The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh serves as the residence of the King of Cambodia, his family, along with being the hosting place for international dignitaries.

Napoleon III Pavilionb by Neak Okhna Tep Nimith Mak- The Palace with the golden top- sheet1
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The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh serves as the residence of the King of Cambodia, his family, along with being the hosting place for international dignitaries. Apart from being a symbol of the Kingdom, it acts as a venue for the performance of court ceremonies and other rituals. The establishment of the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, considered to be a relatively recent event in the history of the Khmer and Cambodia, was initially built by King Ponhea Yat in 1434 after he fled Angkor. However, the current Royal Palace was founded and constructed after the implementation of the French Protectorate in Cambodia in 1863. The capital was moved numerous times, including to the nearby city of Oudong, before being finally settled in Phnom Penh in 1866. The King, Ponhea Yat, recruited the best to construct the Royal Palace. Among the many people associated with the designing and construction was the architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak. His brief was surprisingly simple, to design a palace that was suitable for a king. 

Most of the structures in the Royal Complex were completed before 1914, aided by Thai designers and architects and French administrators. The Royal Court, permanently installed at the new Royal Palace in 1871 with the walls surrounding the grounds raised in 1873, had buildings constructed out of wood.  Over the next decade, several buildings were added to the complex, many of which were demolished and replaced by concrete structures seen on the Royal Palace tour today. 

The Royal Palace compound, filled with symbols reflecting both the Buddhist and Hindu religious heritage of Cambodia, has most of the structures built using traditional Khmer architectural and artistic styles. However, significant European features have also been incorporated mainly because of the influence of the French Protectorate. The elegant formal gardens display French influence, as do several other European-style buildings. Although the Throne Hall boasts many French touches, including the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, to the painting and decoration on the walls, one of the most unique surviving structures from this period is the Napoleon III Pavilion, totally constructed in cast iron.

A former French villa, this two-story structure was built in Giza, Egypt, by Napoleon III for his wife Empress Eugenie of France for the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. It was gifted to King Norodom I in 1876 and was shipped to Cambodia from Egypt in pieces. The structure was completely dismantled, shipped to Phnom Penh, and re-erected in the grounds of the Royal Palace. Fortunately, the royal emblem ‘N’ engraved on the doors and other parts of the building to honor the name of Napoleon did not need to be altered when the Pavilion was gifted to King Norodom I.

Napoleon III Pavilionb by Neak Okhna Tep Nimith Mak- The Palace with the golden top- sheet2
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At first glance, the Napoleon III Pavilion, located south of the Throne Hall, seems almost out of place. Amongst the imposing traditional, Khmer inspired buildings, with yellow gliding roofs in the Royal Palace of Cambodia, the Pavilion stands out due to its distinctive Colonial design and exquisite iron fretwork of its balconies, which gives it a dollhouse appearance amidst the traditional buildings. The incongruous, grey cast-iron building, in immaculate white exteriors, with a domed clock tower and observation gallery, was the first permanent structure on the site of the Royal Palace. With financial assistance from the French Government, Napoleon III Pavilion was refurbished in 1991.

Today, photographic exhibits, as well as a collection of royal memorabilia such as busts, gifts from visiting dignitaries, glassware, royal clothing, and other artifacts, are on exhibit inside the Pavilion. Other than these, glass cases containing royal silver and china tableware are displayed on the lower floor, whereas, on the upper floor, royal portraits are displayed, including the oil portraits of King Sihanouk. Additionally, there is also an anteroom with paintings on subjects ranging from Venetian canals to Chinese landscapes and a room glinting with gleaming medals. Above the stairs, the austerity of the building is relieved by the display of a collection of silk costumes elaborately embroidered in a gold thread by Queen Kossomak, the present king’s grandmother, for the royal dancers.

Sprinkled with history, the beautifully manicured grounds and ornate buildings of The Royal Palace of Cambodia and adjacent Silver Pagoda offer a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of surrounding capital life, along with an intriguing insight into the past and present of the country. The history and the very existence of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, is in direct link with the establishment of Cambodia as a French Protectorate. It is also the reason why the palace harmoniously incorporates traditional Khmer architecture and art with European design and features. The Napoleon III Pavilion is a fine example of this and also serves as a great reminder of the French ties to Cambodia. This medley of influence confers to the building a delightful personality and style that can be found nowhere else in the world.

Author

Payushi is a final year architecture student from Ahmedabad who believes that architecture is an expression of celebration, individuality, and uniqueness. She is interested in minimalism, fascinated by history, inspired by photography, and aims at exploring the world, one city at a time.

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