Rooney on Wat Phnom
At Wat Phnom - by Dawn Rooney
Do you know that Angkor belonged to Siam (now Thailand) until the early 20th century? France signed a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863 giving them administrative control of the country except for the provinces of Siem Reap (where Angkor is located), Battambang and Sisophon - these were in Thai territory until 1907 when King Sisowath signed the French-Siam Treaty. This act is commemorated in a little-visited shrine at the base of Wat Phnom hill (south side). The king sits on a throne and he is flanked by three princesses, each representing one of the provinces that were returned to Cambodia.
French history records an anecdote about King Sisowath that suggests he came close to not being in Cambodia in time to sign the treaty. He was crowned king in 1904, following the death of his half-brother, King Norodom. At the age of sixty-six, King Sisowath fulfilled a lifetime dream to visit France. He departed from Saigon on a French liner in 1906 and was accompanied by a troupe of some one hundred Cambodian classical dancers and musicians from the royal palace. The ship docked in Marseilles and the king and his entourage proceeded to Paris where the dancers performed in Europe for the first time at the Colonial Exposition.
They arrived amidst great fanfare and were greeted with cheers from a large crowd. The French press described the king as a 'good-humoured' man of medium height with large, expressive eyes and a heavy-lipped mouth with a thin moustache. He wore a tailcoat, a felt hat with jewels, and a black silk sampot (a traditional pant-like garment). But it was the Cambodian dancers who captured the hearts and minds and the French public. With their little bodies, childlike faces and elaborate costumes and headdresses, they were truly unique. Augustin Rodin, the French sculptor, painted the dancers and remarked 'I contemplated them in ecstasy!' When they returned to Cambodia, he lamented that, 'they had taken with them all the beauty of the world.'
French officials presided over King Sisowath's departure and escorted him to the port of Marseilles amidst much pomp and ceremony. They bid him farewell and wished him a safe return journey to Siam. King Sisowath thanked them for their generous hospitality with Asian grace and expressed his regret at leaving. After the French officials departed, however, he went straight back to Paris because he so liked France. Within a year, though, he had returned to Phnom Penh to sign the French-Thai Treaty of 1907 which gave Angkor back to Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is set upon the only hill in Phnom Penh. According to legend, the first pagoda was erected on this site in 1373 to house four statutes of Buddha that had been found by Madame Penh in the Mekong River. Today, Wat Phnom is enjoyed by many people for different reasons. Some come to pray for good luck, others come to enjoy elephant rides with Sambo, the city's only working elephant, whilst for others, it's a green, quiet patch in an otherwise frantic city. The vihara on top of the hill was rebuilt four times, the last time in 1926. West of the vihara, is a huge stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat (1405-67). A small grave of a European also rests on the hill but more on that at a later date. The book To Cambodia With Love should be out in a couple of months. Keep your eyes peeled for its launch.