The changing face of Phnom Penh

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Without doubt the most obvious change to Phnom Penh in the ten years since I was last here is the building boom that is literally changing the face of the city.

Virtually every street in the city is experiencing some sort of major construction work.

French colonial police station

The most extreme example is a 40-story apartment block slated for construction along Sihanouk Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Financed with South Korean capital, ‘A One-Stop Life That Comes With the Intelligent Tower’ goes the advertising slogan written prominently on the blue corrugated iron that surrounds the intended site. I have no idea what this means.

Word is that the develop is one of at least two being planned for Phnom Penh and more could be on the way after Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that his Government would welcome any and all proposals for high rise development in the city.

Broken Bricks

These are most extreme cases; far more common are the smaller four to five story apartment blocks that are going up everywhere. One foreign acquaintance tells of going away for a couple of weeks and coming back to find a large expanse of land had been cleared right next to his house. He does not know what will go there and when the construction of it will commence.

Where is all the money coming from? That is a good question. While Cambodia’s economy is growing rapidly, there is little doubt that much of the financing derives from dirty money repatriated by various Khmer interests keen to escape increased scrutiny by international banks post 9/11. Real estate development is a good way of laundering money.

After so many years of war one cannot begrudge Cambodia economic advancement, even if It feels like you have gone back in a time capsule to Bangkok at the start of its boom in the seventies. Then as now the more pertinent issues are exactly who is the development for and what are the implications for the city’s inhabitants.

Corruption, lax or non-existent laws against inappropriate development, and lack of security of title for tenants, mean that the people who always get shafted by such development, are, well, getting shafted. The construction boom is also having a devastating impact on the city’s rich architectural heritage, already under threat due to years of neglect.

Catholic church

It has been great to stumble onto a mob called Khmer Architecture Tours, run by young architects and architecture students who want to preserve Phnom Penh’s heritage.

They conduct a series of tours focusing on buildings erected in the various stages of the city’s development: the first phase of French colonial rule between 1835 and 1900, the second stage up to 1953, post independence and the buildings of the 1960s. It is a fascinating look at the city’s past and a great way to orient your self to Phnom Penh.

The tour I took involved a small group of about a dozen people travelling by cyclo or pedicab (bicycle driven taxis, an increasingly unfashionable form of transport in modern Phnom Penh) around some of the architectural highlights of the city.

It started with examples of early French colonial architecture, including the post office built in 1985, the old chamber of commerce building, the Grand Hotel on city’s riverfront, and an old police station, location for much of the film City of Ghosts (picture 1).

Some of these buildings have either been renovated beyond recognition or are slowly deteriorating under the pressure of the tenants who live in them. Some call these people ‘squatters’ but what does this term given that in 1979 when Phnom Penh’s population returned after being moved out of the city at gun-point by the Khmer Rouge, everyone was a squatter. Families occupied whatever buildings they could find in a completely chaotic and ad hoc way and have stayed to this day.

Catholic Church take two

The tour included the remains of the oldest Chinese temple in Phnom Penh and a catholic church, the Chapel of the Sisters of Providence Hospice that have been completely subsumed into a slum. Only a small part of the original temple structure remains. The church is now home to a large number of families. From a mezzanine platform within the church you can clearly see the domed roof under which at least half a dozen dwellings have been subdivided (pictures 3 and 4).

After looking at a number of other buildings, the tour concluded in Street Khemarah Phounin No 130, down from the city’s main market. In quick succession we were shown a sixties apartment block built by the famous Khmer architect Vann Molyvann and the remains of the French-era Hotel International. You can make out the hotel’s name in faint Khmer, Chinese and English above what is now a laundry.

Last stop is a crumbling three-story villa, the ground floor of which is taken up by one of my favourite bars, Broken Bricks. With part of the lyrics to Tom Wait’s song, ‘Small Change’, painted on the side, it is definitely one of the weirdest bars in Phnom Penh (picture 2).

At least one of the dwellings featured in the tour, the old police station mentioned above, is slated for demolition or development (picture 1), no one knows which, and a number of the others appear to be vulnerable.

Interestingly, in the same week that I took this tour, Amnesty International released a report call Rights Razed: Forced Evictions in Cambodia. The report highlights the implicit and explicit involvement of police and other authorities in forced evictions. Although the focus is on rural people being evicted from their land to make way for tourism and large-scale agriculture development, the issues are the same in the cities.

Amnesty estimates that approximately 150,000 Cambodians are currently faced with the threat of eviction. Human rights defenders and land rights activists face intimidation and arrest, often from the very people who are supposed to protect them.

Forced evictions are nothing new in Cambodia. The nineties corrupt developers and their cronies deliberately light a series of slum fires in order to clear land for development. As shocking as these were, there is a feeling amongst some observers that the current wave of land clearing in Phnom Penh could harder to resist. It is one thing to fight a corrupt land speculator, it is another to fight against anything done in the name of economic development.

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4 Responses to “The changing face of Phnom Penh”

  1. D Taylor Says:

    They have just torn down the first of French Colonial buildings directly across from the Post Office… only a matter of time.

  2. Sarah Rey Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation of Khmer Architecture Tours!! Have forwarded to my brother.

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