Prague, Czech Republic – Known as the only living monarch who speaks fluent Czech, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni has a deep personal connection with the Czech Republic.
September 19 marks the anniversary of Norodom Sihamoni receiving the honorary citizenship of Prague in 2006, as Czech Radio reported. The perfect opportunity to look at the Central European connections of this monarch, who remains relatively unknown in the Czech Republic and beyond.
Born in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh in 1953, Norodom Sihamoni is the eldest son of former King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath.
When still a child, his father sent him to pursue his education in Czechoslovakia, where 9-year-old Norodom Sihamoni moved in 1962.
The Prague years
After attending an elementary school on Prague’s Ostrovni street, he studied conservatory and ballet at the National Prague Conservatory and at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, where he excelled.
The movie “The Other Little Prince” (Jiny Maly Princ), directed by Vladimir Sis, was shot about him in 1967. Aged only 13, he performed at the Czech National Theatre in Prague in the famous Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker and starred, throughout his life, in several movies directed by his father, then King Norodom Sihanouk, who was known as a prolific filmmaker.
“For me, Prague is the most beautiful city in the world,” he said in fluent Czech when he received the honorary citizenship of Prague. “The years in childhood and youth that I spent here were among the most beautiful years of my life.”
After finishing his studies in then communist Czechoslovakia, which he called his “second home”, he moved to North Korea in 1975 to study filmmaking.
North Korea, the Cambodian genocide, France
Deceived by the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge, whose genocidal rule would cause the death of up to 2 million Cambodians in less than 4 years, he returned to his homeland in 1976.
Forced to stay under house arrest in the Phnom Penh Palace with other members of the royal family, he was evacuated to China in 1979 following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that put an end to the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
Sometimes nicknamed “the Czech” by his fellow compatriots, Norodom Sihamoni worked for some time as his father’s secretary in China.
He then moved to Paris, where he worked as a ballet and classical dance instructor, formed his own dance troupe and directed a few movies. Living in France for nearly 20 years, he became known as a prominent cultural ambassador across Europe, and was named Cambodia’s permanent representative to UNESCO in 1993, a position he held until his coronation.
A beloved king for nearly 20 years
He was crowned King of Cambodia in 2004 following the surprise abdication of his father. Some reports claim the new Cambodian crown was actually commissioned to Czech jewel designer Viktorie Beldova.
Contrary to his predecessor, famous for his larger-than-life, charismatic personality, and political savviness, the new monarch has stayed out of politics, in line with the largely ceremonial and symbolic function of the royal office in Cambodia.
Norodom Sihamoni is seen as a humble and discreet king, dedicated to preserving the unity of the Khmer nation after decades of unrest, and focusing much of his time on supporting Cambodian arts and culture.
In 2017, he presided over the world premiere of the movie First They Killed My Father, directed by Angelina Jolie and dedicated to the Khmer Rouge genocide, an event set in the ruins of Angkor Wat the author of these lines was lucky to attend as well.
A lifelong bachelor – with slightly taboo rumours on his suspected homosexuality – King Norodom Sihamoni has no children.
He remains a much-beloved and revered figure in Cambodia, as well as in the Czech Republic, where he is thought to travel fairly frequently.