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The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

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The Great Crown of Victory

I think the crown of the king of Thailand is one of the most spectacular and noteworthy extant crowns.  It is known as the Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut or “great crown of victory” and it is only worn by the king when he ascends the throne.  Made for King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (aka Rama I) in 1782, the crown is a soaring multi-tiered conical structure reminiscent of a particularly ornate stupa. It was manufactured from 15 pounds of gold ornamented with red and green enamel. A subsequent king of Siam, Rama IV, had diamonds added to the crown including the Phra Maha Wichian Mani, a huge Indian diamond which was set at the apex. Perhaps the magnificence and unique appearance of the headdress are appropriate, since it belongs to King Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving head of state and one of the few contemporary monarchs to wield any real power over his nation.  Additionally, King Bhumibol is reckoned by Forbes to be the richest of the world’s current monarchs.  He ascended to the throne of Thailand in 1946 after his brother’s death by gunshot (although he did not assume the great crown of victory until 1950).  Tragically, Bhumibol was probably the last person to see his brother alive.  To quote Wikipedia, “During his long reign he has seen over 15 coups, 16 constitutions, and 27 changes of prime ministers.”

King Bhumibol Wearing the Great Crown of Victory on his Coronation Day

Aside from the great crown of victory, the Thai monarch has 27 other items of royal regalia including the the Sword of Victory, the Royal Staff, the Royal Fan (or Flywhisk), and the Royal Slippers (ฉลองพระบาท).  These items are kept for the king (along with other royal items) at the Grand Palace in Bankok.  It may seem impressive that King Bhumibol, has more pieces of royal regalia at his palace than I have socks, but his flywhisk and slippers pale to insignificance beside his monstrous gold carriage, the 33 foot tall Phra Maha Phichai Ratcarot and his fleet of carved, gilded barges.

The King's Royal Carriage

and his royal barges....

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