I first visited Phnom Penh 64 years ago, when Cambodia was still a French Protectorate represented by the noble King Norodom Sihanouk. His Majesty graciously granted an interview to my husband, Seymour Topping, a correspondent for the Associated Press. “Top” was the first American journalist to be stationed in Saigon to cover France’s Indochina war. I was the only Canadian. Our mission in May 1950 was to report His Majesty’s view of Indochinese affairs.
In Vietnam that spring, French colonial troops had started to lose a series of bases to communist guerrillas. Within a few months napalm was to be used for the first time in Indochina by the French.
From the air that day in May, Cambodia looked bright green. There was no sign of secret military activities happening in the densely forested border regions between Vietnam and Cambodia. At that time they already were utilized intermittently by the Vietcong, and later by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), as infiltration routes and bases for supporting operations in warring South Vietnam.
The Land of Oz
We flew low over Phnom Penh, the capital straddling the mighty blue Mekong River. The city looked well planned. Broad avenues were aglow with flame-of-the-forest trees. In the heart of the metropolis stood a golden Buddhist temple on the summit of a tree-covered hill glistening in the noonday sun.
Compared to war-torn Vietnam, where we had lived for the past six months, Cambodia was paradise, full of vivid colors and beautiful smiling people. I felt I was dreaming like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she dreamed she was blown away in a tornado from the dark monochromatic land of Kansas into the vivid Technicolor Land of Oz.
The airfield was guarded by French, North African and Foreign Legion soldiers, all symbols of this semi-colonial state, who stood smartly at attention while the few passengers, including a dignitary from Saigon, disembarked. Top and I were guided into a car with a friendly Cambodian chauffeur with a face that could have been chiseled off a gateway at Angkor Thom. He drove us through several miles of emerald green paddy fields and grass-hutted villages.
The narrow streets in the outskirts were bordered by crowded rows of traditional dwellings with backyards dripping with yellow bananas hanging from palm trees. I was dazzled by the vivid colors as we drove into the commercial center encircling the base of Wat Phnom hill where the Buddhist temple stood bravely among graceful coconut palms. Imposing shops rose from the pavements cluttered with open air kiosks stacked with Cambodian fabrics and flowers. Merchants and beautiful women, swathed in glorious batiks, attended to the throngs of cheerful shoppers who stared curiously at the strangers riding by in a government limousine.
Among the crowds wandered Buddhist monks swathed in saffron and yellow robes, holding parasols to shade their shaven heads and golden brown bodies. Most of the French inhabited the elegant official residences which stood in gardens scented by a myriad of tropical blooms lining the broad avenues leading to the Hotel Le Royal where we were ushered into a spacious suite.
The following morning our Khmer chauffeur drove us to interview His Majesty the King, at the Royal Palace, facing the meeting of the mighty Tonle Sap and the Mekong rivers. The improbable mile-square, a fairy-tale cluster of walled-in golden edifices, designed in ancient style with elegant, glittering spires and many-tiered roofs inlaid with colored tiles and soaring eaves and gables were scattered among serene gardens.
We entered through a regal portal in the massive stone wall surrounding the precincts. Each building had its own function in the traditional scheme of things. There was the Silver Palace, the Throne Hall, the Private Palace and Royal Treasury, the Pavilion of Dancers, The Chamber of Musicians and the Stable of the White Elephants, among other romantic places. All had broad stairways climbing to mysterious gilded portals. The Land of Oz could not have been more enchanting.
Our car pulled up before the palace and we climbed the flight of steps to the gilded doorway. To our surprise the King himself, looking quite dashing in a white linen suit, came to greet us with an outstretched hand. We didn’t know whether to kiss or shake it but he soon put us at ease when he clasped Top’s hand, laughed and greeted us in precise English.
The 27-year-old monarch looked much younger than his years. His handsome face, black curly hair and large black laughing eyes showed traces of his ancestry reaching back to the kings of the fabulous Khmer Empire, but he looked more like a playboy than a monarch. He was educated in France and spoke several languages. He had a winning and dynamic personality, was an expert horseman and a patron of the arts with a penchant for writing poetry and composing music.
We walked along a rich carpet into a large room with brightly painted walls. Sunlight slanted through the tall narrow windows, flanked by carved red and gold shutters, and reflected off the exquisite French objects d’art. His Majesty was accompanied by a secretary and other formal courtiers who bowed deeply and almost crawled in homage to him when they entered, but the adulation did not seem to affect his natural, unspoiled manner. He sat in a French silk-cushioned armchair and motioned for us to sit, facing him, on a matching brocade couch. His charm and friendliness were unaffected.
The interview proved most extraordinary.
Ho Chi Minh
The King spoke to us about his dissatisfaction with the treaty he had been compelled to sign with France in November 1949 under which, like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was granted only nominal independence within the French Union. Under the treaty, France retained control of defense and foreign policy with special rights for French interests in the economic and cultural spheres.
“I regard the treaty as only a basis for further negotiations toward greater independence for Cambodia,” he said indignantly. But it was Ho Chi Minh, the King said, who posed the greatest threat to the future independence of his country. If his Viet Minh triumphed in Vietnam, he said it “would mean the end of national sovereignty for Cambodia. The Ho Chi Minh government would set up a puppet Cambodian regime.”
He told us that some 3,000 Viet Minh had already infiltrated into Cambodia from Vietnam, occupying a broad zone along the border, and were receiving arms through a corridor to Thailand.
Sihanouk’s French-officered army of about 6,000 men had been battling a faction of the Issarak Cambodian guerillas who were allied with the Communists.
Before the audience ended he invited us to dinner that evening. Of course we accepted with pleasure. We had time to wander around the palace gardens. The King’s bodyguard was resting in the shade of the blossoming trees. Sweet, tinkling music of a Cambodian traditional orchestra of xylophones and gongs drifted from the Pavilion of Dancers.
We were heading toward the Stable of White Elephants to pay our respect to King Sihanouk’s most prized possessions when two ghostly creatures came plodding through the palm trees in a lordly gait. The stable boy said they had been bathing in the river. What a thrill! It was easy to see why these magnificent animals were considered sacred.
In Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, kings cherished white elephants as symbols of royal power and good fortune. King Sihanouk’s oldest one was huge. His wet coat gleamed white-pinky-gray and his half-closed, strange pale eyes seemed to hold the secrets of the universe.
Dinner with the King
We dined with the King. The dining room table was set for 20 guests and loaded with fine porcelains, flowers and three types of crystal glasses filled with a succession of French wines of honorable vintage.
King Sihanouk kept up a lively conversation in three languages, English for us, French and Cambodian for the select group of princes and courtiers and their ladies, men of eminent distinction and women of extraordinary beauty.
After dinner, the men lit cigars and we strolled through the rooms inspecting His Majesty’s favorite works of art. The place was a miniature museum representing various cultures arranged by the hand of a discriminating connoisseur: Cambodian silver, Siamese porcelain, Vietnamese lacquer, Chinese rugs, Japanese paintings, French furniture and other gracious things.
Most exciting were prime examples of classical Khmer sculpture: heads of divinities with serene faces lit by the famous, mysterious Khmer smile and scantily-clad figures of Apsaras (heavenly dancers) in dance posture. This ancestral form of dance was the inspiration for the King’s Royal Corps de Ballet that we had been invited to see perform the following week in Angkor.
We returned to Saigon in a French military convoy via Angkor. The heavily-armed truck convoy sped across the lovely, brilliantly-hued Cambodian landscape and through villages at a frightening speed to lessen the chance of being ambushed by marauding Issarak and Viet Minh guerillas. En route we stopped for several days in Siem Reap, a small city near Angkor— the ancient Khmer capital.
We were the only guests in the hotel, a hostelry that was guarded by a cordon of French troops. Peering out the window, I was mesmerized by the single figure of a saffron-robed Buddhist monk walking smoothly, but appearing to be levitating, across the landscape of the magnificent gray temple towers of Angkor rising out of a jungle of banyan trees. As the orange sun was setting, a great black cloud of bats flew out of the ruins and, for a dreadful moment, blotted out the sun, as if giving us a premonition of the terrible times to come.
Audrey Ronning Topping is a documentary filmmaker, photographer and author now based in New York. She met her husband during the Chinese Civil War.