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CAMBODIA

Learning about the Khmer culture

Through contact with the bonze from the pagoda, Pavie discovered the richness of Cambodian civilisation and set about studying the language: "I will visit you at the pagoda too; I know nothing of the customs and habits of the Khmers, nor of the practices in the temples. I will be pleased to learn something of you and to see you at your work." The bonze showed him the library belonging to the pagoda, a "small building in which a sort of lacquered red and black box embellished with gilding and resembling a casket, cleverly protected from the water and the termites contained untidy piles of hundreds of manuscripts on palm leaves" on a variety of subjects such as the language, Buddha and the customs of the country. It was in this way that Pavie became integrated little by little into the different communities. He studied the area’s topography and began natural history collections. On the other hand, he found little of interest in the monuments.

His last conversation with the bonze illustrates the change in Pavie. "I love your country, I am consumed by an intense desire to travel its other regions, those in the mountains and the great forests, that where the river flows, the one inundated by the lake and that of the great ruins. I love the Cambodians, because I have found them to be just as you are yourself, simple, good and with a true heart; I love them too for the mystery of their past, of whose glory there is an instinctive recollection, joined to the thought of the misfortunes that have caused it to be forgotten, and which both gives them a tinge of pride and makes them timid." To this declaration the bonze replied: "I hope now that all the French will judge us as you have done and love us as much. We are filled with an extreme gratitude to France, which has brought to an end the annihilation of our country. The Kkmers are sensitive, and their devotion is great; they will show it if the circumstances allow." This ability that Pavie had of being interested in others and of making others like him, would be maintained throughout his stay in Indochina.

In order to find out more about the culture that he was discovering, Pavie chose to have Cambodian stories copied out, translated and illustrated. He explained his objectives thus: "To popularise them, and show these extremely interesting peoples in a more accurate light; by bringing it the first printed work in its own language to give to Cambodia an expression of the gratitude owed to its Kings, its leaders, its priests and its people for the invaluable assistance received and the innumerable services rendered in the course of a life of travel."

It was in the evening that Pavie, after having written his journal, took the time to speak to the guides. When he was in a village he listened to the priests in the pagoda or the elders. "It was always with a real sense of pleasure that the old and young crowded together, some to speak, others to listen to us under the great trees in the wood, or on the temple mats, in the starlight or alongside the torches that were doubly perfumed with bark from Smach and resin from Klong. At first they made me speak as much as they could (because they liked to listen to me more than speak themselves), and then I would prevail upon them to tell me shortened versions of the favourite local tales, popular stories with which the memories of the oldest among them were almost always filled."