Until the mid-19th century, the French legacy in Cambodia was minimal, mainly consisting of sporadic forays by Catholic missionaries in search of conversions.
However, continued aggression by Thailand and Vietnam caused King Norodom of Cambodia to invite the French to establish a protectorate in 1863, who eventually made it into a French colony.
Although the French withdrew from the region in 1954, their legacy remains in the boulevards and Neo-Classical buildings of Phnom Penh.
Cambodia and France
Pastry shops selling French delights, such as baguettes, croissant and pastries, were common in the main towns, and some survive even today. In Colonial times they were owned mainly by ethnic Vietnamese.
Rubber plantations, first established by the French, remain a significant industry in Cambodia even today.
The Centre Culturel Français in Phnom Penh attempts to revive interest in French culture. It organizes film screenings, exhibitions, and other cultural events.
Baguettes are the most visible reminders of French cuisine. Every town still has a bakery producing these quintessentially French loaves. Phnom Penh baguettes, made in the traditional French style, are particularly good.
The French culinary influence is most evident in popular snacks such as baguettes and croissants. Locals usually eat them for breakfast or as a quick bite, often with a thick layer of pâté, or luncheon meat, and some sliced salad, vegetables, or pickles.
Phnom Penh and other tourist centres have trendy French restaurants, bistros, and brasseries where the partaking of apéritifs, digestifs, and classic French wine continues to thrive.
French Colonialists concentrated on exploiting the rich natural resources of the region with timber, rubber, corn, and rice being the main items of export. They were also responsible for installing the first roads, railway line, and rubber plantations. Apart from imposing a more efficient taxation system, the French did little to transform the village-based economies of these countries.
Language and Culture
French heritage also lingers in the language and culture of Cambodia. There are French-language schools in all major cities and private institutions offer classes in French. In the field of sports, soccer, which was first introduced by the Colonialists, continues to be the most popular game.
Shophouses in Kampot’s French quarter, in Cambodia, are typically Colonial. They have shuttered windows with rectangular transoms over the opening, and multiple arches. Most of them, however, are now quite dilapidated and in desperate need of repair.
Serene riverside boulevards, such as Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, lined with tall, swaying palms and other foliage, are typically Parisian. They add to the Colonial charm of cities such as Battambang, Kep and Kampot.
Colonial villas, some of the best examples of which are in Phnom Penh, formed cooling tropical retreats for the French. Most of them, however, were abandoned at the time but thankfully today many are being restored to the original splendour.
Official buildings of the Colonial era are recognized by their imposing NeoClassical façades, which embody the authority of the bygone administration. The interior of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh is classically French Colonial in design, with a mahogany bar, slim columns, and elegant seating overlooking the Mekong River.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of the French legacy is seen in the Neo-Classical architecture of major towns.
Although many of the once-grand buildings are now crumbling due to neglect, fiscal constraints, or local distaste for what they once represented, cities such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot have an impressive array of chic Modernist villas, lovely old French quarters, and Colonial façades.