In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the French influence lives on


A partially refinished French colonial home behind the National Museum in Phnom Penh. (Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images)
January 23

In November, as Cambodia’s rainy season was coming to a close, my girlfriend and I looked at a new apartment in Phnom Penh’s old French district. Located in the central part of the city near the U.S. Embassy, the building was advertised as the modern incarnation of the colonial-era Hôtel Manolis.

Now chopped up into apartments, the hotel provides a footnote to French literary and colonial history. In 1923, the writer and future French minister of cultural affairs André Malraux occupied a room there. Malraux was a young man, traveling with his wife, Clara, and a friend, when he was caught trying to spirit Cambodian antiquities out of the country. 

Criminality, scandal, intrigue, the ghost of Malraux: What more could you want in a potential living space?

The French real estate agent, however, offered a better-known selling point when we met him for a walk-through. The area, he told us, had been featured in the 2002 Matt Dillon movie “City of Ghosts.”


Details: Phnom Penh

I’ve lived in Phnom Penh for nearly two years and thought that I knew the city well. But when we ascended the staircase and opened the door to the flat, a much older model appeared. The apartment had slatted royal-blue shutters and tiled, dusty floors. There were no air conditioners: Ceiling fans pushed the hot air around. From the living room windows, whose many locks took about three minutes to open, small steps led down to a low-slung balcony.

Five minutes earlier, we’d been immersed in a bustling Phnom Penh. Here inside, past and present merged. We were being shown an apartment with French colonial roots by a transplanted Frenchman 60 years after King Norodom Sihanouk led the crusade for independence from France in 1953. Perhaps the strangest thing was that there was nothing strange about it.

Despite the sprouting of skyscrapers, the arrival of mega malls, the rise of English as a dominant second language and the hurried urban development, Phnom Penh still retains a strong French feel. The French Chamber of Commerce has seen an uptick in small to medium enterprises. According to the French Embassy, the number of French citizens living in Cambodia has doubled over the past 10 years and grown at an average annual rate of 10 percent over the past three. France has one of the largest Cambodian diaspora communities outside the United States, largely because of the refugees who fled there to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In recent years, many have been coming home.

In Phnom Penh, I’ve met a lot of French people without going out of my way to meet French people. Our landlord at the time we looked at the apartment was French. A skinny French guy had shown us another apartment weeks before. I ate at French restaurants, bars and cafes every week. Some of them, like the apartment, were in refurbished versions of buildings constructed during the French Protectorate, which started in 1863 and ended under Sihanouk 90 years later.

Although the protectorate was dismantled six decades ago, the French-Cambodian relationship seems to have continued in a less exploitative form, like the aftermath of a breakup where two people illogically remain friends. I remember what an advocate for the French business community said to me while leaving Van’s Restaurant, which serves pricey but tasty French fare out of the former Indochina Bank building in Phnom Penh. Lamenting the modern development threatening to overtake the city’s architectural past, he gestured to the leafy, elegant courtyard: “To me, this is Cambodia.”

Back to colonial days

The French government and Sihanouk’s distant forerunner, King Norodom, agreed to swap protection in exchange for trading rights in 1863. A few years later, the French persuaded the king to move the capital to where it is now. In one of my favorite guidebooks ever written, “Strolling Around Phnom Penh,” the French scholar Jean-Michel Filippi makes a valuable observation. French rule endured for more than half the number of years that Phnom Penh has been Cambodia’s modern capital. As such, French architectural and planning legacies abound.

Filippi’s book, which is full of several self-guided walks in different quarters of the city, offers one way of exploring. Acerbic and funny, he begins the first stroll of the French area by condemning a building as an “architectural absurdity” that’s between a “hideous bunker and an architectural piece of nonsense which fulfills the function of a hotel.” He’s good company.

But a friend had recommended seeing the colonial era through a preservationist group called Khmer Architecture Tours. Half of the three-hour excursion takes place on foot. In between stops, we each hopped briefly into a cyclo, or cyclopousse, the bicycle rickshaw that was invented, appropriately enough, by a Frenchman, Maurice Coupeaud, in 1937. In “Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History,” historian Milton Osborne writes that Coupeaud pulled off a colonial publicity stunt by riding a cyclo himself from Phnom Penh to what is now Ho Chi Minh City, about 125 miles away. The journey took 17 hours.

Tuk-tuks, motorbikes and taxis have pushed the cyclo to the edge of extinction as a form of transportation, which is probably for the best. Riding in a cyclo is very uncomfortable ethically, as a human being is pedaling another human being around. But the shameful secret is that, for the passenger, it’s very comfortable physically. There may not be a better way to see the French footprint than through the slow roll of the cyclopousse.

Our tour guide was a Cambodian architecture student from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. First, he took us into the surviving Post Office, which is still in use and right across the street from Malraux’s onetime hotel room. He led us over to a wall where we gazed up at photos of old counters lost in the changing restorations of the place. The high ceilings, he pointed out, created a cooling effect necessary in the tropical heat. “Sometimes, I really admire these colonial architects,” he said.

We walked across the road into the aging French police commissariat, whose future is unknown. The cream-colored building on the corner is falling apart and seemingly uninhabitable, although I occasionally see lights on inside at night. During the day, volleyball games take place in the courtyard.

Apart from a few notable exceptions — the National Museum, the Central Market, the National Library, parts of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal and sections of the Royal Palace grounds — most French structures around today were brought back to life to serve a different purpose, some hilariously different. One building site is now home to a branch of Cambodia’s dominant coffee chain, Brown. I’m sure that the French developer behind a large colonial hotel on Phnom Penh’s riverside would be delighted to know that it’s now a KFC. Other buildings have been put to use as government institutions, property developments and, in a win for cultural preservationists, UNESCO’s Phnom Penh offices. Many have simply been left in disrepair or demolished to make way for more practical offerings, such as an office supply store.

Movable feasts

The more visible and thriving aspects of the French scene in Phnom Penh are, not surprisingly, food and drink. There are so many good French restaurants and bars here that singling out a handful is difficult, but a few stand out for their distinctively French ambiance.

In the gloomily lit Dodo Rhum House, a few blocks west of the river, the slim and occasionally surly Frenchman who runs the place can be found behind the bar, cigarette hanging from his lips, languidly pouring drinks. French and other expatriates stand around sipping flavored rums (I always get passion fruit) and smoking, indoors and out.

Not far away, L’Absinthe Bar sells cheap beer and varieties of the strong potion for about $5 a glass, depending on the quality. It’s on Street 51 in Phnom Penh, a strip of rowdy backpacker bars and clubs. The mood is more laid-back at L’Absinthe, where I always seem to see a little dog running around.

I’ve eaten at most of the restaurants: Comme à La Maison, the fittingly named Open Wine and Armand’s, where the Franco-Cambodian owner, Armand Gerbié, pours cognac into a pan and theatrically flambés your $20 steak tableside. In 2012, Gerbié told AsiaLIFE that his performance was “an old-fashioned French thing.” It certainly delivers. The first time I went to the bistro, which is improbably located next to a park where anti-government protests typically occur, charming accordion music was playing on the sound system. Gerbié, whose slick black hair gives him a commanding presence, flitted from table to table, having brief conversations in French.

While I like Armand’s, I prefer Chez Gaston, a small and less expensive restaurant on an unassuming block near the river. I discovered it while wandering around town in my first month here. A collection of small tables looks out onto the street. The menu is written on a chalkboard. The owner, who isn’t named Gaston, buys little birthday presents for diners. On Valentine’s Day, he presented couples with roses.

When I eat there, I order a bottle of Bordeaux, the onglet à l’échalote (hanger steak with shallots) and maybe a chocolate mousse. I celebrated my 30th birthday there, and when an event seems to call for a certain special dinner, my first thought is: Chez Gaston. The restaurant is coming up on its fifth year. At the end of the meal, the owner pours free shots out of an unlabeled bottle of what tastes like homemade black currant-flavored vodka. If he’s in good spirits, and the dinner is festive enough, he leaves the bottle on the table.

French going and coming

After the protectorate fizzled out in 1953, the French didn’t exactly leave. If anything, the community grew. Sihanouk, who called for independence and got it, was a Francophile among Francophiles. His preferences kept the relationship in good standing. “In Phnom Penh the French seemed to be everywhere,” Osborne writes in his book about the city, adding that even Sihanouk’s doctor was a French army colonel.

But by the late 1960s, the French influence was on the decline. As commerce was nationalized, economic opportunities dwindled. In 1970, Sihanouk was deposed while abroad, and Cambodia was increasingly drawn into the Vietnam War. The new government, egged on by one of the high-ranking officials behind the coup, Lon Nol, launched xenophobic campaigns against large ethnic groups in the country, including the Chinese and, most viciously, the Vietnamese. Buildings lost their royal names in an anti-royalist backlash.

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over. Though some of the senior leaders in the radical communist movement had been educated in France, this didn’t lead to an enlightened society. Nearly 2 million Cambodians perished from disease, overwork, starvation and execution.

Why a movement that targeted the educated classes, turned the country into a prison and eliminated markets and private property held off on demolishing the French buildings is still something of a mystery. During the architecture tour, I asked my guide for his theory. He dryly responded: “Maybe they didn’t have time.”

By early 1979, the Vietnamese military had ousted the Khmer Rouge. The occupation lasted for 10 years.

The French resurgence didn’t really start until the early to mid-1990s. The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the ensuing United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia ushered in a wave of development money, French nongovernmental organizations and French professionals. Frédéric Amat, author of “Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia,” came as a journalist almost 20 years ago. He remembers the time well. Sihanouk, the French-speaking royal, came back from exile and reclaimed the throne. Cambodians living in France began to trickle back as well.

“When you arrived at the airport, the paper to fill was written in French and Khmer,” he told me in an interview. “When you go to the hospitals, the forms were in French.”

The community now stands at around 4,700, according to the embassy, a number that includes many Cambodians with dual citizenship. But while Amat says that “a huge number of French are coming every week, every month,” he doesn’t think that France exercises the political or cultural influence that it once did.

On Nov. 9, I went to an Independence Day ceremony in Phnom Penh. There aren’t many Cambodians left who can recall the colonial past. Two people in their 60s told my interpreter and me that they had only heard stories through their parents. Instead, we started talking to a 17-year-old high-school senior. Later that day, my interpreter sent me a roughly translated script of our conversation.

Q: What do you know about French Colonial?

A: They oppressed our citizen. They took and forced Cambodians to pay many kinds of taxes.

Q: What do you think about French people or France?

A: France also donates a lot and some projects to Cambodia.

Q: Why France donates?

A: They want our country to be developed because we are poor. And maybe it wants to show regret for what they did wrong on our people in the past.

A bit of history

In December, we signed a year’s lease and moved into the apartment we’d looked at. A Cambodian family lives on the first floor; when I waved hello to the middle-age couple, the man responded with “Bonjour.”

An air conditioner was installed as part of the negotiations. Outside, contemporary Phnom Penh beckons. While I’m glad that I’ve found a bit of history, to me, the flat isn’t Cambodia. I like the sounds of streetside restaurants coming to life in the morning, and I like giving directions to my colonial apartment by saying, “Go up the river and make a left at the street right before KFC.”

The first night here, I rewatched “City of Ghosts.” The film is about an American (Dillon) who pursues a former business associate in Phnom Penh, only to find himself entangled in a web of corruption.

It’s rife with cliches, but I’d forgotten about the role played by the famous French actor Gérard Depardieu. He runs the hotel and cafe where Dillon’s character sets up shop during his misadventure.

A Frenchman running a business in Phnom Penh well after the demise of colonial Cambodia. Now that’s about right.

Freeman is a reporter and editor at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia.

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