Descartes, a high school with a difference

With the rather successful celebration of its 70th anniversary, the Lycée Descartes has reaffirmed itself as the oldest, but also the most innovative French-speaking school in the capital.

An exhibition of students’ work on a multitude of original subjects, dance and theater performances, and a variety of food and drink, the public was not bored for a second during this afternoon of festivities, which ended with a gala dinner attended by over 400 people.

Not like the others

“We are not like the others… we are not like all the international schools here… we have an identity… a history. Our school… it’s like a historical monument.
(Lay Prohas Hanuk Ream, former student of the Lycée Descartes).

Thalias Hospitality team at the Descartes 70th Anniversary Gala

Thalias Hospitality team at the Descartes 70th Anniversary Gala

The Lycée Français René Descartes in Phnom Penh is indeed more than just a school. It is a monument, a real institution. All Phnom Penhese know “Sala Barang” or the “Lycée Descartes”. Nestled in the heart of the former French Quarter and a future business district, it is true that the Lycée Descartes has a vintage feel and a great look.

The Descartes High School in the 60s


In 1950, the Lycée Français René Descartes opened its doors to students for the first time: there were 252 students in 2de, 1re and terminale in what is known as the “Grand Lycée”, today’s Faculty of Management Sciences building.

The Lycée was officially inaugurated in March 1951, in the presence of the President of the Assembly of the French Union, Albert Sarrault. Among the first students was Monique Izzi… who became Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. Then, later, His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni.

“For 65 years, several generations of students forged at Descartes have succeeded one another, French, Cambodians, but also many other nationalities… Anonymous or famous, men of science or business, politicians, merchants, artists, humble or more fortunate… who have radiated or still radiate throughout the world.
(Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, preface to Il était une fois… Le Lycée français René Descartes de Phnom Penh).

Seventy years, quite a piece of history

The 50’s and 60’s, a kind of beautiful era: the school has more than 2000 students. The life of the Cartesians was marked by sports competitions, Olympic nights organized by the school, plays, and lunch breaks at the Khmer Sports Circle: it was enough to cross the street to go swimming at the pool. The school even had a boarding school located behind the sports field.

But in 1974, the war was already rumbling… on January 14, a shell exploded in front of the school. One person was killed and one injured: a janitor who was about to ring the bell to announce the beginning of classes and a teacher. The school is closed, most of the teachers leave the country, and those who remain manage to continue teaching the students in small groups at home.

On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. The school became K33. K was the first letter of the Khmer word associated with Propaganda, ឃោសនា (Khosanea). Thus were all the code names made. The Lycée is part of the Ministry of Information.

Descartes High School today


When the Lycée reopened in 1991, it had lost its main building, “Le Grand Lycée”… there were only 17 students anyway. But little fish will become big again. In 1999, there were already 240 students.

The period from 2000 to 2018 has been marked by great changes at the Lycée. The number of students has increased considerably, almost doubling between 2010 and today, making the Lycée René Descartes de Phnom Penh one of the largest high schools in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of enrollment.
The walls have been extended, the structure modernized, a kindergarten opened and a swimming pool built. Descartes has been able to make a fresh start, while keeping the charm of the old.

Original French article written by Gaëlle Rogations

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