February 13, 1955
Dear Dad & Russ,
Well, here it is Sunday night and what a day this has been. I think this write-when-I-have-a-minute is going to work out swell, rather than saving everything up till Monday night, ’cause this way I can tell you about things while they are still fresh in my mind.
I didn’t leave the office last night until 12:30 so it was nearly 1 a.m. before I finally got into bed. Hap had to go to work this morning at 8 so the alarm went off at 7. Sunday is the only morning we have to sleep in here in Indochina and I was so tired after last week’s work that I slept right through the alarm and also the 12 noon siren. This siren is on the roof of the Post Office right across the street from the hotel and usually it makes such a racket that it is impossible to sleep through, but this morning I didn’t hear a thing and finally woke up around 1 o’clock. Had a light lunch, then over to the swimming pool with the gang. We sure had a lot of fun at the pool today. Some American Marines who recently arrived in Phnom Penh and whom we had met previously at the American Ambassador’s home were at the pool too, and we had a great time playing tag with a rubber ball and horsing around with rubber tubes. Howie Morris accomplished something he has been wanting to do ever since arriving in Phnom Penh – namely diving off the top of the diving tower. I, too, accomplished something this afternoon that I have wanted to do since coming here. I swam the complete distance of the pool under water! I guess I’m just full of air or something because I was hardly even winded when I came up.
Then, at about 3 o’clock this afternoon Cecile arrived at the pool and asked Howie and me if we would like to accompany her on a tour of the Royal Palace. We said sure and away we went. Well!! What a tour that was. First of all, the guide took us down a long roadway with high walls on either side. About half way down the road on the left hand side there was a great wooden gate through which our guide indicated us to enter. Well what a surprise awaited us on the other side of that wall. We were in a big courtyard filled with palm trees and tropical plants of bright colours. The courtyard was all tiled in red bricks. All around the courtyard were classrooms (The School of Arts) with Cambodian murals painted on their walls. But the main attraction of this courtyard was the building in the centre of it: this was the “Pagode d’Argent” or “The Silver Pagoda” – a huge, highly decorated temple with dozens of roofs and curly eaves pointing up to the deep blue sky.
The guide unlocked a huge ornamental gate and we began climbing flight upon flight of marble steps to the main entrance to the temple. We finally arrived at the top of the stairs and were asked to remove our shoes. We did. Then the guide swung open the great carved doors of the temple and we entered. WHAT A SIGHT!!! We then knew why this place was called the “Silver Pagoda”. The entire floor was covered with thousands of squares of PURE SILVER!!! Just imagine this mammoth Buddhist temple with a floor of pure silver! It’s a sight I shall never forget. But, we were in for many more surprises. The walls were all covered with rich Cambodian murals and right in the middle of the room were the Buddhas themselves. The main Buddha was seated on a huge golden throne about ten feet high. This Buddha stood about 2 feet high and was carved out of one piece of transparent green jade!! Golly, was it ever beautiful! In front of the main Buddha was a glass case containing another Buddha. This Buddha was about five feet high and was made out of SOLID GOLD!!! I nearly died!! And what’s more it was heavily encrusted with diamonds as big as your thumbnail!!! The three of us just stood there with our mouths open and gazed in wonder. We all thought we were seeing things, no fooling. All around the walls were other Buddhas made of silver, gold, jade, etc., and all of them were encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and various other precious stones. I couldn’t help but wonder if these Cambodians really knew what a treasure they had in this one temple! Everything just seemed to glitter and dazzle with diamonds, silver and gold!! And of course, all this time we were standing on a floor of pure silver. Whew! Sure took our breath away.
From the Silver Pagoda we crossed the courtyard again and went back out through the door in the wall onto the long roadway. We walked on a short distance till we came to another door in the opposite wall. We entered and this time were in the actual Palace grounds, filled with palm trees and ornamental gardens. Gee, it was lovely!! This time we visited the King’s own private museum. This building was filled with Royal robes and jewels used by Kings of the past and also the present King of Cambodia. There were some very lovely jewel boxes presented to the Cambodian Kings by Napoleon III, all, of course, being covered with rubies and sapphires, etc. There was one brooch that caught our eyes in particular. It was a huge thing with dozens of jewels all over it, but right in the middle was a 24-carat diamond about the size of a 25-cent piece!! Cecile made some comment about how she sure would like a ring with a stone in it like that and the guide thought it was a great joke. Also in this museum were the head-dresses of the Royal Cambodian Ballet Dancers and the jewels they wear when they perform for the King. Then we saw the King’s coronation robes and crowns. Did you know that the King of Cambodia has special crowns and head-dresses that he wears especially for driving cars, riding horses and riding elephants? Well, he has, and believe me, they’re really quite something to behold. I just shudder when I think of the billions of dollars worth of precious jewels and metals I saw in this one afternoon!!
From this museum we went to the Royal Throne Room. Well honestly!! This place just defies description and I just don’t have enough adjectives to tell you how I felt in this particular place. The throne itself was about ten feet high, with a huge umbrella sort of affair rising easily another thirty or forty feet above it. All over the place were statues of old Cambodian Kings and also a statue of the present one. Here’s a strange thing. When a Cambodian King dies, the eyes in his statue are taken out to indicate that he is no longer the ruling monarch. Consequently only the statue of the present King of Cambodia has eyes in it. What a weird custom!! From a window in the Royal Throne Room we were shown a very lovely garden with the actual home of the King right in the centre of it.
By the way, here’s something strange. Although the King of Cambodia is not married, he keeps a harem of thirty women and has something like 120 children!!! What a country!!
Well, the Throne Room completed the tour and we three Canadians left the Royal Palace just a little bit dizzy and dazzled by this exciting and beauteous glimpse into the real “Exotic Far East”. Let me tell you, today is a day I shall never forget as long as I live, although I’m sure I shall often wonder if I ever really did see such a strange place.
Tomorrow, Howie, Cecile and I are going for a boat ride on the Mekong River at noon hour. As I mentioned, our new office hours will give us 3 1/2 hours free time in the middle of the day, so we figure we might just as well make the best of it. We Canadians have made some very good friends with the French population of Phnom Penh and it is one of these French friends that kindly offered to take us for a spin in his boat tomorrow. The Mekong River, by the way, is the longest river in Asia, having its source way up in Tibet. It is on the Mekong that great ocean-going ships come right into Phnom Penh from the China Sea to load up with jute, rubber, bananas, etc. Should be fun. I’ll tell you all about it.
Well, the coffee is ready now, so I must be gone and will say good-night.