Part 1: Cambodia

As many readers know, Smiling Albino is based in Bangkok, Thailand, but also has extensive operations in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Nepal. Besides being awesome places to explore, one thing that all of these countries have in common is that they entered the 20th century with a strong monarchic system in place. But of them all, only Thailand’s remains a powerful and influential component of contemporary life.

For westerners, the idea of monarchy is difficult to compartmentalize. Almost every modern country has it woven into its contemporary cultural fabric in some way or another, but in Asia, the office of monarch continued to carry significant weight long after most western countries had relegated the role to a symbolic relic of a time long past. So what happened?

In a four part blog series, let’s take a look at the history of royalty in the region beginning with Cambodia.

Cambodian royalty goes back to the 3rd or 4th century, although it’s rather hazy as to what exactly they ruled, who they were, and where they came from. Things gain a bit more focus with the establishment of the Chenla Kingdom in 550 CE, which lasted until 802 CE. After that came the mighty Khmer Empire, which saw the construction of Angkor Wat and borders that stretched from modern day Malaysia to eastern Burma to Southern China and into Vietnam. Wars – both internal and external – as well as ecological instability helped bring the Khmer Kingdom to a close in 1431, after which followed the relatively short dynasties of Chaktomuk, Longvek, Srei Santhor, and Oudong, all of which fought on-again off-again battles with their neighbors.

Then came the French, who in 1867 forced Thailand (then Siam) to give them Cambodia, which by this time had become a vassal state of Siam, the dominant power in the region. The French then appointed a new ruler – King Norodom, whose father was king under Siamese rule. They also helpfully “suggested” he convert to Christianity, and told him to move the capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh. Norodom’s line continued until King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled from 1941 to 1955, when he abdicated to form his own political party, giving up the throne to his father Norodom Suramarit. Though the role of King still existed, Sihanouk slowly introduced constitutional amendments that gave the head of state similar powers, and wouldn’t you know it, he was soon named Cambodia’s head of state. When Suramarit died in 1960, no new monarch was named.

Now we begin a few decades of extremely complicated political maneuvering by everyone from the CIA to rebel groups to neighboring countries to rival politicians. These politicians emerged as the de facto rulers, and violent clashes, coups, counter-coups and protests erupted with alarming regularity, culminating with the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled from 1975 to 1979. After pulling the surviving bits of the once-great country back together, Cambodia’s Constituent Assembly established a constitutional monarchy, and Norodom Sihanouk was then re-instated as King in 1993.

The next decade saw the role of the monarchy in Cambodia slowly fade, as politicians grew in power and influence. Eventually, Sihanouk had enough of mediating arguments between bickering politicians who mostly ignored him, and issued an open letter announcing his abdication. His son, Norodom Sihamoni, was crowned King on October 29, 2004.

Since then, Sihamoni has played a mostly ceremonial role, and is known as the “quiet king.” He has simple tastes, and meets regularly with Prime Minister Hun Sen, widely seen as the most powerful man in Cambodia. Sihamoni is a bachelor, carrying out official appointments and meeting visiting diplomats with little fanfare. It’s said he is a voracious reader and fan of the arts, and speaks Khmer, English, Czech, and French.

It’s a long way removed from the mighty kings of the Khmer empire, but perhaps a reflection of a more modern era. The future of Cambodia’s royalty is uncertain. You’d have to ask King Sihamoni – once he’s done reading.

Or, come take a look yourself. Check out some of our Cambodian sample trips here.

In our next blog, we’ll turn our attention north, to learn the story of Laos’ monarchy.