Throughout my time of living in Phnom Penh, I’ve always been fascinated by the architectural history of the city. While I am not a connoisseur of architecture, I appreciate the unique role history and culture plays in the design of a city.
As with most cities in the world, the context of Phnom Penh’s architectural design is a mix of political history, cultural influences, and economic rises and falls. So with my curious mind, I booked with Khmer Architectural Tours (KAT). KAT is an association run by a small group of young Khmer architecture students and graduates who have a passion for Cambodia’s unique architectural history.
Our young tour guide, Virak, enthusiastically guided us through narrow buildings, timeless French colonial structures, and the golden age of Cambodian architecture during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period under King Sihanouk.
We first started our tour on cyclo, where our guide and the cyclo drivers picked us up at our house. We were greeted by the youthful smile of Virak who had brought with him his elder cyclo drivers with their rustic vehicles representing an era of a time of a gone by.
At the start of our journey, we headed down busy Sotheros Boulevard. With the heat blazing down on us; cars, tuk-tuks, motos, and even some bikes whizzed past us at today’s busy modern pace, while we moved at a slow and steady motion as if still stuck between the past and present. If you’ve never been on a cyclo in Phnom Penh, this is one of the most interesting ways to fully take in the chaos and lively vibe of the city. We were part of the landscape, without the large obstructive barrier of machines dividing our physical space. We were taking in every smell and sound that Phnom Penh had to offer.
French Colonial Period
To understand Cambodia’s architectural history, it is important to get an overview of Cambodia’s historical context. Cambodia was once a powerful kingdom from the 9th-12th century with its empire peaking during the reigns of King Jayavaraman VII and King Suyavarman II. Cambodia flourished during these periods as these powerful kings built Angkor Watt, Bayon, Ta Prohm, among other famous temples, as well as expanding the kingdom into most of Southeast Asia.
Following their reigns, after years of prosperity came years of violence and turmoil, as drought, and internal power grabbing resulted in foreign invaders taking land and resources from subsequent weaker kings and forcing the capital to be moved from Siem Reap to Oudong (which is about 40km from Phnom Penh). It then moved to Phnom Penh, which was an ideal location as the banks of the Tonle Sap, Bassac River and Mekong River converged and provided plentiful resources for survival.
Even though the Khmer empire retreated further south, Cambodia’s land and survival was still under constant threat from the Thais and the Vietnamese. Fearing the complete loss of Cambodian land, sovereignty, and identity, in the mid 1800s King Ang Duong requested the help from the French government to serve as a protectorate of the kingdom, and a treaty was signed in 1863 by King Norodom (his son), which paved the way for French occupation of Cambodia for 90 years. Cambodia was then recognized as part of French Indochina, which also comprised of Vietnam and Laos.
With France as the protectorate in the late 1800s, the French government established their administrative offices in the “French Quarter” of Phnom Penh (around street 102). Our first stop was the Cambodia Post Office. With it’s beautiful lines, color and structure, the French colonial building still retains a certain quintessential charm. Indeed many of Cambodia’s French colonial architecture have similar features.
Across the street from the Post was the Manolis Hotel, which was built in the early 1900s, one of the first hotels in Phnom Penh. Today the hotel, which has received less care and attention than the refurbished Post Office, is home to local families who moved in after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, since private property no longer existed, and people were free to squat in any land/house they wanted after the war.
One of the most interesting revelations about the tour was the fact that the city was then largely demarcated on ethnic lines. According to our tour guide, from street 102 to where Freedom Park is today, was where the French Quarter or “foreigners” lived. From Freedom Park up to the Royal Palace Area was where most of the Chinese merchants lived, where most of the markets were built. The main markets at that time were known to expats as “Central Market” but in Khmer were colloquially known as Psar Chas, Psar Kandal, and Psar Thmei (Psar Chas was established first followed by the other two).
The Chinese community in Cambodia at the time were primarily merchants. They occupied much of the middle of the city and had their own unique housing designs called “Chinese shop houses”. These shop houses were largely around these market areas and all had the same design and dimensions (4 meters in front by 16 or 20 meters long, and courtyards to light and air to travel as well as promote communal living). Within this area was also where French and Chinese melded with the first Magazin (the department store) in the 1900s selling imported furniture and clothes, however in the 1970s it was turned into a hotel. From the Royal Palace onwards was the local ethnic Khmer community, who lived near the palace, the southern part of the city. The Khmer quarter had traditional Khmer wooden houses, and was scarcely populated.
The Rise of New Khmer Architecture
On November 9th, 1953 Cambodia gained independence from France through Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s peaceful lobbying efforts. With independence, Cambodia gained back control all aspects of government affairs. In 1955 Prince Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his father King Norodom Suramarit, in order to lead the Sangkum Reastr Niyum party, and run in the elections. The party went on to win and Prince Sihanouk went on to be the Prime Minister of Cambodia.
With his leadership, Cambodia ushered in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period, what was widely viewed as the Golden Age for Cambodia. During this period, the government invested heavily into the development of the country’s infrastructure, education, trade, and cultural development. With new development projects, Cambodia nurtured a period of “New Khmer Architecture”. This style blended modern elements with cultural and historical influences.
The chief Cambodian architect entrusted by Prince Sihanouk to lead the effort was Vann Molyvann. With Mr. Molyvann’s creations, as well as those of his compatriots Lu Ban Hap, Chhim Sun Fong, Seng Suntheng, Mam Sophana, and his expat colleagues Vladimir Bodiansky and Gerald Hanning, they created a beautiful city which other leaders admired, and at one point during a visit, Lee Kwan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, once called the “Pearl of Asia” and wanted Singapore to be as beautiful (source) .
Mr. Molyvann’s most iconic structures includes; Independence Monument to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France; Olympic Stadium (which was initially designed for the Southeast Asia Games in early 1960s but was cancelled. The stadium was eventually used for the state visit of Charles De Galle in 1966); Chaktomuk Conference Hall near the riverside; Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and the 100 Houses Project which provided housing for National Bank of Cambodia staff.
Preservation vs. Development
As we weaved in and out of Phnom Penh streets from Sotheros to Sihanouk Boulevard, from Monivong to Russian Boulevard we came across Cambodia’s past, present and future. Much of Phnom Penh’s history, periods where distinctive architecture and identity was celebrated and protected was crumbling before our eyes.
There are some structures that have remained in tact, preserved or even restored, despite periods of turmoil in Cambodia’s recent history, such as the Post Office, Chaktamok, Olympic Stadium, and a few others, but for how long? Some of these buildings are in the hands of the government, others are privately owned, but all are vulnerable to the whim of whomever the owner is at the time. For some, these iconic buildings stand in the way of building a new Cambodia, with companies competing to build the tallest buildings and potentially lucrative condos in a quest to modernize and increase economic growth of the city, but at what cost?
Many of the city's old French colonial buildings are left decrepit, and some of Mr. Vann Molyvann’s creations, as well as those of his colleagues are at risk of becoming a victim to the winds of development, creating hollow, gargantuan buildings without reference to culture and lack character and charm. These structures threaten to turn Phnom Penh into another cold metropolis in the region. With every historical building that falls in Phnom Penh, piece by piece Cambodia risks losing it’s historical identity and charm.
Through these tours KAT is trying to create awareness of the rich architectural history of Cambodia to visitors, but whom they’d really like attract are their citizens. They desire to bring more Cambodians on the tour to help foster knowledge of Phnom Penh’s rich architectural history. Eventually this knowledge could help organically build an appreciation of Phnom Penh's unique architectural history and drive more people to play an active role in helping to protect and preserve Phnom Penh's historical buildings.
There is always a tension between preservation and development, but there is a balance to it all. One does not have to be at the sacrifice of the other. Preserving our architectural history could indeed be beneficial to the latter and serve as a testament of our struggles and triumphs as a nation. Angkor Wat and all the glorious temples that are part of our historical legacy were once abandoned and thought to be "ruins". After many centuries of cultivating knowledge and appreciation and knowing our history, it has become a great source of our national pride. These modern day "ruins" are part of our story, and should not be faded or even erased, but instead, carefully preserved and restored, for many generations to come, to enjoy and learn from.
Khmer Architecture Tours: http://www.ka-tours.org/
Filippi, J-M. Strolling Around Phnom Penh.