Positioning Of Royal Palace: A Hypothesis
Phnom Penh: Every academic article, let alone ever tourist brochure, says that the palace in Phnom Penh faces East: but it does not. East is a bearing of 90 degrees, and it faces 57 degrees.
North, South, East and West were not important to the architects of the palace. What was important was:
(1): The palace had to face the Quatre Bras, the expanse of water where the Mekong met the Tonle Sap River and then separated again into the various streams of the Delta. (Today erosion and desposition have lengthened the tip of the Chruoy Chanvar peninsula so it obscures the Quatre Bras, but in the 19th century the junction of the rivers was clearly visible from the palace).
(2): It had to be on a line parallel to the direction of flow of the Tonle Sap, the river on which the town was built.
And a third factor:
(3): It had to be situated between the two monasteries of Wat Unalom and Wat Botum.
Three separate cosmologies lay behind this. The need to overlook the Quatre Bras related to the idea that the rivers and their meeting and separation mirrored the holy Lake Anotatta, where the Buddha was conceived: from the lake (for which the equivalent was Lake Tonle Sap) four rivers flowed (as four rivers met at Phnom Penh), one of them the holy Ganges (the goddess Ganges is still invoked at the Water Festival);
The need to parallel the riverbank related to a separate cosmology of Thai origin, according to which the king’s palace had to be at the highest point upriver, with his nobles living immediatrely downriver (which they did in 19th century Phnom Penh), followed by markets and foreigners (the Chinese quarter and the market on the Grande Rue, north of Wat Unalom);
The location between Wat Unalom and Wat Botum belongs to the third cosmology, that of the dhammaraja, the righteous king who upholds religion: King Norodom established one of the two schools of Cambodian monks at Unalom and the other at Botum, with himself (his palace) between, the patron of both.
The sources for this are very scattered. Jaques Nepote has written about the Quatre Bras orientation, others about the riverside one, and Ian Harris (and others) about the dhammaraja, but no one has pulled all three together to explain why Norodom put his palace where he did. So it’s just my hypothesis, really.
The royal palace of 19th century Cambodia was a living and vibrant intellectual culture, totally alien to our ways of thinking. It’s vanished. I appeal to my Khmer friends to help rediscover it. There is so much to be proud of.
The illustration is from Google Earth, with the various important axes and monasteries added.
(This is merely a hypothesis from Philip J. Coggan, any more theories are welcome, except for ones about aliens).