The royal family evokes tradition, history and respect. As the New Year begins, Michael Sloan looks to its future by speaking to several young royals about their ambitions and attitudes towards the Cambodian monarchy - both as a family and an institution. Photography by Dylan Walker.
More than 600 guests including government ministers, business leaders and members of the royal family packed out the Sofitel ballroom on Christmas Eve to mark the largest regal wedding Cambodia has seen in years. With a guest list including Prime Minister Hun Sen, the A-list reception capped off a day of celebrations that begun when Prince Sisowath Vic was formally married to Ong Reaksmey inside the throne room of the Royal Palace in a ceremony officiated by the King.
Raised and educated abroad, the groom - who’s prefers that people refer to him as “just Vic” - met his future wife in Siem Reap where they both hold positions at a major bank. He freely admits that his choice of career, values and partner were all shaped by the experience of growing up overseas and later adjusting to life in Cambodia - a country he was too young to remember leaving.
It’s a feeling shared among other young royals born immediately before, or in the years after, the Khmer Rouge took power. While the older generation once occupied government posts as ministers and generals, their children are embarking on careers as talk show hosts, business executives and fashion designers.
One of the hardest parts of moving back to Cambodia as a prince or princess raised abroad isn’t different social expectations, it’s simply proving you are royal. That’s the view of radio talk show host Princess Norodom Soma, who moved from the US to Phnom Penh to care for her elderly father in 2010.
“When you move back to Cambodia, if you want to use the Norodom name as your surname, you need to really prove you are one,” she says. “You have to write a letter to the palace, and then they do research to confirm you are who you say you are. We’ve had a lot of fake imposters, so they have to have older royal family members identify you in pictures. Documents were lost and people were killed during the Khmer Rouge.”
After spending most of her life in California and Georgia, a period where she tried to use her maiden name as little as possible, Soma says the reaction to the status attached to Norodom in Cambodia came as a shock. “I didn’t want people to know who I was growing up in the US, I didn’t want them to know I was a princess and I wanted to earn respect by working hard.”
For many returning royals, proving your credentials is a problem compounded by a maze-like family that includes more than 100 living members of two inter-linked royal houses: Norodom and Sisowath.
Confusion over the family tree was rife during the 1990s when stringent checks were adopted to prevent people from fraudulently applying for a royal ID. Essentially a blue passport, it entitles the holder to various minor privileges including the use of diplomatic queues at airports.
Fakes and imposters are not so common now, says Vic’s sister-in-law, Sisowath Phala. But growing up in Phnom Penh – before her marriage into the family - she came across several people who either claimed to be royals thought to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge or had just invented a name out of thin air.
“It’s wasn’t only people from the states coming back, it was people from the provinces - from Siem Riep or something like that. They would claim they were princes to get status,” she says.
Phala, who met and married Prince Sisowath Chivanaridth after his return from the US in the early 1990s, has a different perspective on life in the family. One of the aspects of life as a Sisowath she had the most difficulty adjusting to was the use of so-called “Royal Khmer” in formal situations. It is a complex dialect which sometimes resembles a completely different language.
“Even words like water and chopsticks are different,” she says. “When you sit it’s not the same, when you sleep it’s not the same, when you eat it’s not the same. For example for a glass of water in Khmer you just say ‘tuk’ but in the royal family the word is ‘osatruss’.”
While the default language inside the royal family is often French and to a lesser extent English, the politest way to speak to relatives in formal situations is by learning royal terms for everyday items, says19-year-old Prince Noryvong Sisowath, or “Nikko” for short.
While Nikko, who spent his early childhood in the US before returning to Cambodia aged eight, has adjusted to life in Cambodia seamlessly, he still speaks with an American accent - unlike his younger sister Bijou who moved back with her father aged five.
“I’ve got to say my accent hasn’t changed at all, I still sound like an American person trying to speak Khmer. My sister however, she’s professional at Khmer and way better than me,” he says.
The exodus of royals as the Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh in the early 1970s means that many of their children grew up with few memories of Cambodia and little grasp of the language, explains Sisowath Vic, who left the Kingdom when he was less than a year old.
“Growing up in France and US I’m kind of a mix of a little bit of everything. I was raised in a French culture. Everyone in my family speaks French - it’s the default language. We were never really forced to learn Khmer when I was growing up. I’m not very good but my Khmer has improved a lot since I’ve been here”.
For returning royals, language is more of an issue in adjusting to life in Cambodia outside the family than within it, says Vic. But it’s an obstacle trumped by the feeling that Cambodia is home.
“I think the older generation has more of a nostalgic connection to the country that the younger ones don’t have, because we didn’t know what it was like before this,” he explains. “Even though I spent a lot more time in France and the US, this is still my country.”
For Vic, feeling a connection with Cambodia was innate rather than based on royal family history, tradition or protocol. “There’s a big gap between my parents’ generation and mine where they lived a royal lifestyle in the 50s and 60s and had everything they wanted,” he says. “That’s probably why I’m different from some of my family members, I’m very approachable and I try very hard just to be like everybody else.”
TRADITIONS AND STIPENDS
One tradition that persists today and divides some royals is the practice of appointing family members to sinecure positions attached to the palace.
The various positions come with a salary of between $200 to $1,000 a month, depending on the age of the royal involved and their title. For returning royals in their 30s, the figure is usually around $300. Accepting or declining an offered position is a choice each person makes on their own.
Prince Norodom Navarithipong’s wife Ermine, who runs a fashion boutique with her husband, says most young princes and princesses have some kind of employment and rarely depend on a royal salary if they even receive it. “And even if you want it you cannot ask,” she says. “You have to be nominated by the King.”
Norodom Soma says that after successfully transplanting her burgeoning career to Cambodia, receiving a stipend was not an option she considered - tradition or no tradition.
“I turned it down because I’m a working princess, I’d rather take a salary,” she says. “I want to be able to make my own decisions and have that independence because I was raised that way in the US.”
The determination to make it on her own terms is something echoed by Sisowath Vic, who says he initially had trouble adjusting to the Cambodian workplace because of the impact his name had on co-workers.
“I remember my boss when I first came in. He asked, ‘What should we call you, how should we address you?’ And I said, ‘Oh no just call me Vic.’ I don’t like being addressed by my title or insist on it, some of my family members do.”
Vic’s sister-in-law Phala says she met her husband in Phnom Penh in the early1990s when he returned from the US as one of the first wave of younger royals to do so. She had no idea he was a prince and probably wouldn’t have spoken to him if she did know.
“The first time I met him I didn’t know he was from the royal family I just spoke to him in normal Khmer. I called him uncle, because at that time I was young. After three months his driver told me, ‘Oh you’re so lucky you meet the prince.’ I said, ‘What prince?’ and he told me.”
Once the surprise wore off, Phala says her next feeling was embarrassment tinged with slight fear. “I only knew he was a Cambodian from the States and it was nice to talk to him, but when I knew that he’s from the royal family I was like, ‘Oh I don’t want to meet him anymore.’ I was so scared you know. I’m from a normal family and I didn’t know how to address him properly.”
Her husband, Prince Chivannariddh, who works as a deputy commercial manager at Phnom Penh International Airport, agrees that sometimes holding a title can be an impediment to getting to know people, especially in the workplace, but that usually changes with time.
“Definitely, my co-workers were especially unsure how to address me in a proper way at first. But once they got to know me, they discovered I was not much different from any ordinary person and it was easy after that,” he says.
For younger royals, holding a title and earning a living go hand in hand, says Nikko, who plans to enroll at a business college in Japan next year.
“One thing about the royal family in Cambodia, it’s very different from [some] foreign royal families... where just by being a member you get benefits, the money the house, everything,” he says.
“We have to work our asses off and have our own job. We get more freedom, but we have to be much more independent and depend on ourselves rather than people providing for us.”