French-born historian Henri Locard came to Cambodia as an English teacher in the early 1960s, exploring the country in a Citroën 2CV deux chevaux. He returned intermittently and settled in the capital permanently in 2000. This week, he invited Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon for a swim in the Mekong at Koh Dach as he recounted his 50-year history with Phnom Penh.
Lycée René Descartes
I first arrived to Cambodia in 1964 after graduating from the University of Lyon. I had to do military service but, being a pacifist, I opted for the civil service, so I became an English teacher at the Lycée René Descartes. Tioulong Saumura, Sam Rainsy’s wife, was a pupil there – and when she’s asked how she speaks English so well, she says she had good teachers. I was there for two years [and] I have very fond memories of teaching there. [After 1979] the French took back only the primary school building, so now it is a very crowded space.
North point of Koh Dach (Silk Island)
I’ve never really been un habitué, a regular customer of the places in Phnom Penh frequented first by the French community in [the 1960s] Sangkum days nor [of the places frequented] by the international community in the present period. I’m not about the bars and nightclubs. This is my Phnom Penh. I discovered this place in the ’90s. During the [dry] season, it has a large beach. The current here is very strong – it pulls you in one direction on one side, and in the other on the other side. You can swim in one direction and remain stationary; it makes for good exercise. Swimming really is the best exercise in this climate. You also can get food here, such as real chicken, not the fake kind you eat at the restaurants for foreigners.
Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP)
After my doctoral research in Cambodia in 1993-1994, I came back to Phnom Penh in 2000 at the age of 61. At first I was at the Royal Academy with Sorn Samnang, who is now a counsellor to Hun Sen. I quit that to work in the Masters of Cultural Studies [program] at the Buddhist Institute. I was then hired on a volunteer basis at RUPP, where I teach courses in colonial history and contemporary post-independence history since about 2003. My ambition is to set up a masters program in history. It’s high time the Khmers wrote their own history that’s not written by [David] Chandler [one of the foremost Western scholars of Cambodian history].
I have nostalgia, like many others do, for Sihanouk’s Phnom Penh. It was a garden city and was very beautiful, with wide avenues, large colonial and Cambodian quarters, and a Chinese quarter near Central Market. You had great unity, but it is all disappearing. Vann Molyvann’s Olympic Stadium was set in a beautiful environment with big basins and lakes to make it a combination of architecture and lakes like what was done at Angkor . . . During the Sangkum time, sports was an absolute priority, which it is not for this government today. The city plan is [no longer] followed, and every day there is more destruction.
Locard’s riverfront home in Prek Leap
I prefer the areas dominated by Khmers, or the periphery like the side of the Mekong at Prek Leap where I am today. It is a few doors down from the south gate of Wat Vearin. I’ve always made a point of not living in a community of my countrymen. In Cambodia, I like to surround myself with Khmers; when I was in England doing a fellowship at Oxford, I lived with Englishmen. I built this home in 2003 under the name of a friend of mine [since foreigners are not permitted to own land] . . . I can’t really work there with [my friend’s] Khmer family living there as well; but when my family come and visit, they stay there.