The childhood memories of Monique Ravix, who is Countess Richard de Chicourt by birth, include sitting next to then prince Norodom Sihanouk during the Water Festival in the 1930s.
“He was very reserved and I, who was a tomboy, loved to tease him,” she said in a recent interview in Monaco.
They both were about eight years-old, and spent the races with the Royal Family and French dignitaries on the royal floating pavilion, which was located in front of the Royal Palace along Sisowath Boulevard.
“The Water Festival was noisy, joyful and very colorful,” Ravix said.
During the festival, King Sisowath Monivong—King Sihanouk’s grandfather—always held an official dinner. The King, who had acceded to the throne in 1928, did not make much of an effort to speak French, said Ravix. “My mother spoke Khmer perfectly and the King always had her sit near him to help as his interpreter.”
These were the heydays of the French Protectorate in Cambodia. The French had arrived in the 1860s at the request of King Norodom, who had sought protection for his country against the power-hungry new dynasties in Bangkok and Hue, Vietnam.
For nearly a century, France administered Cambodia, Laos and the three states of Vietnam—Cochin China, Annam and Tonkin. During that time, hundreds of French couples would make Indochina their home, raising children whose world would be Southeast Asia.
When Jacques Theron, who was born in Hanoi in 1928, went to live in France in 1946, fleeing the war in Vietnam, the 17-year-old son of a medical doctor was appalled.
“I had been raised outside of social distinctions among people, outside the racial problems I discovered in France, which I had not noticed in Vietnam between the Vietnamese and the French, or between other nationalities,” he said.
Theron remembers exploring northern Vietnam and Laos as a teenager, alone on horseback during his school vacations.
“For four to six weeks, my parents would give me free rein, and I would go from village to village in total safety.” At night, farmers charged him one “piastre” of Indochinese currency to feed and house him and his horse, he said.
To Theron, France appeared as a world filled with impassable walls built on social classes, values and political opinions. “This felt unlivable to me,” he said.
As soon as he had completed his studies at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, Theron found a way to work on plantations in Southeast Asia. He started in South Vietnam in 1953; and moved to Cambodia in 1955 where he would remain until 1971.
French administrators working in Indochina in the 1930s were entitled to a six-month home leave every three years, said Ravix. “We made the trip on a large ocean liner out of Saigon—it was luxury.” They would spend most of their time in France visiting relatives, she said.
Working overseas was a tradition in her family. Her paternal grandfather had been administrator in Guadeloupe—an island in the Caribbean Sea—and her maternal grandfather had done the same in Laos. In fact, her parents had met and been married in Laos in the 1910s.
Francoise Grundt’s parents had met in Paris, Grundt said. “But my mother loved Cambodia right away,” when she arrived in January 1931, barely three months after their marriage, she said.
Gaston Barrault, Grundt’s father, was a career officer and had been in Indochina since 1924. After leaving the military, he served as resident, or provincial administrator, for Kampot, Kompong Speu, Pursat, Battambang and Kandal provinces. He became one of King Sihanouk’s advisers when the King acceded to the throne in 1941.
Afterward, Grundt said, “The King often came to dinner at our house.”
Besides their official duties, French administrators’ activities in Cambodia would often be a matter of personal interest and initiative. At the turn of the 20th century, Adhemar Leclere had been fascinated by the Phnong of Mondolkiri province; he had studied their culture and taken photos, creating one of the rare visual archives of Cambodia at that time.
When Duke Leon Richard de Chicourt, Ravix’ father, was mayor of Phnom Penh in the mid-1930s, he seized the opportunity to do something about the rickshaw.
“He found it inhuman to have a person run in-between shafts, out-of-breath, until they were sick and sometimes dying,” she said.
An engineer by the name of Coupeaud came up with plans for a vehicle propelled by a bicycle. He showed them to Richard de Chicourt who realized that cycling would be less taxing on drivers than pulling a rickshaw, said Ravix.
Richard de Chicourt encouraged the engineer to develop prototypes, she said. And the Phnom Penh cyclo was born.
The country’s natural setting captivated many French people, including Charles Meyer, who was 22 when he arrived in 1946.
By then, the situation in Indochina had greatly changed. But in Mondolkiri province where he was posted, this might as well have been the 1860s.
Meyer, a geographer who specialized in geodesy, had jumped at the opportunity to come to Cambodia. His job was to set up reference points, markers to be used to draw maps, in a territory that covered about 37,500 square km of jungle.
“[French representatives] took me by truck to the end of the road, which was rather far from the nearest outpost, unloaded my equipment and said, ‘Well, good luck,’ and left,” said Meyer.
“I was left at night, alone in the jungle with only one guard. I sat on my tin trunk, wondering what I was going to do. Luckily, that Phnong guard was there, and he could speak a little French. He said, ‘I’m going to get the elephants.’ Sure enough, he came back with two elephants.”
By then, it was close to midnight, said Meyer. The Phnong guard took him to a Phnong communal home where they were expecting him.
“I found myself in the middle of this large house and, without a word of welcome or anything else, they opened a jar of alcohol and invited me to drink.”
Meyer had taken part in the war in France, but nothing had prepared him for this, he said. “It was a shock, but at the same time it was wonderful.”
During his seven years in the region, Meyer learned the Phnong language. He spent most of his time crisscrossing the jungle on elephant, rarely seeing the other seven or so geographers on the project. Every two to three months, he would visit Buon Ma Thuot on the Tonle Srepok in Vietnam.
“It was a big elephant market. Still, it was just two streets, one bar, three fellows from Corsica [in France], and a few French planters.”
On holiday, the geographers took off in the direction of temples, said Meyer. “We would usually end up at a planter or a missionary’s house, and talk. Or hunt—there really were a lot of tigers.”
The jungle of Mondolkiri province was very far from the problems of the world, and of Indochina. The war in northern Vietnam, the communist Vietminh and the Issarak gangs of Cambodian nationalists and criminals who plagued the Cambodian countryside did not make it to Mondolkiri.
“I never saw one Vietminh. I saw a couple of Khmers and a few Laotians who were in the elephant business,” and that was all for visitors, said Meyer.
World War II would put an end to this quiet life. In August 1940, France, which was under Vichy government that backed Nazi Germany, signed a treaty with Japan placing Indochina under Japanese military control and leaving administrative powers to the French.
Shortly after, Indochina administrators demoted Richard de Chicourt from his post in Phnom Penh and appointed him to Takeo province. “It was very hard for him,” said Ravix. Since he was approaching the end of his career, he decided to retire in 1942, a few years earlier than planned, she said.
Theron’s father, who in his quiet way was opposed to the Vichy government, was removed from his post as medical director of the Hanoi hospital and assigned to a small town on the border of Laos and Vietnam, he said.
His father was executed on March 17, 1945, with about 100 other French people in the area, said Theron. This, to Theron’s knowledge, was one of only two cases of mass executions that took place in northern Vietnam.
By then, Paris had been liberated and Nazi Germany was about to lose the war. “The French administrators in Hanoi, who had fought British and US allied forces with great zeal, now were showing sympathy toward them,” said Theron.
The Japanese reacted by arresting Frenchmen on March 9, 1945. Few of them died.
“My father was executed basically by accident; he just happened to be passing through that area.”
Theron barely escaped arrest, and was hidden by Vietminh who were friends of friends. A high school student at the time, he had been involved in the resistance movement against the Vichy government and Japan. He managed to get on the first boat out of Hanoi to Saigon, and later on to Cambodia and to France.
After the capitulation of the Japanese in August 1945, Ravix was reunited with her fiance, Raoul Ravix, who had been jailed years earlier by the Japanese on suspicion of being in the resistance, which was actually the case. After their marriage, they would move to Malaysia where Raoul Ravix had worked before the war.
In 1946, Grundt and her family returned to France and moved to Mali in Africa a few years later.
At the independence of Cambodia in 1953, the French government offered Meyer a post in Africa. But he declined. He first went to Saigon, and then returned to Cambodia where, in 1956, he was asked by King Sihanouk to serve as his political adviser. He would remain with the King until 1970, declining to move to Beijing with King Sihanouk after the Lon Nol coup d’etat.
In some cases, the taste for far-away places has been passed on to today’s generations. Theron’s daughter Catherine lives and works in Cambodia where she is developing a line of traditional silk products. Ravix’ daughter Ghislaine teaches economics in Nigeria.
Earlier this year, Grundt came to Cambodia for the first time since 1946 to visit her daughter, Yvonne, who lives in Phnom Penh with her husband Sigurd Johns, program director for Save the Children Norway.
Grundt said she found her old home still standing near Wat Phnom, and was granted an audience by King Sihanouk who remembered her father.