On 10 May 1906, at two in the afternoon, a French liner called the Amiral-Kersaint set off from Saigon carrying a troupe of nearly a hundred classical dancers and musicians from the royal palace at Phnom Penh. The ship was bound for Marseille, where the dancers were to perform at a great colonial exhibition. It would be the first time Cambodian classical dance was performed in Europe.
Also travelling on the Amiral-Kersaint was the sixty-six-year-old ruler of Cambodia, King Sisowath, along with his entourage of several dozen princes, courtiers and officials. The King, who had been crowned two years before, had often spoken of his desire to visit France, and for him the voyage was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
The Amiral-Kersaint docked in Marseille on the morning of 11 June. The port was packed with curious onlookers; the city’s trams had been busy since seven, transporting people to the vast, covered quay where the King and his entourage were to be received. The crowd was so large that two brigades of gendarmes and a detachment of mounted police had to be deployed to hold it back.