ALL THAT GOLD | Sharon Henry
I’ve never been so hot in my life (and no, I’m not boasting as Darrin would ask). It just so happens we’ve touched down in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the hottest month of the year. Our first day out in the city, the mercury’s topping 37C and sweat is rolling off us in beads. Not even a hint of a breeze off the nearby Mekong river.
We’re waiting in line for the gates of the Royal Palace to re-open, sidling close to the perimeter walls for shade.
There’s a lady selling ice-cold water from a cooler which sounds tempting but is priced a bit steep at $2 for a small bottle so we sip our tepid drinks instead.
The Royal Palace, one of the top attractions in Phnom Penh opens daily for tours from 8 to 5pm but closes for lunch between 11 – 2pm. Unfortunately we missed the cooler morning visit. Big mistake.
Hanging on the palace walls are huge portraits of Cambodia’s good looking King who famously declined an invitation to Kate and Will’s wedding.
I have read that Cambodia prefers women to dress conservatively so I’ve opted to wear my ‘Banjo’ pants for good coverage despite the sizzling heat; hopefully they’ll be light enough so I don’t melt into a puddle.
We buy our tickets and move to the entry gate when the operator very abruptly barks at me, “You can’t go” pointing at my cap sleeved t-shirt. Having always tried to abide by my Girl Guide motto: ‘Be Prepared,’ I smugly whip out a thin cardigan from my bag and get a nod of approval.
Whilst I am reluctantly slipping it over my sticky, sweaty arms (eeew) another ‘foreigner’ lady in a vest top is rudely stopped in her tracks and denied entry. Her scarf/shawl is not sufficient but she refuses to buy a $3 t-shirt on sale near the ticket stall, choosing instead to get her ticket refunded. I can tell she’s disappointed and not appreciative of her treatment.
Those of us who pass the dress code test, walk into the pristine grounds of the palace complex. There are a lot of group tours here as well. Grass, hedges and trees have been manicured to precision. The buildings are impressive, daintily ornate with pointed gable roofs that resemble licks of flame. The glittering structures are fit for a king; gilt spires, doors and roof tiles. There is certainly a lot of gold.
The only information we’ve been given are leaflets showing a basic layout of the complex. The map has arrows leading to points of interest but that’s pretty much it. There is no guide information about the palace.
We eavesdrop on a few English speaking tour guides to glean nuggets of interest.
Following the crowd we walk the rising steps to the Throne Hall. This is where coronations, official and religious ceremonies take place.
The Throne Hall is cordoned off, we can only look through from the threshold. It’s a large room with high mural ceilings, crystal chandeliers and tall gold lamps. The walls are flocked with heavy wallpaper. Three thrones sit at the far end.
A girl next to me lifts her camera to take a photo of the interior. Suddenly a guard abruptly shouts at her, “no photo, no photo,” like she’s some kind of criminal. Clearly shaken she quickly offers her apologies; she did not know. The guard points sharply to a small ‘no photography’ sign obscured by the crowd of people.
The unnecessary manner in which he treated her has really irked me, coupled with the previous experience at the entrance. Customer service obviously doesn’t rank high here at the palace.
A thick red carpet is being rolled out and women are delivering trays of flower arrangements, possibly in preparation for the upcoming Khmer New Year celebrations.
From the corner of my eye I twig three monkeys scampering around in the courtyard showing no interest in tourists. I can’t resist zooming in for a shot before they disappear.
A number of buildings make up the complex of the Royal Palace which includes the Moonlight Pavilion and the Silver Pagoda aka the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. There are also beautiful but disintegrating wall paintings that are undergoing preservation.
It’s dark and quiet inside the Silver Pagoda and we’re required to take off our shoes before entering. Electric fans are working away overtime.
Tables and cabinets flank the room showcasing old relics and numerous Buddha figurines made of gold, wood, jade, marble and even a life-sized diamond encrusted one.
The Emerald Buddha sits crossed legged within a golden tower overlooking the room.
By now it’s so stifling hot we are waning fast and have drained our water bottles. We jokingly wish for the lady selling $2 water to come by; we’ll pay double. There are stupas and other buildings we haven’t seen but concede that we’ve lost the will to continue – the heat’s defeated us.
The Royal Palace complex looks steeped in history but in fact the buildings are fairly new, constructed from 1866 when Phnom Penh became the country’s capital. Many of the buildings were constructed using a combination of traditional Khmer architecture, Thai architecture and European features and the design mainly of French influence.
The Silver Pagoda is so called because there are over 5000 silver floor tiles. These have now been covered by a red carpet but apparently a corner section is visible that we missed on our visit.
The King’s living area is off limits on the tour and takes up half of the total palace ground area. King Norodom Sihamoni is an interesting character. He’s a bachelor who spent most of his life outside of Cambodia, having schooled from a young age in Czechoslovakia. He taught dance in France before ascending the throne following his father’s abdication in 2004.
The Royal Palace is worthy a jot on any Phnom Penh visitor’s itinerary. Even if just for a glimpse of how the other half lives, away from the poverty and hard slog of those living on the other side of the palace walls. Just be sure to dress appropriately and lower your customer service expectations.
Entrance fee is $6.50 and apparently there are multi-lingual tour guides available for hire although we were not made aware of this. T-shirts and wide legged pants are on sale near the ticket stall at $3 each as an option for those caught out with the dress code (one size fits all but don’t expect to win any fashion prizes.)