Sunday, December 19, 2010


Cambodia has seen many influxes of foreigners over its long history. Traders from India visited early on and their influence carries through to this day. Malays and Chams, and of course the Vietnamese and Thais who gradually migrated south made their marks too. Chinese have been moving steadily to the region for hundreds of years too, while various groups of hill tribes have drifted down, in many cases relatively recently.

The first foreigners from the west to arrive in Cambodia turned up in the late 1500s. Hailing from Portugal and later Spain, they were a mixed bunch of missionaries and freebooters who made their presence known very quickly. One particularly notorious pair almost managed to convert the Cambodian King to Christianity, but when he was deposed they followed him up to Laos, and after raising an army they fought their way back into Cambodia and got rid of the usurper. There is an excellent book written by a Jesuit Priest that goes into detail on this, but all didn’t go well in the end for the Europeans. After a period of calm when they were able to establish their own quarter in Phnom Penh, but after some problems with the Malay residents, who were made up largely of mercenaries employed by the King, they were all slaughtered one night and their houses were burnt to the ground. There were also later English arrivals who settled near the court which was then at Oudong.

A small community of Portuguese-Khmers remained in Phnom Penh, in an area of what is now part of Russei Keo district by national route 5. Although many of these had converted to Christianity, they took on local habits and assimilated to such an extent that they became virtually indistinguishable from any other inhabitants. Portuguese family names were common enough till at least the 1950s, and it seems that European features are visible in some locals, but this may be coincidence.

It wasn’t till almost three centuries later that the next large bunch of Europeans turned up, this time French. In the early years most of the colonists were a rough crew, it was a tough posting in a hot country ravaged by tropical diseases, and in the main only the desperate turned up. Many of them took up with local wives and lifestyles, and their “going native” became an issue for later French administrations. However, as the administration expanded, many of these malcontents who had in many cases been struggling for years found lucrative posts.

In the years that followed, long after the ground work had been done by these “desperados,” it was married, respectable and wholesome people who were more likely to be found manning the higher posts in the protectorate.

After independence, many French people stayed on in Cambodia, and they have a huge if quiet presence these days too. The first few years of post-independence Cambodia were boom years, and with various aid projects underway and a free atmosphere, the place was popular and many foreigners enjoyed living here. This wasn’t to last long, and afterwards a period of stagnation saw many small businesses closing and many foreign residents leaving.

After the 1970 coup and the war which started to kick in straight afterwards, a lively crowd of advisors, journalists and aid workers moved to Phnom Penh. Most accounts tell of a heady, surreal atmosphere where despite there being a war just outside the city boundaries, many wined and dined and had a good time while the country burned. All remaining foreigners were rounded up and expelled via the Thai border after Pol Pot’s forces took Phnom Penh in April 1975. Francois Bizot, a French archaeologist helped round up some of the stragglers. In his book “The Gate”, he tells of one amazing incident where a couple of French Academics working at the University of Phnom Penh refused to listen to his advice. They were Marxists, and had decided to stay and help the revolution, and had already donned black pajamas and red kramas for this impending role. Two days later they were picked up by combatants and dumped at the embassy. A Scottish surgeon was so annoyed by their clothing that he decked one of them and told them to change clothes, which they did.

There are some stories about U.S. soldiers who went AWOL and one McKenzie Phillips did settle in Cambodia with his local wife back in the early 1970s. He was apparently very popular in the village as he wasn’t work shy. Unfortunately the Khmer Rouge didn’t share this enthusiasm and he was later executed. The sole westerner known of who did live in Cambodia in the late 1970s is Laurent Piq. A Frenchwoman who married a Cambodian scholar in Paris in the late 1960s, she made her way to Cambodia after the revolution, where her husband was now a high ranking political cadre. She received little in the way of favor, had a miserable time, and eventually had to flee across the Thai border as a refugee.

After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, a very small number of aid staff was allowed to move to Phnom Penh, were most were quartered in the Samaki Hotel, now renamed Le Royal, and their movements were strictly controlled. It wasn’t really till UNTAC hit town in 1991 that large numbers of foreigners turned up again. Obviously the first were military guys and officials but many NGO workers, journalists and increasing numbers of private businessmen too. The Lido was a popular bar with legionnaires, and unwelcome faces were often unceremoniously thrown off the balcony. Nowadays it is the location of rather safer Sharky Bar.

Some of these characters from UNTAC time stayed or later returned here, but they are rare to come by. Many more people rolled up on these shores as the 1990s progressed, and obviously with a dusty, crazy town these weren’t always the most wholesome types. With the surrender of the remnants of Pol Pot’s army in early 1999, peace finally returned and since then the whole country has changed immensely. In recent years many of the foreigners deciding to stay perhaps seem more well-heeled and sophisticated than before. Echoing the situation with the later French arrivals in the 19th century, the groundwork was already done for them. If the going got tough, I’d imagine most would get going sharpish, leaving behind a few oddballs and maniacs who wouldn’t know where else to go anyway.

The top picture is the "Fete De Club Nautique" in Phnom Penh, 1955. The second was I think actually taken in Laos in 1955, I had to post it for the dodgy expressions on the foreigners. The third picture shows a mixed bunch of foreigners displaying cultural insensitivity on an early version of "Pontoon." The last is someone waterskiing in front of the Royal Palace.


Igor Prawn said...

Wonderful post! Have you considered doing a book on the expats of Cambodia, approximately the same time-period you cover here?

phnompenhpast said...

Thanks, I think most of it has been covered already in other books.

david said...

Hi Phnom Penh Past, I lived in Cambodia in summer 1991 and in later years too. I was wondering if you had any pics of PP before UNTAC got there?


David Roberts