Architecturally speaking, Phnom Penh is a comparatively new city. Prior to the late 19th century the city was but a few pagodas and clusters of wooden structures along the riverfront. Almost every currently existing structure was built after the beginning of the French colonial period in 1863. ‘Chinese shophouse’ style buildings dominate the city, characterized by deep narrow apartments made up of a combined ground-floor business-front and upstairs residence. Standing in distinctive difference, old European influenced colonial period structures are interspersed through the central city. At the height of the colonial period Phnom Penh was reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina – recalling Paris in its manicured parks and picturesque boulevards lined with ornate villas. Though sometimes difficult to see through the grime and disrepair of years of hardship and neglect, much of that beauty still exists.

French Colonial Architecture Style

A Frizz Restaurant web page has an interesting discussion of the French Colonial architecture in Phnom Penh. It talks about the famous rococo palace “fixer-upper” that I used in my introduction. The building is in a decayed state, but evidently it has been purchased by the FCC Hotel Group. Restoration was supposed to have started in mid-2008, but nothing had happened by March 2009, when I was there (probably because of the bad global economy). The plan is to make it a luxury hotel with a French bistro downstairs and a connection to the FCC complex just behind it. The exact history of the house is unknown, but it was probably built in the 1920s. It’s a typical French colonial building, but incorporates a whole combination of styles, including impressive Corinthian capitals and intricate sculptural designs.

The old part of the city along Sisowath Quay and along Norodom Boulevard was built during French colonial times and many of the old buildings still remain. Some have been restored (like the UNESCO building next to the old rococo palace) but quite a few are neglected and some may be beyond repair.

Khmer Architecture Tours

Khmer Architecture Tours run regular visits to Phnom Penh’s fascinating but rapidly vanishing modern architectural sites. From Vann Molyvann’s high-density housing project now slated for pull-down (his national theatre has already gone, sadly), to imposing-but-crumbling university buildings, and the enormous, Colosseum-esque Olympic Stadium, the tours will let you catch a glimpse of Cambodia’s modern heritage — some of it very little known — before it disappears under the weight of Hun Sen’s wrath. Now run almost exclusively by Cambodian architecture students, it’s one way to say you don’t want to see this happen and help people who care fight for the survival of important sites. Some tours are made by cyclo, some by bus and some just on foot. You can also download a high-res map from the site and make a tour on your own. Highly recommended.

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