Photoblog - Chasing Andre Malraux’s ghost in Phnom Penh - Rusty Compass travel blog

Photoblog - Chasing Andre Malraux’s ghost in Phnom Penh

| 03 Mar 2015
, 1 Comment
03 Mar 2015

A look at some of the crumbling French colonial buildings that featured in Frenchman Andre Malraux’s ill-fated time in Phnom Penh during the 20s. During my recent visit, they were in various stages of collapse. What would the temple thief, critic of colonialism and defender of architectural preservation make of it all?

If you’re French, you’ve likely heard of Andre Malraux - celebrated author, art critic, Minister for Culture, Spanish civil warrior and French resistance fighter. You may not be aware however that during the 20s, Malraux spent time in Indochina. First he disgraced himself as a temple looter at Angkor, before becoming an agitator against French colonialism in Saigon.

Recent biographies also credit Malraux with some fairly major exaggerations of his accomplishments both in writing and in person. But even without the hyperbole, Malraux led one large life. 

Stamp featuring Malraux
Photo: Unknown Stamp featuring Malraux


 
I first encountered Malraux’s exploits when reading about Cambodia 15 or so years ago in Milton Osborne's book The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future. It didn't leave a positive impression. More recently, I read Alex Madsen's book, Silk Roads. It was then that I became more fully aware of the breadth of his life. 

In 1923 he led a mission to cart away some major sections of Banteay Srei temple in the Angkor complex, in the hope of reselling them on the international art market and making his fortune. Luckily he was caught. The pieces were returned.

 

Malraux was so impressed with Banteay Srei, he decided he'd loot some of it and make his fortune.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Malraux was so impressed with Banteay Srei, he decided he'd loot some of it and make his fortune.



Malraux was found guilty of theft but managed to avoid spending any time in prison. He did however end up spending months in Phnom Penh while his fate was decided.

From his unsuccessful attempt at temple theft, Malraux underwent a curious transformation. He moved to Saigon and became an agitator against the French colonial administration - publishing a newspaper in league with the major Vietnamese nationalist agitators of the day.

I was reminded of Malraux during my recent visit to Phnom Penh. I kept colliding with buildings that he had connected with during his unhappy stay in the city. All of them in various stages of collapse.

I was left wondering how this temple thief, trenchant critic of French policies in Indochina and equal advocate for French culture and architecture back home, might feel about the fading traces of French colonialism in Phnom Penh?

During his tenure as Minister of Culture in the 1950s and 1960s, Malraux is credited with leading the drive to promote and expand Paris’s great museums and preserve and beautify the city’s architectural heritage - including scraping centuries of grime from the facade of Notre Dame.

Here I was, nine decades after his self-inflicted troubled times in Phnom Penh, wandering through buildings that he’d visited during his stay. Buildings that may not survive another decade.

A Malraux connection is no cause for preservation of course. But these are nice old buildings.

The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh

The first is the old Renakse Hotel right opposite the Royal Palace. It was originally part of the Royal Judicial Administration during French colonial times. It became a hotel in the 1990s. I stayed here on several occasions - most recently in 2005.

Malraux’s trial for temple looting was held here.

Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh

Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
 
A local family living in the Renakse Hotel.
Photo: Mark Bowyer A local family living in the Renakse Hotel.

Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh

Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Left for dead - right opposite the Royal Palace? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh

Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Left for dead? The Renakse Hotel, Phnom Penh


When Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, liberating Cambodia from almost four years of Khmer Rouge tyranny, the first post-Khmer Rouge government was also convened in the building.

These facts are all cited in a petition to save the Renakse. It’s loss, given its proximity the Royal Palace and the large piece of land on which it sits, would be especially tragic.


The Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh

The next is the old Manolis Hotel. This is where Malraux stayed while he was fighting charges of temple theft.

It’s home to a couple of dozen local families and a few expats now. It’s also terribly rundown, but there’s been some effort to fix some of its most glaring problems.

Remarkably, the old hotel doors, complete with numbers, remain as do original tiles and decorative features.

Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh

 

Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh

 

Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh

 

Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh

 

Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Manolis Hotel, Phnom Penh


The former French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh

The last is the former French colonial police headquarters. I’m assuming that Malraux was required to make regular appearances here though this hasn’t been confirmed in my reading.

From what I can work out, there’s a struggle under way between the owner and those who wish to see the building preserved. One expat told me that large holes have been cut in the building’s roof to expedite its demise. It’s been in its present state for at least a decade.

Police Headquarters collapsing, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Police Headquarters collapsing, Phnom Penh

French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh

 

French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh

French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh

 

French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh

 

French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh
Photo: Mark Bowyer French colonial police headquarters, Phnom Penh



It did enjoy a brief period of fame as a location in Matt Dillon’s 2002 film, City of Ghosts.

If you’d like to read more about Malraux’s incredible life - especially his time in Asia, check out Silk Roads by Alex Madsen.


How to find these buildings?

The Renakse Hotel is right opposite the Royal Palace on Samdech Sothearos Blvd. The Manolis and the former Police Headquarters are both in the Post Office Square on St 13 and 98, just back off the river at the Wat Phnom end of town.

You should also check out KA tours in Phnom Penh for architectural tours.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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1 comment so far

I am a travelling lover and I just the post! Ill definitely plan a trip to these places with my boyfriend, may be in coming summers!

  • Sofia Lane
  • Phnom Penh
  • Friday, 01 May 2015 21:29