Prince Damrong in Preah Vihear, 1930

by Angkor Database

Published: 1931

On 30 January 1930, Prince Damrong Rajanupab of Thailand arrived at Preah Vihear (also called Śikhareśvara, “Summit of God Shiva”) for a private visit (not as the head of an official expedition from the Siamese court of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), as it has been claimed) with several Thai noblemen and one of his daughters, Princess Phun Phitsamai Diskul. The French commissioner for the Cambodian province of Kompong Thom, and chief-archaeologist Henri Parmentier for Angkor, welcomed the Thai visitors and guided them on the Dangrek hills for them to see its famed centuries-old Hindu temple.

The pictures taken by the unnamed photographer have recently resurfaced on Internet, fueling the ongoing territorial controversy that had been settled by the the International Court of Justice in 1962, and again in 1965. These same pictures had then played a major role in the Court deliberations, the Cambodian side arguing that the visit was a de facto recognition of the sovereignty of the Protectorate (and thus Cambodia) on Preah Vihear.

A few remarks seem necessary here:

  • Somdet Krom Phraya Damrong Rachanuphap, a younger brother of King Chulalongkorn and former Minister of Interior, himself an archaelogist and Southeast Asian art collector, had always entertained excellent relations with the French researchers, to begin with George Coedes, who spent ten years researching the Bangkok Royal Library archives. In the EFEO Chronicle for the year 1924, for instance, we read that "Mlle Suzanne Karpeles, on a mission in Cambodia since August, went to Angkor in November in order to welcome -- with M. Marchal -- HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, who had traveled from Bangkok to visit the monuments". The Prince acknowledged the expertise of EFEO researchers on Preah Vihear, having exchanged knowledge with French explorers since as long as 1910, when Lunet de Lajonquiere identified some inscriptions part of the Prince's collection.
  • During a talk at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri showed these photos of Prince Damrong and the French officials posing together beneath the French flag, and noted that the Prince "accepted that Preah Vihear belonged to French Indochina," in contrast with the official history taught to Thai children, "history infected with nationalism."
  • During the debates at the International Court, one expert reporting for the Thai side, Volker Grabowsky of the Asia-Africa-Institute at University of Hamburg, maintained that "the Preah Vihear temple has been merely of local importance for the Kui or Suai people inhabiting the Dongrak Mountains on both sides of the present-day Thai-Cambodian border. It seems that the temple was abandoned completely in later times and only visited by forest monks for meditation practices. In the year 1899 the Siamese High Commissioner (kha luang thesaphiban) of Monthon Isan visited the inaccessible area south of Kantharalak and discovered by mere chance the temple ruins, overgrown by climbing plants."
  • Several years later, Prince Damrong published the impressions of his visit along with several of these photos in his book “Report on a survey of archaeological sites in monthon Nakhòn Ratchasima (จดหมายเหตุการเสด็จตรวจโบราณวัตถุสถานมณฑลนครราชสีมา). Although he undertook his visit to Preah Vihear as a private person, Prince Damrong, who at that time held the position as Chief of the Supreme State Council (อภิรัฐมนตรี), was welcome by his French hosts as a high-ranking state-guest. According to his daughter, the Prince did not dare protest the display of French authority, "given the arrogant and intrusive behaviour of the French and given the painful experiences of the past." Princess Phun Phitsamai Diskul also noted that “it was generally known at the time that we only give the French an excuse to seize more territory by protesting. Things had been like that since they came into the river Chao Phya with their gunboats and their seizure of Chanthaburi.”


In the sole photograph of the Damrong-Parmentier meeting in Preah Vihear kept in the EFEO archives, "two unidentified French officers" are seen with Prince Damrong and the French archaeologist.

Tags: Preah Vihear, Siam, Thailand, border dispute, French colonialism

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