Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Meeting the King

So, after the excitement of the exhibition Sunday I was up again at 5am (usual!) to jump around waiting until 9.30am when the kids would arrive to go and see the King Of Cambodia - Preah Bat Samdech Preah Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni, His Majesty the King of Cambodia – to be precise.

I had written to the King a few weeks ago to tell him of the Smile photography project** I had set up. The King is a man of the arts. He studied Fine Arts and Dance in Europe and is very much into artistic pedagogy (basically teaching using the arts). Despite this clear connection to the project I was somewhat doubtful that an audience would be granted so when I was told about 10 days ago I was a bit surprised! Initially the invitation was just for me and the 10 children on the Photo Project but after asking General Van (the Kings aide) nicely I managed to get a further 3 invitations for the Director of CCH and his wife and Brian who is also involved in the Project.

Traditional Cambodia dress dictates a formal long skirt, coloured according to the day of the week and a white shirt. Having been to the tailors earlier in the week my outfit was ready to go. I knew my white shirt from my litigation days just HAD to come in useful at least once....good job I packed it in the 40kg case those 8 months ago!

Unusually for Cambodians the children arrived on the dot at 9.30am. Luckily, I had managed to speak to General Van to be told (roughly) what would happen at 6.30am that morning! The children would line up according to age and gender – I would go first. Ummm – not quite as comprehensive as I would have liked.

Lining up... I got no direction and was concerned at messing up!
So we set off at 10.20am and arrived at the gate which leads to the King’s home at the right hand side of the Royal Palace. We had to get out and the kids had to practice lining up. After 10 minutes or so the gates opened and a police escort took us down the King’s driveway.
In we go....

We got out of the minibus and General Van greeted me. I vaguely remembered him saying the day before (when I was stressed in the tuk tuk and could not hear properly –see post below) that the King would be at the top of the stairs when we got out of the car. He said it was time, the King was ready! And then I realised I was not just walking into a reception area to wait – The King was waiting at the top of the stairs to greet me and the rest of the others after me.

Arriving - the king is the dot at the top of the steps...I hadn't noticed him at this point!

Up the red carpet we went, the General and I. I asked him whether I should do the traditional bow (hands up to forehead for highest respect) or shake his hand. The General said “yes”(!). And before there was time for clarification time then ran out and I as face to face with the King. Well instinct kicked in and my hands were up by my forehead and I was bowing Cambo style. We then shook hands and had a brief chat about how honoured we both were to meet each other and then I went and stood by the picture we had given the King as a gift. The others followed me up in the order they had been told. I then presented the gift to the King. I told him about the child who had taken the picture and a bit about the project. The king thanked us a lot. We all bowed a lot. We all expressed humbleness!

Then I thought that was the end... but no... The King then took us into his home to a ballroom. There 14 plush chairs plus one for the King. I was to go in first and sit by the right side of the King. When we were all seated he thanked us again and then waited for me to speak..... Well this is not the way we do it in England!! I was confused! He did not ask questions but just allowed me to say what I liked!

I told him about the great success of the opening party and how the children had done a 10 week course. I praised the orphanage and the Director and told him he was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and that his vision was to give the children better hopes through education. We talked for about 10 – 15 minutes. During this time I was aware that no one else was getting to speak to I kept trying to speak about other people in the group!

Eventually, the King then moved on to speak to the Director – Sokha and then each of the children – who were quaking in their trainers. Before we went in I asked them if they were scared and they had said “no” and laughed... well they were now!

They addressed the King in Khmer (I spoke to him in English as he speaks French, English, Czech and Khmer). They told him their names, where they were from and about the project (I heard my name many times in the Khmer that was being spoken!).
Here is some still shots of some TV footage
I'm ok, I'm ok
I'll just check...

Yes, I'm ok!

Bow more

The King then proposed a toast. Well at least I think that is what happened as it was in Khmer. He got his juice and said some kind sounding things and looked at me. The said some more kind things in English and then we took a sip. I tried to gulp as much as possible in that one sip!

He then invited me and the others to follow him for an official photograph. Back into the hall we went and posed with me next to the King. He then invited us to receive a gift from him. Again I was first and I was presented with a beautiful Cambodian silver tray. I thanked him profusely for my gift and said it would always remind me of my happy times in Cambodia (oh I am so smooth – but also meant it!). I then waited while the others got gifts. The children got school uniforms and a book, pen and 10,000 Riel ($5) – which is a big deal here. Then off I went again, I was first to say goodbye to the King. More bowing, hand shaking and thanking/honouring.
In we got to the minibus and the King stood at the top of the steps and waved to us with both hands flying in the air for the whole 500m drive to the exit. We all waved back madly!! This gesture for me only confirmed my opinion that I had formed in the last 20 minutes or so. The King is a gracious man with a genuine love for his people. He seemed genuinely happy that we were visiting him and his thanks came from the heart. His eyes said it all. He was delighted that the children had the opportunity and that their futures though CCH were going to be better. He had invited us because he really WAS interested not because he had a hole in his diary. It was awesome (a word which is not in my general vocabulary)!

Me on TV getting my gift

Off we went to Gasolina so that Sokha the Director could see the photos as he had not been able to see them the night before. We then posed for some group shots and showed off our gifts.

From the King to me! and to the children

Me, the director and his wife - Sokha and Dany

A proud teacher at the exhibition with gift!

The King’s audiences are televised and so we were told we would be on TV at 7pm. That afternoon I slept but awoke at 5.30pm to go out to the orphanage to watch my appearance with the kids. At precisely 7pm we were on. Lots of footage of me being the Barang (white one) with the traditional skirt doing lots of bowing. The atmosphere at the orphanage was brilliant. All the kids were screaming/cheering in delight at the images of us all. Then a classic TV moment... During the ceremony I wanted to check whether the kids were still holding their hands together so I looked behind me (where the camera also was). They were still bowing (as I was) so I looked back quickly... The result... a petrified looking me!!!! The still shots from the TV are above!

This was mum’s first visit to the orphanage too. So she got to meet Sina, who was in an excellent mood.

**The Smile Photography Project focuses on documentary photography. The Project seeks to democratize the image-making dynamic by enabling those that have traditionally been the subject of such works to become the works creator. The students therefore have the opportunity to have control over how they and their surroundings are perceived by the rest of the world while simultaneously learning a new skill which can enhance their lives. Ten children (ranging from 10 to 17 years old) from the Centre for Children’s Happiness (CCH) and its sister orphanage CDCC took part in the Smile Project.

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