The former French embassy, on the intersection of Monivong Boulevard and 76 Street,
is scheduled for renovation. Immortalized in the film The Killing Fields, it was
the scene of siege and dramatic departures in 1975, after which it was, like the
rest of the city, Since then the dilapidated buildings, full of bullet holes, graffiti
and weeds, have served as a make shift orphanage, an ammunition dump, a home for
squatters and, in the overgrown jungle that was once a glorious garden, a haven for
In 1991 the French restored diplomatic relations with Cambodia and reclaimed the
7.5 hectares (15 acres) of their patrimony. The following year, on 14 July, they
celebrated, with characteristic French elan, that other storming of a building, Bastille
Day, in the jungle grounds, a prelude to the grand plans they have in store for the
site which witnessed such an intense period of history.
When the revolutionary Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 19975, people rushed
to take refuge in the embassy. Six hundred foreign residents, including journalists
and staff from the U.N., the Red Cross and the Calmette Hospital, and almost a thousand
Khmers, Chinese and Vietnamese besieged it, scaling the high iron fences and jumping
over the gates which had been barred in desperation by the French vice-consul, Jean
Dyrac, the sole representative of the French government at that time in the city.
The last ambassador had been recalled to France earlier, leaving only Dyrac.
When Pol Pot's troops said they did not recognize diplomatic extra territoriality,
Dyrac was forced to surrender the Cambodians, even those married to French nationals,
to certain execution. Khmer women married to French men were spared, and he hurriedly
married off a few inside the embassy. At the gates Dyrac, who had fought against
Franco with the International Brigade, had worked in the French Resistance and been
tortured by the Germans, and had served in the Indochina expeditionary force to Laos
and Cambodia, apparently wept. "We are no longer men," he cried, as he
turned away Prince Monireth, and surrendered Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, a cousin
of Prince Sihanouk and instigator of the 1970 coup d'état, Princess Mam Monivann,
Sihanouk's Laotian wife, Luong Nal, minister of health, and Ung Bun Hor, president
of the national assembly.
The remaining crowd, before being trucked to safety at the Thai border, spent three
weeks marooned in their lavish prison. Its elegant interior contained 19th century
Yunnan carpets, reproduction Louis XVI sofas, a grand piano, Sevres porcelain, a
burnished mahogany dining table, and a copious cellar filled with French wines and
Cuban cigars. The incumbents sprawled over the furniture, played rousing songs on
the piano by day, slept under it at night, raided the cellars, drank all the ambassador's
champagne, polished off his cigars, skinned and curried the embassy cat, and overflowed
into the gardens, transformed into a campsite, and chopped down the frangipani trees
American photographer Al Rockoff, whose character is portrayed in David Puttnam's
film, remembered Dyrac catching a thief stealing the embassy silver and stuffing
it into his bags, as behaviors deteriorated into mayhem, Eventually, as the weeks
wore on, there was not even any water. "We sneaked out at night to wash in rain
barrels and talk to the Khmer Rouge," he recalled. Now, like someone revisiting
their past, he lives a stone's throw from the embassy.
Constructed after Cambodia gained independence from French colonial rule, the buildings
date from the 1950s. The place holds many happy memories for Veronique Dauge, the
daughter of French ambassador Louis Dauge, who spent part of her childhood there,
between 1968 and 1971. She recalled an idyllic childhood playing in the beautiful
gardens, among the tree-lined avenues of tamarind, coconut palms and frangipani,
with her black spaniel and pet mongoose. She loved Cambodia. "I always knew
I would come back," she said. When she had to go back to France, she chose to
study the history and archeology of southeast Asia and has now fulfilled her dream,
returning as French Culture program officer for UNESCO. Because of her memories,
she finds it painful to visit the site now. "It is another world, another life."
Plans for a new chapter in the embassy's life are ambitious. Philippe Thiollier,
a civil engineer in the current embassy further downtown, is overseeing plans drawn
up by Paris-based architects Jean Dubus and Pierre Loot. The restoration will cost
many millions of Francs, he said, and work is scheduled to start this autumn. It
should take about fourteen months to complete-"fourteen months of non-rainy
days," added Thiollier.
Funding will come from the French government, under its new prime minister, Edouard
Balladur. A French team will be arriving soon and they will employ and supervise
Cambodian workmen. Thiollier hopes they will set a new standard of excellence and
that the project will generate interest in the surrounding area which used to be
the French colonial quarter and is full of historic old buildings. Not surprisingly,
the ambassador, Philippe Coste, and his staff are looking forward to quitting their
current premises and getting back, like resettled refugees, to their former glory.
The present ambassador, whose many interests include matters botanical and horticultural,
also plans to restore the gardens to their earlier splendor. He has assigned Philippe
Monin, an agronomist, to redesign the layout and cut back the wild jungle which has
taken over. The many palms, eucalyptus, ficus, and flowering trees will be tamed
and pruned, and new species of flowers and trees will be introduced. Rubber trees,
Monin's specialty, will be planted, reminding strolling French promenades of their
original rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia which helped build the fortunes of
the Michelin tyre company. A vegetable garden is planned, so that fortunate gastronomes
who dine there can look forward to bountiful dishes of crudities.
In the meanwhile, as these plans of Versailles-like grandeur are still only on paper,
explorers of lost domains can take respite from the chaos of this parkless city and
creep into the overgrown gardens filled with birds and butterflies and contemplate
the ruins that played a role in one of history's most tragic episodes.