Tuesday, January 14, 2014

in la Cambodge...looking for the French Connection

 Ok, we were in Cambodia, la Cambodge, a former French colony in Indochine. On the first day at the hotel were croissants. Et voila I start seeing French things...connections.
And my son -  meditating here at Angkor Wat 
laughs at me. Didn't the French like leave here, like centuries ago? No, in 1953 a year before Dien Bien Phu and losing Viet Nam. But there must be a lot of traces left.  Doubt it, Mom. We're in Cambodia, there's been Pol Pot, the Killing Fields. Forget the French angle for awhile, nothing here anyway. We're here to visit Angkor Wat and temples in the jungle on our motorbikes.

 But of course, I became determined to find things French, any traces of colonialism, les Française. In Francois Bizot's haunting novel, The Gate, he describes being held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge for months until he was released amazingly by his captor who spoke French. Later as translator (he spoke French and Khmer) he was one of the last to leave the French Embassy in Phnom Pen in 1974 when the Khmer Rouge expelled all foreigners.
 Here's a roadside 'bar' it serves drinks for thirsty motorbikes.
 Literally you fill up your motorbike gas tank as  my son and Bune are doing- with a funnel and bottle of Sewards Gin containing a lot of gasoline high proof. So les moto's enjoy an apero. Then on high Mount Kulen following thousands of steps to a reclining Buddha gilded with gold

I found further Frenchness. Kids and men playing petanque/boules down the mountain from the pagoda.
 Proof à la Petanque.
We were riding through the countryside north of Angkor Wat with Bune, our motorcycle guide from Battambang. Bune's father and uncle narrowly escaped the Khmer Rouge's genocide. He had stories to tell and how the areas - even Siam Rep - were still full of mines until 1995-96. Bune's grandparents spoke French he remembers, they'd learned it as school. Twice as we passed villages I saw a stucco building labelled 'Poste de la Police'. We zipped past so fast my son didn't see. Bune, in his thirties, remembered French being taught in school when he was young and then it wasn't.

 Henri Mouhout, a French 19th century naturalist and explorer, while not the first to discover Angkor Wat, is often credited with bringing it's existence to the attention of the world. He made drawings, botanical studies and wrote of his experiences coming upon the incredible complex of temple ruins claimed by the jungle. He caught malaria after seeing Angkor and died in Laos where he's buried.  His book of drawings and detailing the expedition was published posthumously in France. The popularity of Angkor generated by Mouhot's writings, led to the popular support for a major French role in its study and preservation. The French carried out the majority of research work on Angkor until recently.

 We spent time at Angkor and at Bong Mealea, a temple complex 75 miles to the northeast. These temples had few tourists and felt like tomb raider. We also sampled local cuisine at every stall and especially liked going 'Amok with fish'.
And the night crepe stands - don't get me started on the rice crepes with Nutella!

On the back bumpfilled roads, many like sandtraps, which had been built by the UN after the areas were de-mined I came across the graveyard of distance markers. Like in France! French, I yelled to my son and got off his motorbike. 
 This needed documentation.
Tombstone-like with distances in kilometers and in Khmer and 'French'.

They were eerie and haunting.

 My son wasn't convinced. That's a stretch, they're trashing them by the side of the road, he kept saying. Even in France, you hardly see these tombstone distance markers any more. But I felt nostalgic.
Then there were the arbitrary driving rules like Paris - the same thrill of feeling your life going out of your control at Place de la Bastille - as a pirouette of tuk tuk’s - the motorcycle jitneys, miss sideswipes and collisions by a centimeter. So Parisian. Ride along in a tuk-tuk with me below. Note - the exciting bits happened before, this part is tame.

 Tuk-tuks ferry people, rice, dried taro root, while often cutting in front, or sideways and across several lanes (if there were lanes). But Siam Rep streets do have roundabouts and at least two traffic lights. Thrilling to witness motorcycles doing bus duty - carrying a family of four, a man with a pig, two farmers with six bushels piled high between them on a scooter, a mother nursing a baby in front and one child behind with shopping, girls talking on their cell phones, three smiling saffron robed monks,

Later on I found baguettes in Siam Rep's central market. Croissants, baguettes don't tell me there's no French connections in la Cambodge.
 Here's a monk who posed unwittingly at Angkor and I had a National Geographic moment.
 Then there were the go-go dancers who also sang. One belted a brilliant, lung clearing rendition of Piaf's Je ne regrette rien - word perfect.

Cara - Tuesday who didn't get to Phnom Pen and reputed French Colonial quartier


  1. So, Cara, we can expect the next Aimee Leduc novel to be set in the "la Cambodge Arrondissement?" :-) Looks like a wonderful trip!!

  2. Thanks Everett! I don't know if Aimée will get to 'la Cambodge Arrondissment' but she might meet a French archeologist working on Angkor Wat...who knows?

  3. Great photos Cara. Is the wee boy in the shorts measuring just how close his boule is? :)

  4. Exactly, Caro. This wee boy was quite a slinger of those boules. A champion in the making.

  5. Well, you've certainly given your son a trip to remember, a literal and figurative milestone in his life. And great photos to go along with the please-take-me-there descriptions. By the way, the French School of Archeology first excavated Greece's holy island of Delos, one of the most important centers of ancient times. It lay in unexplored ruins for 1700 years until the French in 1873 got involved. Now it's a world class site, still involving the French. Maybe Aimee would like to find her French connection there? And holiday a bit on Mykonos, only a mile away.