Lord Jim at Angkor

peter+essaie+2.jpg“Lord Jim is a silly book; it reads like a story in Boys’ Own” – Graham Greene.

Joseph Conrad wrote : “If you want to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. But what storm can fully reveal the heart of a man ? Between Suez and the China Sea are many nameless men who prefer to live and die unknown. This is the story of one such man. Among the great gallery of rogues and heroes thrown up on the beaches and ports, no man was more respected or more damned than … Lord Jim”.

P15.jpgPeter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia (no one does dying duck in a thunderstorm better), came to Cambodia to make the movie version. The year was 1964. Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks had bought the rights for $6500 in 1958, and was in love with the story. You know how it goes – Jim, English mate on a merchantman carrying Asian pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca, disgraces himself and so must seek redemption through death in the wild Malay islands.


Peter O’Toole with Dahlia Lavi

What’s Angkor doing in Malaya? Never mind, this is Hollywood. Cast and crew stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, built in 1909 in front of Angkor Wat where today the tourist busses and tuk-tuks park. Brooks spent well over half a million dollars building new air-conditioned rooms. “That hotel!” raged O’Toole in an interview afterwards. “More expensive than Claridge’s! Ten flaming quid a night [$28] and a poxy room at that. Nicest thing you could say about the food was that it was grotesque.”

The stars included James Mason (“Lolita”) and the Kurt Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). The heroine was Dalia Lavi, just 16 – she got into the movie business through Kirk Douglas, who spotted her in the street when she was ten and offered to adopt her and take her off to live with him. Her parents declined, but he gave them a generous donation that allowed her to study ballet in Sweden. Director of cinematography, Freddie Young, the cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia”, shot scenes in the Bayon temple and Preah Khan (the HQ of the movie villains), at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and in the surrounding jungles and rivers. And from the look of this very atmospheric still, on the moat at Angkor.


The temperatures were over 40º Celsius and there were no bars or good restaurants in Siem Reap, Pub Street being still a muddy alleyway (as indeed it still was when I first visited in 2001 – how time flies), but there were lizards and bats and mosquitoes, and dysentery and heat-rash, and snakes hanging from the branches of the trees. One of the crew members was bitten by a cobra and died. The local cops were unpleasant and the officials expected bribes.

There was also Prince Sihanouk, growing ever more anti-American over US support for anti-Sihanoukist rebels. Spontaneous demonstrations were scheduled in Phnom Penh for the second week of March 1964, and a mysterious Frenchman advised the movie-makers to get out early. Brooks rushed the project through, shooting 18 hours a day, and left just before 10,000 people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh shouting the usual slogans and attacking the US and British embassies. Sihanouk himself denounced the recently-departed film-makers as capitalist invaders. As a royal spokesperson later explained:


For a film producer, even one of real talent, what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor… and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same hold hackneyed themes (…scorpions lurking in boots… the poverty of the people… etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.

Graham Greene would no doubt nod. Let’s let Peter O’Toole have the final say:

If I live to be a thousand, I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there. How much so you can judge by the fact that after six months in the Orient I hadn’t picked up a single word there, whereas after nine months in the desert on Lawrence I was speaking Arabic pretty well.



•  Andy’s Cambodia

• Dahlia Lavi recalls the making of Lord Jim

• Stills at A Day for All Nights cinema blog




Norman Lewis and Cambodia, 1950


Norman Lewis and Bugatti

As a child Norman Lewis was sent to live with his three mad aunts, the first of whom never stopped weeping, the second never stopped laughing, and the third never spoke an intelligible word. Being South Wales the aunts spent their Sundays throwing stones at Sabbath-breakers, while their father, Lewis’ grandfather, dallied with his French mistress.  Eventually this lady was identified as the source of the largest outbreak of the clap ever seen in Carmarthen, and Norman was sent home.

North London, where he spent his adolescence, was quite different yet much the same. Norman’s father was a Spiritualist who channeled Indian chiefs and Tibetan lamas, but with so little accuracy that no one could be quite sure what they said; his mother, a psychic, diagnosed men, women and Pekes by the colours of their auras and cured them by the laying on of hands. True believers both, they held great hopes for their son, but he failed to develop his gifts:

“Norman dear, do you hear voices?”

“Yes mother, I hear you perfectly.”

“No dear, I mean Spirit Voices. Do you hear them? Feel Unseen Presences? See Astral Visions?”

“No, mother.”

“Oh. Well never mind dear, perhaps when you’re older.”

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1957 paperback edition of A Dragon Apparent

On reaching maturity Norman purchased a Bugatti, married the free-thinking daughter of a Sicilian Mafioso, and became a traveller and writer. His third book, A Dragon Apparent, published 1951 following a trip to Indochina the previous year, was an overnight sensation. “A brilliant report on a period of violent transition in a strange land,” said Peter Fleming, adventurer, travel writer, and brother of the creator of James Bond; “should take its place in the permanent literature of the Far East”, said the Economist. Norman Lewis had arrived.

He judged his moment to perfection. Communism was on the rise, empires were collapsing, and the West was worried. The French were hanging on in Indochina but the Viet Minh were making misery for them in Vietnam and the Khmer Issarak, though not communists, were doing the same in Cambodia. Cambodia was nominally an independent kingdom, but only nominally. Sihanouk, installed as puppet king in 1941, was proving a handful and wished to end the arrangement whereby French citizens could not be tried in Cambodian courts and French troops could do as it wished in the kingdom. The Issarak also wanted to end these things, plus Sihanouk as well. The future of the Free World (quaint phrase today) hung in the balance.

Sihanouk would eventually come out on top, but in 1950 the issue still was in doubt. In his capacity as a journalist for the British press Lewis interviewed Sihanouk and his prime minister, who complained that the French policy of sending in the Foreign Legion to massacre any village where an Issarak presence was even rumoured, or bombing to oblivion those places the Legion couldn’t reach, was counter-productive; nothing, they told him, was more likely to turn a peaceful farmer into a rebel. The French, for their part, seemed to agree; the general commanding the French troops admits to Lewis that he is unwilling to give guns to his Cambodian troops for fear their first act will be desert and sell them to the enemy.


Sihanouk, in French uniform, inspects a village militia.

Politics isn’t all there is to the book – there are descriptions of Phnom Penh and Angkor, and a long passage about a bus trip through Issarak-controlled territory in which he had to be hidden under a cargo of dried fish. This had possibly been done before, but not in Indochina, not in English – Cambodia had been France’s empire, and the British hadn’t bothered themselves with it. I was struck, incidentally, by the way Lewis several times compares Cambodia to Africa – African-looking huts in which the people live, African levels of squalour and indolence. Much later Paul Theroux does the same, in his 2008 travel book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.


Phnom Penh, 1950.

So this is an important book; yet I must beg to dissociate myself from the praise. Lewis’ later books have a laconic prose and sardonic sensibility that make  compelling reading, but both qualities are pretty well absent here. Worse, far worse, is the condescending, supercilious tone he adopts towards the Cambodians. He does not get under the skin of the country, and seems unaware that the natives might be human beings with hopes and fears – apart from the hope that the French might not kill them. This is not great travel writing, although it is very good journalism.


Coronation of Sihanouk, 1941. “They (the French) thought I was a lamb, but they discovered I was a tiger.”

His later books are much better. Naples ‘44, for example, is a classic, describing his experiences as an army intelligence officer in occupied Naples at the end of World War II (look for his account of General Mark Clark, who invaded Italy with typewriters and filing cabinets). Jackdaw Cake, his autobiography of his early years, is also excellent, and Voices of the Old Sea, telling of his life in a Spanish fishing village just before mass tourism destroyed the Mediterranean, is one I want to read.

Lewis’ great gift was to be present in places on the eve of some irrevocable change. In 1936 he went to Spain with his mafia-affiliated wife thinking to find peace and quite and six weeks later the Civil War broke out. He was in Burma just before the military coup that introduced fifty years of Socialism, and in Paraguay in 1975 he discovered that Christian missionaries were actively involved in exterminating the natives. A Dragon Apparent has its faults, but read it, for it falls into this tradition.


A Dragon Apparent

 Jackdaw Cake.

Lewis’ obituary in the Telegraph and the Norman Lewis website.

Photos from editorials on Cambodia, Twitter.



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).



Sam Sary and the little whips of history


Sam Rainsy, Sam Sary’s son.

In November Sam Rainsy, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s  election victory in Myanmar, began comparing himself to the Burmese heroine. Like Suu Kyi, he was the son of a freedom-fighter, and like her he would lead his people to victory. Reigning Prime Minister Hun Sen caustically replied that while Suu Kyi was the daughter of a patriot, Sam Rainsy was the son of a traitor. This post is to explain what he meant.

Sam Rainsy’s father Sam Sary was born in 1917. His own father, Sam Rainsy’s grandfather, was a prominent politician of the 1940s, and Sary and Sihanouk became close – the age gap between them was only about five years. In the early 1950s Sary played a significant part in Sihanouk’s negotiations for full independence for Cambodia, at the 1954 Geneva Conference he ensured that Cambodia was not divided, like Vietnam, between communists and non-communists, and he went on to become a crucial figure in the formation of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the Royalist front through which Sihanouk ruled Cambodia from 1955 to 1970. (And might I congratulate whoever it is at Wikipedia who wrote these articles – they’re excellent).


Sihanouk: from the Guardian’s obituary, no date, but probably the 1950s or 60s.

Sihanouk’s political style tended towards fascism, and Sary was charged with making sure that Sangkum and Sihanouk stayed in power:

The evil genius behind the repression [of opponents under Sihanouk’s rule] was Sam Sary – a bestial man. As an investigating magistrate in the 1940s, he had beaten suspects to death with his own hands. Then he went [to] study in France. In 1955, he joined the Sangkum and became Sihanouk’s closest aide … After Sihanouk decided to use strong-arm tactics, Sary handed out money and arms to hire ruffians to come and break our meetings.

(Ken Vannsak, quoted in Philip Short’s “Pol Pot”).

In 1955, the year in which the Sangkum was inaugurated, Cambodia held its first-ever beauty competition. The judges could pick only one winner, but Deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary chose two: “In no time at all, the judges’ first choice, coffee-skinned, sarong-clad Tep Kanary, was installed in Sary’s household. Later he added Iv Eng Seng, who was only an also-ran with judges…” (The report is from TIME magazine, 21 July, 1958).

By 1957 relations between Sam Sary and Sihanouk had cooled: Sihanouk believed in socialism and neutrality, and Sary, “the staunchest friend of the United States in Cambodia” as the State Department called him, believed in capitalism and Uncle Sam. TIME tells what happened:

Last summer (i.e., 1957) powerful political enemies complained that Sary was granting profitable import licenses to the wrong people, i.e., someone other than Sary’s accusers. Tears in eyes, Sary crawled before Sihanouk on hands and knees and asked to be relieved of his job. Tears in eyes, Sihanouk let him go. In remorse, Sary shaved his head and eyebrows, entered a Buddhist monastery.

(Editorial comment: I find it very difficult to believe that this scene was not staged. Anyway, a penitent Sary has confessed his sins before Father Sihanouk and done time in a monastery – things could have been worse).

Out of the monastery by January 1958, Sary was sent off as Cambodian ambassador to London. He arrived with his wife, his children, and his three concubines, including Iv Eng Seng.  Six months later the former beauty-princess went to the police to complain that Sary was beating her. Sary didn’t deny it. He explained to the British press:

I corrected her by hitting her with a Cambodian string whip. I never hit her on the face, always across the back and the thighs – a common sort of punishment in my country.


Sam Sary, Iv Eng Seng, and their son: stock photo from Alamy, 1958

Sary was recalled to Phnom Penh. By now the relationship with Sihanouk had grown icy, while the Americans saw him as a substantial asset.  He launched his own political party, together with a free newspaper. It carried no advertising – where was the money coming from? Suspicion focused on the US embassy. On 13 January 1959 Sihanouk announced the discovery of the “Bangkok Plot”, a CIA-directed right-wing plan to unseat him by means of a coup. Sam Sary fled the country (or possibly was allowed to flee – Sihanouk could be amazingly loyal to old friends), but after a shadowy existence in exile he was murdered in 1963, probably in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

And now for a very strange twist to the tale. On 11 August, 2015, someone living in France posted on the Cambodian expat forum Khmer 440 asking for help in finding the son of her grand-aunt, who had disappeared in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years. So far so common. But this grand-aunt was Iv Eng Seng, making the vanished boy Sam Rainsy’s half-brother:


Iv Eng Seng and her son Senaroth Averill (Iv Eng Seng stayed in England and married John Averill, barrister and eccentric, whose credo was “no smoking, no meat-eating, and no sex”.)

Hello everybody,

I Just discovert this forum. I am french and my english is not good, i hope you will understand.

She is trying to find the lost son that she had with Sam Sary. She goes with him on england and was married with John averill. Then she came back in cambodia without him. In 1974 the son Senaroth Averill goes to visit his mom and go back to england in 1975. My grand aunt is in France now, she is very old and she is still looking for him.

So if somebody know something about that, can you contact me please.

Thank you very much




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).