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CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh

In 1879, after three years in Kampot, Pavie was appointed to Phnom-Penh. His farewells to the bonze from the pagoda, who had taught him so much about the Khmer culture, were tinged with much emotion. The journey by elephant (160 kilometres) lasted five days. During the journey he repeatedly asked the mahout about what he saw: "I needed to know the name of each hamlet, be it in the mountains far away or close by, also the names of the streams, their source, direction and endless details on anything relating to the country as a whole: geography, history, legends etc." Phnom Penh had between 10,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, amassed along the Tonle Sap river. Many of them lived in floating houses, straw huts and boats. It was a cosmopolitan town. In 1859 Mouhot described it as "the great bazaar of Cambodia", a long, dirty town. In 1889 it was still "nothing but an impoverished small town, badly constructed and filled with filthy pools of water." At the instigation of the first French residents and by the will of Norodom, the town began to be modernised.

Arriving in the capital, Pavie quickly became absorbed by his work, but did not forget his desire to explore and learn. With Raphaël Garcerie, he dreamt of following in the footsteps of Mouhot, Lagrée and Harmand: "We researched everything that remained to be done […] We were frightened by the enormity of the task." It was the new Governor, the first of the civilian regime, Le Myre de Vilers, who allowed him to set out on this great adventure.

Pavie sought to attract the attention of his superiors. He sent his natural history collection to an exhibition in Saigon. He enrolled for language examinations. He succeeded in meeting Le Myre de Vilers, who, in view of his enthusiasm, conferred a small mission upon him: I think, my friend, that you will fulfil this task well; leave for this first journey, do not ask for more for the time being, bring me back a map and a report, and after that we will see." Pavie, visibly delighted, wrote to his parents on 6th December 1880: I am going to tell you what is happening to me. First of all I have taken an examination in the Cambodian language, and achieved the highest marks; this means a small increase of 500 francs per year. Then I asked for leave to go and explore the forests and mountains of the interior of the peninsula; the trip will last for three months; you do not need to worry, I am in very good health and am not at all concerned. When I return I will take up my post in Phnom Penh again. The civilian Governor whom the Republic has sent to Cochinchina in place of the military governor is a progressive man. Spurred on by him, the colony will develop enormously. He has considerably reduced the taxes paid by the Annamites, trade has benefited as a result and remarkably the budget has nevertheless increased as a consequence of this trade. They are going to build a railway next […]. I discussed my ideas with the Governor; he found them interesting and granted me the leave that I had asked for in vain for the last three years; I am going to search for shells and breathe pure air. I will pack my trunks for departure in 8 days time."