To be honest, there are not that many famous Cambodians, though it’s not for lack of talent or attributes. Sadly, probably the most well known Khmer is better described as infamous: a Paris-educated teacher called Saloth Sar, though you’ll know him better as Pol Pot, the late 1970s dictator who brought death and destruction to his countrymen. For those of an architectural and design bent like me, Vann Molyvann - founder of New Khmer Architecture in the 1960s - was an icon, but is still little known globally.
In more modern times, Prime Minister Hun Sen has become the face of the nation (although his face is not on the money, that privilege belongs to King Norodom Sihamoni, and his father Norodom Sihanouk), leading it for the last two decades - though you wouldn’t exactly say he was a global celebrity. While the country is now booming, the small population of 16 million, an entertainment industry that is far overshadowed by its counterpart across the border in Thailand, and a Khmer language that doesn’t translate across borders, means native Cambodians haven’t found much fame abroad, though chef Rotanak Ros aka ‘Chef Nak’, has won recognition for her cookbook Nhum. But there is another class of Cambodian that still holds out promise.
Ethnic Khmers born overseas to a Cambodian parent are entitled to apply for a K visa, which allows the holder to live and work in the country until their passport expires (at which point they can apply for a new visa in their new passport). From my personal experience, the main nationalities applying for this are young French and Americans with Khmer ancestry. From the government’s perspective you’re gaining an educated class with an international outlook, who can contribute to the economy (hopefully). However, despite holding promise, it has yet to produce a Cambodian of global fame.
So far, we’ve failed to find our famous Cambodian, but there’s one more place to look.
It’s not that well known, but it’s actually quite possible for a foreigner to become a Cambodian. The kingdom allows for dual citizenship, so you don’t have to give up your original passport, and there are a few ways of gaining nationality. The first and most arduous is to live here for seven years, while holding a residence permit. You’ll be expected to be able to speak and write Khmer, as well as take a Cambodian history test. Another way is to marry a Cambodian, and after living together here for three years you can apply for citizenship. It’s also possible to buy nationality, through either investing in or donating to the kingdom - from what I could find it was worth at least US$500,000 at last count, though figures of one million or more have been discussed.
Last but not least, Khmer nationality is also used as a way to thank those foreigners who have made a significant contribution to the kingdom’s economy, culture and prestige. Most likely the smallest subset of foreigners who have acquired citizenship, this also happens to be the category where we can find the most famous Cambodian.
In August 2005, this individual was awarded Cambodian citizenship by order of royal decree by the king, Norodom Sihamoni. The honor was granted in recognition of the person’s environmental and conservation activities in Cambodia. “This is what we have dreamed for her for a long time,” said the director of the Cambodian Vision in Development group at the time. He added that she was truly worthy of citizenship “not just because of the money she has given but for her good heart and love for the Cambodian people.” Have you guessed yet? Here’s a clue: the temple of Ta Prohm.
No? Then here’s another.
Still not got it? Surely now then.
Yup, that’s right - the most famous Cambodian is none other than Angelina Jolie.
Bet you didn't see that coming?
After starring in 2001 blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which featured the famous Ta Phrom temple in Angkor - despite being more than 1000 years old, it’s still referred to as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ - Jolie developed a love affair with Cambodia which saw her adopt a 7 month old baby orphan (her son Maddox), and then later establish a wildlife sanctuary in a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in Battambang province. Just four years later, after the King’s royal decree, Jolie officially became a Cambodian.
As a famous blogger, perhaps I don’t have long to wait for my Khmer citizenship then?