the press for referring to his land as “tiny.” An insult. Almost an incident. But Jackie was more than equal. In Phnom Penh she and Sihanouk fed the royal elephants together. (I really must write elsewhere about the sacred white elephants united Sihanouk and President Nixon, but that’s for another time). They shared jazz together (the prince could have been a great saxophonist had fate not chosen him to be an oriental despot instead), they watched the cute Princess Boupha Devi dance a classic apsara dance, and they went together to Sihanoukville, where they cut the ribbon on Kennedy Road. Unkind souls hinted that this a slight: why wasn’t the road in the capital?” but Sihanouk replied that this was his own city, bearing his own name, and besides. Phnom Penh had no roads left to name.

Unkinder souls have since hinted that Jackie’s visit was actually all about getting Sihanouk to agree to let the Americans bomb eastern Cambodia, which the Viet Cong were using as an R&R area. Rest no longer: more bombs were to be dropped on Cambodia in the next few years than on Germany in the whole of World War II.

But it was a happy time, an innocent time, 1967. In this degenerate age, an age the gods have deserted, you can stay in the Jackie Kennedy Suite at the Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville (don’t ask about the ghosts), and in Phom Penh there’s another at the Raffles Le Royal, where you can sip the femme fatale, a cocktail created in Jackie’s honour, and gaze in wonder at the original cocktail glass with Jackie’s original red lip-prints on the unwashed glass (bloody unhygienic if you ask me, but nobody does).