How to experience the French side of Siem Reap is a question we get asked by French travellers and Francophiles on holiday in Cambodia. Siem Reap based French expat Christine Gleizes, owner of chic concept store Christine’s shares her local tips.
How to experience the French side of Siem Reap is a question usually asked by travellers familiar with the history of Cambodia and French Indochina or those who can recognise the traces of the French colonial period and French culture in Siem Reap.
As Siem Reap is about to host its inaugural French Week, from 3pm on 7 March with the opening of a ‘French Village’ in the Royal Gardens opposite Raffles Hotel Grand d’Angkor for four days (a the French working week!) we thought that, mais oui, it’s about time we provided a guide to how to experience the French side of Siem Reap.
How to Experience the French Side of Siem Reap
The History of the French in Siem Reap
But first, a little history, for those who aren’t aware that Cambodia was a French protectorate within French Indochina (which included Vietnam and Laos) from 1863 until 1946, when Cambodia was granted self-rule. Protectorate status wasn’t abolished until 1949.
During this period, however, Cambodia’s northern provinces, including Siem Reap (Angkor) and Battambang were under Siamese (Thai) rule, as the French traded them in return for recognition of the Protectorate. Siem Reap wouldn’t be returned to Cambodia until a Franco-Siamese treaty in 1906. ‘Siem Reap’, by the way, means ‘Siam defeated’.
While French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot wasn’t the first European to ‘re-discover’ the Angkor temples in 1860 as used to be claimed (Portuguese António da Madalena was in 1586), French archaeologists, who established the École française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East or EFEO) in Siem Reap in 1901 can be credited with the impressive restoration and clearing of the temple sites, and ongoing archaeological work that has resulted in impressive discoveries.
Most of the first tourists who arrived in the village of Siem Reap to visit Angkor in the early 1900s were French and we have the journals of some of the more intrepid French adventurers to thank for an insight into the period. Siem Reap’s first proper hotel, the Hotel Grand d’Angkor, now a Raffles, was built in 1932 in the French colonial style and remains an important landmark.
After the Khmer Rouge-era and Vietnamese occupation that followed ended, the French were some of the first to return, along with Cambodian-French citizens who’d started new lives in France, to help re-build the country. They include Siem Reap based artists such as Lim Muy Theam, jeweller Pisith Ly, fashion designer Sirivan Dumas, and entrepreneurs, philanthropists and hoteliers, Nathalie Saphon-Ridel and Jean-Pierre Ridel, who can take credit for the revival of traditional arts and crafts.
The French Cultural Legacy in Siem Reap
Remnants of French Indochina’s influence in the region remain in the grand boulevards, planned gardens and French Colonial-era architecture, in the elegant villas with pretty balconies and tiled roofs, and the yellow-painted schools and administrative buildings with blue-grey shutters ubiquitous across Indochina, including Cambodia and Siem Reap.
In Siem Reap’s petite Old Market district, the narrow streets are lined with French Colonial-style Chinese shophouses, and in the leafy French Quarter, albeit in name only, as just a few French Colonial buildings remain. Don’t miss the last French governor’s mansion, a stunning example of Cambodian mid-century Modernism which now houses the FCC restaurant and bar.
While the French had a bigger impact on Vietnam’s cuisine (the French presence in Vietnam was longer from 1859-1954), French culinary traces remain. The French brought with them seedlings for vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, leeks, artichokes, potatoes, and cauliflower, and introduced coffee, pastries, cakes, and the baguette and butter, eaten with Cambodian street food specialties such as beef skewers (sach ko aing) and dipped into hearty beef and chicken curries.
The French Laughing Cow (la vache qui rit) white cheese and pâté are slathered onto num pang, Cambodia’s banh mi, though you’ll need to ask for num pang pâté if you want the latter. While Cambodia has a long history of preservation, fermentation and pickling, a French favourite, the cornichon, a small pickled cucumber, was added to local condiments.
These days you’ll find the French influence in Siem Reap’s secret lanes dotted with charming shops, galleries and cafes, in the French owned hotels that exude atmosphere, and in the seasonal Asana organic farmer’s market started by a Cambodian-French couple that has a European feel thanks to the expats who like to linger and socialise in the courtyard.
How to Experience the French Side of Siem Reap
Our local insider providing our guide to how to experience the French side of Siem Reap is long-term French expat, Christine Gleizes, the chic owner of modish concept store, Christine’s. We met Christine on our first trip to Siem Reap in 2011 when we popped over from Bangkok, where we’d been living to do a story on ‘Siem Reap Beyond the Temples’ on the best shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars, for a magazine.
Christine was working for Siem Reap fashion designer, Eric Raisina, who is Cambodia’s best-known designer abroad, having shown in Fashion Week in Paris, where he also has a boutique. Not long after we returned to Siem Reap to live, Christine opened her eponymous boutique on the first floor of an atmospheric French Colonial-era Chinese shophouse that houses Laundry Bar (on the ground level).
Light and airy, with wooden floorboards, white-washed walls and high-ceilinged rooms, Christine’s is a delight to browse. The inviting concept store is home to a carefully curated selection of fashion, jewellery, accessories, gifts, and souvenirs from Cambodia, Asia and abroad, including far-flung countries such as Dakar, where Christine worked with French-Senegalese designer Aissa Dione. What guides Christine’s selection is a special connection she feels for the designer or artist. She has also set aside a small gallery for rotating exhibitions of art and design.
A Local Guide to How to Experience the French Side of Siem Reap by French expat Christine Gleizes
Here’s how to experience the French side of Siem Reap courtesy of Christine Gleizes, owner and curator of Christine’s.
Q. What brought you to Siem Reap?
A. Personally, I was offered a job in Siem Reap and I’m still here today. The city is charming and full of nice Cambodian people.
Q. What brings the French to Siem Reap – if it’s possible to generalise – and why do they stay so long? We have French friends who have lived here for decades.
A. I think that many French people enjoy the quality and simplicity of life in Siem Reap. The Angkor temples also attract many French people. I don’t think the French expats come here just to relax – many work hard to promote quality art, design and handicrafts.
Q. Where should travellers to Siem Reap stay to experience French atmosphere and style?
A. There are several French-Cambodian owned hotels that I love: Viroth’s Hotel has a perfect design and décor – everything is in the detail and nothing is left to chance; Maison Polanka for its elegance and it’s a haven of peace; and Pages for its simple architecture and design and a sense of geometry.
Q. What should travellers to Siem Reap wear to mix with French expats?
A. In the daytime I suggest a simple top and cotton pants and by evening a classic dress or jeans and a chic top with elegant clutch purse and jewellery.
Q. Where is the best French breakfast in Siem Reap?
A. At home! Hahaha! More seriously, I like Pages for a European breakfast of juice, fruit salad, yogurt, croissant, pain au chocolat, bread, butter, jam, and they also have eggs and bacon.
Q. The best French bakery and/or patisserie in Siem Reap?
Q. Best Siem Reap shops for French influenced fashion, jewellery and accessories?
A. Sirivan in Kandal Village owned by Cambodian-French couple, Sirivan and Loic Dumas; the Siem Reap branch of Phnom Penh-based fashion house, Ambre by Cambodian designer Romyda Keth, for Cambodian style with French influences; the couture house of Eric Raisina, an expat fashion designer from Madagascar who designed for Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent and has a boutique in Paris; and Garden of Desire for original jewellery by Cambodian Pisith Ly who was raised and educated in Paris and worked for top French designers Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck before returning to Cambodia to set up his atelier.
Q. Best French or French-Cambodian design studios, art galleries or ateliers?
Q. Best Siem Reap made souvenirs?
A. The beautiful Buddha heads and other unique pieces from Niko’s Studio, the lovely coloured birds from Jayav Art, and the beautiful panels – in French we call them ‘panneaux’ – and lacquered boxes from Theam’s House.
Q. Best Siem Reap souvenirs from Christine’s?
A. Waterlily bags, necklaces and rings made from buttons and other recycled materials by Christine Gauthier in Phnom Penh; clutches and shoulder bags by Valerie Cordier made in Vietnam; Cambodian-crafted necklaces and bracelets by Senhoa; inventive Devyne table lights and floor made from recycled plastic bottle caps and straws and up-cycled Cambodian kettle and tins, made by Siem Reap based French designer Sylvine Devaux; and, of course, Christine’s collection of Cambodian made ceramics – vases, pots, dishes, and so – designed by myself and made in Cambodia by artisans near Siem Reap.
Q. Best Siem Reap eateries for a French lunch?
Q. Best place for afternoon tea in Siem Reap?
A. La Couleur du Thé – I love this place. It’s the perfect spot to drink a delicious tea in a tranquil garden and beautifully decorated space – a mixture of Chinese and Khmer style – and they have very good tea. They also have a swimming pool which guests are welcome to use.
Q. The best places to meet French expats in Siem Reap?
Q. The best Siem Reap French restaurants for dinner?
Q. Best French bar in Siem Reap?
A. Le Laundry Bar is a mythical and very authentic French bar downtown – but I have to say that I also love other places that are not French for their design, such as Miss Wong, one of my favourite bars for the atmosphere and décor.
Q. What should visitors to Siem Reap drink to fit in with the French?
A. I don’t like it but Pastis – it’s very French. And French wine of course!
Q. Best place to dance or party with the French in Siem Reap?
29 Street 9
Siem Reap, Cambodia
+855 17 543 541
Click through for information about Siem Reap French Week and the French businesses participating over coming days.
Are you a French expat or French-Cambodian who lives in Siem Reap? We welcome suggestions for travellers in the comments below as to how to experience the French side of Siem Reap.