It’s the sort of story that wouldn’t be complete without a glut of puns, and the international press did not disappoint. The occasion: Thai Princess HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn ordering that a US$40,000 lakeside toilet be built especially for her, deep in Cambodia’s rural heartland, for the purpose of a two-hour visit.
The kicker: Her Royal Highness came, and saw, but conspicuously failed to marry royal porcelain with royal posterior.
Princess Sirindhorn was the guest of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on a trip intended to ‘boost bilateral education ties’ between the two kingdoms, her issue of choice since visiting for the first time in 1992.
Kao Kim Hourn, one of the prime minister’s attachés, told local reporters: “Princess Sirindhorn is strongly satisfied with Cambodian students and said that they study hard, are smart, and outstanding. She admires our students and loves them.”
But the diplomatic gesture was largely lost on a global audience transfixed by the staggering cost of constructing the royal commode on the shores of Yeak Lom Lake in Banlung City, Ratanakiri, one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces.
The toilet – a freestanding outhouse measuring eight square metres (86.11 sq ft) – is fully air-conditioned, took 19 days for Thai building firm Siam Cement Public Company (SCG) to build, and cost 66 times the average annual salary in Cambodia. Most of the materials were imported from Thailand.
An SCG manager identified as Mr Pursat told a local newspaper the community could use the ostentatious outhouse as an office after the royal delegation had left, and defended spending such a figure on a facility that will be used only once.
Normal people can’t use the King’s toilet
“If you have a king—well, just, normal people can’t use the king’s toilet,” he said.
In Cambodia, ‘normal people’ barely have access to a toilet at all. About 33 per cent of schools nationwide have no toilet facilities, according to data from the Cambodian ministry of education. NGOs estimate that the figure could be as high as 80 per cent in rural areas such as Ratanakiri.
The director of the Cambodian Rural Development Team, Channy Or, said Princess Sirindhorn’s bathroom cost around 130 times more than a standard public toilet for the region. He suggested Bangkok could have spent “$1,000 or $2,000 on a good bathroom and then given the rest to the communities and villages”.
The three-day royal itinerary also included presiding over a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a $260,000 public health centre in O’Chum district that was donated last year by the Thai royal family, according to district governor Pak Son.
Princess Sirindhorn also had a meeting with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, presided over the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Kampong Speu Institute of Technology (KSIT) and the Kampong Chheuteal High School (KCHS) in Kampong Thom, funded 200 scholarships for Cambodian students to study in Thailand, and visited schools in Kampong Speu, Tbong Khmum, and Prey Veng.
It is still unclear who paid for the princess’ porcelain.
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Cambodia tour 2016 slide gallery
Video & photos Samdech Hun Sen