Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A new Phnom Penh chancery and memories of other days

A new Phnom Penh chancery and memories of other days
Published 29 Mar 2016 

In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

Today the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh is housed in a purpose-built chancery opened in June 2009. It replaced a former residential building purchased in 1992 and converted to use as a chancery until the new embassy was built. Praised for its use of Cambodian materials and for the preservation of a sacred bhodi tree on the building's site, the new chancery is in a prime location close to the National Assembly and the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As it happens, it is also close to the giant, ugly Naga casino.

The current building is strikingly different from the chancery  I encountered when arrived in Cambodia to take up my appointment as third secretary in April 1959, at a time when Australia's representation in Cambodia was still at legation level; the mission attained full embassy status the following November.

The total staff of the embassy then was three: a minister as head of mission (shortly to become ambassador); a secretary-typist; and myself. We worked in what had previously been an architecturally undistinguished residential building on Phnom Penh's principal thoroughfare, the Boulevard Norodom. It did have one virtue, the politically comforting proximity of the British embassy chancery directly next door (that building is now the American ambassador's residence). If the association with the British represented a degree of  comfort, the living and working arrangements within the embassy did not. The head of mission and his family lived 'above the shop' but dined in the large downstairs room that was provided the entrance way for two offices, one for the head of mission, the other for the secretary-typist and myself.

The inconveniences of this arrangement were obvious and persisted for much of the first two years of my posting until a separate stand-alone villa was rented for the ambassador, as he had become, in what was then on the outer limits of Phnom Penh. It had a large garden, a mango tree that was raided by local children, a princess as a next door neighbour, and a link to tutelary spirits that frequently resulted in headless chickens being left hanging as sacrifices at the entrance gates to the driveway.

Most importantly, the villa was owned by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's undisputed leader at the time and it was said to have been one of his love nests. The fact that Australia was able to rent from the prince was a real mark of favour. Rental payments for the villa were made each month in cash, which I carried into the royal palace and handed over the prince's treasurer.

If these arrangements sound far removed from most of today's diplomatic world, a brief word about staff accommodation emphasises the point. [fold] The mission's secretary-typist, and I and my then wife, were housed in basic, third-storey walk-up flats in what was then Phnom Penh's Chinese Quarter. Lacking hot water and stoves — all cooking was done on charcoal braziers — the flats were finally declared sub-standard by Sir Arthur Tange, the department's Secretary, when he visited Phnom Penh in 1960.

The chancery building on the Boulevard Norodom was housing several families of squatters when I visited Phnom Penh in 1981, less than two years after the defeat of the Pol Pot regime, with a pig tethered in the driveway. It had a brief life as a bank in the 1990s, with the building surviving until quite recently. When I last passed by in 2015 it was a building site. That flats that Sir Arthur Tange found wanting are still there, looking just as shabby as they did when we lived there.

There are many stories that may be told about Australia's Phnom Penh chancery, but none more appealing to old Cambodia hands than that linked to Mr Muy, one of the embassy's drivers, whom I knew well during my posting and met in an emotional reunion in the late 1990s. When the Australian staff at the embassy were withdrawn in 1975, shortly before the victory of the Khmer Rouge, Mr Muy was entrusted with the keys to the chancery. Throughout the harrowing days of the Pol Pot period Mr Muy guarded the keys he had been given and, at great risk to his life, listened to the radio to hear what was happening in the outside world. When, in 1990, he learnt that Australia was reopening its diplomat mission he made himself known and was rehired as the ambassador's driver. 

Photo shows the author with Prince Sisowath Phandaravong at the British Embassy's 1961 Queen's Birthday reception in Phnom Penh

You may also be interested in