As we walk up to the Royal Palace, I raise my gaze to check something…the location of the flag. You see – if the flag is up, that means that the King is here. If it is down, then he is away.
It’s down. The current king of Cambodia was a Buddhist monk before he was coronated, and thus he has no wife or children, which is quite unusual in the history of the world’s monarchs. He must be away on business.
Before I came here, I had envisioned the palace as a big lawn with a large structure. But now that I’m here, I see that the Royal Palace is actually many different structures that are on grounds spanning a couple blocks in the city. And what a sight it is. The gold millwork and orange tiles of the roofs strike out against a cerulean blue sky. I should back up and tell you that when I say “millwork”, what I mean is the exquisitely carved golden wooden symbols and structures that spill out from every corner – every line and curve of every building. Every single one. There are lions, cobras, dancers, and so much more that my eye cannot quite make out, as the sun has passed overhead now and is right in my sight. Someone tells me that the tiles are laid to mimic the pattern of the cobra’s scales. I can see how.
The whole place is gently buzzing with activity and there are people everywhere – both locals and foreigners. There is the gentle hum of conversations and the occasional cacophony of hundreds of pigeons moving their location every 10 minutes of so. The air smells crisp and fresh, thanks to a cool breeze. But I know that it will only get hotter from here.
We make our way to a building in the center of the grounds and walk up a staircase where we are met with a local who I think is here to make sure that no one enters. A sign reads, “No Photos.” Well, goody, because I find that places that don’t allow photos tend to be pretty spectacular. And this place does not disappoint.
As I look inside, I see that it is one big room, and the ceilings are probably 100 feet high. It is quite cavernous with its arched ceilings. A beautifully woven rug covers most of the floor and leads the eye towards the back of the hall with its bright reds and golds.
“Is this the throne room?” I ask the man sitting right inside the room.
“Yes,” He replies as he motions towards the back of the room. Six huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling and provide illumination to what looks like a throne atop of golden platforms. I count them and there are six in total, each descending in size as they form a pyramid that the throne seat sits upon. This throne is quite different than the western ones we are familiar with. In lieu of a large, high-backed chair, there is a square seat about 2 feet high that has hardly any backrest at all. All of this – the platforms and throne – are golden and ornate.
We walk to the next building a guide tells me that it is called the Silver Pagoda. How interesting – silver? Looks pretty gold to me. We ascend stairs and arrive at an open platform where We remove our shoes before walking inside. Photos are also prohibited here.
I quickly learn the reason for the for the name as a guide explains to me the floors are made of real silver tiles that are stamped with Khmer designs. I look around and am struck by the sheer volume of treasure that is in this room. And it’s not only cultural treasure, but also the kind of treasure that pirates in our adventure stories would salivate over. Every piece is a Buddha statue. There are pure gold Buddhas, silver Buddhas, marble Buddhas, jade Buddhas, and more. The left and right walls are lined with glass cases that house thousands of miniature statues – from 1″ to 4″tall.
I proceed further into the room and the Buddha statues are getting larger and now sit on the floor along the walls. In the very center of the room is the largest and most breathtaking statue – a standing Buddha made of 9 kilograms of pure gold. It looks to be about 8’tall and is enclosed in a glass case. Intricate designs adorn him and there are inlayed diamonds as well. Amazing. To the left is another encased Buddha statue but this one is smaller, perhaps only 2’tall and is in sitting position. This one is made of only 2 kilograms of pure gold (only!). I stand as close as I can without my breath fogging up the glass as I gasp. This one too is adorned with diamonds – there must be over 100 on this statue alone. I look at his face and a glittering prism of color radiates from the eyes. They are the largest diamonds I have ever seen.
It’s time to go and I make my way towards the exit and stop to glance at all the tiny Buddhas. A gold one catches my eye and I am enthralled with how the craftsman was able to inlay that many precious gems in such a small statue. The sun must have just come out from behind a cloud because at this moment a string of light hits the Buddha and the gold writhes like the surface of the sun. As I walk out, I can’t help thinking that all that glitters in the Royal Palace really IS gold.