Author Julio Jeldres first corresponded with then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1967, when he was just a high school student in Chile. He later became the King’s private secretary, and now he is designated the King’s official biographer.
While the full story about King Sihanouk will have to wait, the friendship between the two men has yielded the book, “The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh and Cambodian Royal Life,” which only became available last week.
With photographer Somkid Chaijitvanit, Jeldres has put together 131 awe-inspiring pages, depicting the palace in words and images.
“All the books about Cambodia are about politics,” the author said in an interview last week, as he completed a book-signing tour in Phnom Penh. “All the books about art are about Angkor Wat.”
But many of the hallmarks of Cambodian culture have made their way into the architecture and art of the Royal Palace, a sprawling complex of buildings near the convergence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers.
From the very beginning of the book, Cambodia enthusiasts will find interesting information. “The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh was built by my great-grandfather, His Majesty King Norodom,” King Sihanouk writes in the foreword, “after he decided to leave the former royal capital of Oudong, in 1866, and established the capital in Phnom Penh.”
At that time, the Palace was made of wood, but by the early 1900s, was replaced by stone. The book is replete with such snippets, written by those who know it best.
And rather than focus on the political bygones of Cambodia, Jeldres, who was given access to many parts of the palace, recreates mythology, stories and historical context.
There’s the story of the emergence of Cambodia’s king, who, according to legend, was born of the Naga king, “Lord of the Soil,” and an Indian Brahman priest.
There’s the story of the palace’s architects and astrologers, who chose to place the palace by the rivers because they “had the perfect blend of the movements of the planets and the cycles of the seasons to make the living environment of the king peaceful, healthy and prosperous.”
Modern, vibrant photos
coupled with grainy, sepia pictures from the archives support the text. The reader is taken on a visual tour, as he sees the palace in its infancy and its monarchs in theirs.
The reader learns that in 1920, the King’s elephants were transferred to the south of Wat Preah Keo Moroat—known now as the Silver Pagoda, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
In addition to historic treasures are pictures of real ones: gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds—all a part of the Palace’s past, and present.
The book also offers a beginner’s guide to a monarchy, outlining the roles and duties of the monarch as his family. Full listings of Cambodia’s kings and royal orders are provided, as is a family tree. There’s also a one-page glossary.
The book, printed by The Post Publishing (The Bangkok Post) and distributed by Monument Books, will be available at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana, and Monument book store on Monivong Boulevard. The cost is $39.
Jeldres has dedicated the book to King Sihanouk, “a much misunderstood monarch who deeply cares for his people.”
Perhaps, though, with the publication of the book, some light will fall on the shadowed past of Cambodia’s monarchs. And with that light, at least some understanding.