Phnom Penh: The riverine city

Sitting at a table at almost any restaurant along the river frontage in the heart of Phnom Penh, is a luxury that affords dramatic views of a confluence of four major waterways - the upper and lower Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac rivers. This spectacular view is unequalled throughout Southeast Asia.

At Wat Phnom a little to the north of the old city centre, the semi-legendary founding of the capital city is linked to the discovery of Buddhist images discovered nestled in the limbs of a tree found floating in the Tonle Sap river by a woman, Daun Penh. It is from a combination of her name and the word ‘phnom’ - in this case a small artificial hill, that the city derives its name.

Fluidity and spaces ventilated by natural airflow are hallmarks of Khmer vernacular architecture. Throughout the city, French colonial examples of the late 19th to mid-20th century coexist with 1960s ‘modern’ and all in varying degrees attempt to accommodate Cambodian climactic conditions that often bring either torrential rain or blazing sunshine.

Concentrated in the older sections of the city, open balconies and unglazed shuttered windows frequently greet the visitor to Cambodia that, by extension, leads to visions of towns and villages strung along waterways throughout the country.

This compact, low-rise city comes as a pleasant surprise to most visitors and is relatively easy to navigate - whether on foot, by local pedi-cab (‘cyclo’), on a motorcycle (‘moto-dop’) or by car. Most visitors seem to gravitate towards the rivers as a starting point for excursions and it is here, that they can find a blend of important Cambodian and colonial architecture:

1. Sisowath Quay
The Rivers

Best viewed from the riverside park that runs parallel to Sisowath Quay, or from vantage points afforded by balconies of riverside bars and restaurants. Further riverside parks and a controversial development can be seen in the vicinity of Hun Sen Park near the Hotel Cambodiana and the Buddhist Institute.

2. Streets 92, 94 & 96
Wat Phnom and environs

The first pagoda was erected in 1372 to house four statues of Buddha found by a woman named Penh, hence ‘the hill of Penh’. The vihara was rebuilt in 1434, 1806, 1890-1894 after being destroyed by fire in 1881, and, most recently in 1926, the interior paintings date from 1970 (building restored 1979-1984). The large stupa contains the ashes of King Ponhea Yat and reputably (according to tradition), the four small bronze images discovered in a koki tree by Daun Penh. An additional eclectic shrine to the north of the temple is dedicated to Preah Chau (Anakta Preah Chau) and is revered by Chinese and especially the Vietnamese communities. Two other statues represent the Chinese sages, Thang Cheng (right) and Thang Thay (left). To the left of the main altar there is also an image of Vishnu. Wat Phnom and surrounds (gardens, stupa and other features) were extensively renovated in early 1998 and reopened to the public just prior to Khmer New Year celebrations in mid-April that same year.

Traditionally founded in the late 14th century, the temple at Wat Phnom has been reconstructed and restored on several occasions, but still remains an important place for worship and offerings - especially on Buddhist festival days.

3. Streets 3 & 7
Wat Ounalom: founded 1434 & Wat Botum Vadey: founded 1442

These two early wats that were originally founded with the birth of the city have both been extensively rebuilt with no original buildings remaining - most extant structures date from the late 19th or early-mid 20th century. These two principal religious centres house the Senior Abbots of the two principal Buddhist orders of Mohanikay and Thommayuth, respectively.

4. Street 3 (blvd Samdech Sothearos)
Royal Palace: 1866-1870, late 19th to early-mid 20th century

Originally the Palace was established with the founding of the city by King Ponhea Yat in 1434. Later the capital was moved successively to: Angkor, Lovek, Oudong, then returned to Phnom Penh. The present palace was constructed by King Norodom from 1866 and officially opened on 14 February 1870. Some buildings were constructed at the end of the 19th century, while others, which had previously been made of wood, were demolished and reconstructed to original designs in concrete, brick and stucco. It consists of a number of important buildings, some of which show a distinct blending of French, Thai and Khmer styles. The palace was renovated extensively in 1962 to its present form. Sections of the Palace are open to visitors, whilst the Khemarin Palace remains the private residence of HM King Norodom Sihamoni and members of the royal family.

5. Street 13
National Museum of Cambodia: 1920

A masterpiece of colonial design incorporating Cambodian traditional references by French museologist-historian, George Groslier (1888-1945) built over three years between 1917-1920 and extended in the mid-1920s, the museum was originally named Musée Albert Sarraut after the then Governor-General of Indochina.

Phnom Penh: French colonial urban plans 1850s-1950s

Early French explorers and navigators were almost without exception naval officers, or had the avowed intention of finding a ‘river road’ via the Mekong to China thus opening a direct trade route through Cambodia and avoiding the coastal routes already crowded with ships from a host of competing British and European nations carving out ‘eastern’ colonial empires.

Following the formation of French Indochina in the late 19th century, colonial mapping and urban planning was centralised in Hanoi. A typical colonial city grid was superimposed over burgeoning towns that fitted more with commerce and as in the case of Phnom Penh, conveniently partitioned into ethnic sectors or ‘quartiers’.

Early colonial architects and urbanists such as Daniel Fabré and Ernest Hébrard worked from the late 19th to early 20th century to construct the necessary administrative public and private buildings with Phnom Penh soon dubbed ‘the Paris of the East’. During a brief stopover in 1936, Charlie Chaplin commented with surprise when he discovered in Phnom Penh, “... certain reclaimed avenues (that had recently been laid over former canals) as being ‘little sisters’ to the grand Champs Elysées in Paris.”

In the northern sector of the city, visitors can still find fine examples (although some require conservation while others are currently undergoing renovation) of works by Fabré and Hébrard and the later market by the team of Desbois and Chauchon, architect and engineer.

6. Street 13
Post Office: 1894

This building has undergone extensive renovation, and is the key edifice in a small square that is bordered by a number of once important colonial public buildings. This formed the heart of the quartier Européen, or ‘French quarter’ centred on banks, postal services, administrative offices, hotels and traders.

7. Street 91 - west to east
Hotel Le Royal: 1929
National Library of Cambodia: 1924
National Archives of Cambodia: 1926
The Offices of the Resident Supérieur (former): 1890s-1925

A group of cultural, leisure & official public buildings lining the north side of this well-planned street. Hotel Le Royal has been restored to its former colonial splendour by the Raffles Group, the sister establishment, Grand Hotel d’Angkor is located in Siem Reap. The National Library is now reopened following renovation; while the recently restored National Archives is situated immediately behind the Library. A former ‘bureau’ of the colonial ‘resident’ now houses the Ministry of Economy and Finance.


8. Streets 106 & 108 - west to east
Phnom Penh Railway Station: 1932
Offices and Workshops of the Public Works Department (former): 1924-1930s
The Treasury (1891-92)
The City Hall Offices (former): 1880s-1925

This group of public buildings complements those mentioned above in Street 91. The Phnom Penh Railway Station has much in common with the ‘New Market’ - both are constructed in ferroconcrete. The former Public Works Workshops are presently occupied by the Headquarters of the Royal Gendarmeries Phnom Penh (recently demolisted), while the Main Offices retain their original function. The Treasury also still performs its original function; and the former Town Hall ‘bureau’ now contains offices belonging to commercial airline and freight companies.

9. Streets 53, 67, 126, 130 & 136
Psah Thmei (‘the New Market’): 1937

A masterpiece of Art Deco design - perhaps one of the finest examples of this era in Southeast Asia. Still functions as the market of Phnom Penh. A wonderful domed structure in ferroconcrete that appears to “hover between buildings that line the street approaches like some alien spacecraft from pulp science fiction.”

The Sangkum and Independence 1950s-1960s

In an explosion of youthful vigour and basking in the exuberance that accompanied Independence (1953), then Prince Norodom Sihanouk as Head of State launched into a campaign of urban planning, development and construction that transformed many provincial centres and in particular, the capital Phnom Penh. This previously largely French colonial city was catapulted into an acclaimed capital that bustled with energy through wider international contact. Visionary Cambodian architects took the lead and were largely responsible for the look of a city that soon became the envy of Cambodia’s Southeast Asian neighbours and that by the mid 1960s was dubbed ‘the belle of  Southeast Asia’. Architects, engineers and UN experts and urbanists of the period include: Vladimir Bodiansky, Henri Chatel, Gerald Hanning, Lu Ban Hap, Mam Sophana, Jamshed Petigura, Ung Krapum Phka and important and innovative architect, Vann Molyvann. His designs, perhaps more than any others, exemplify the essence of ‘New Khmer Architecture’ that appeared throughout the city and in the provinces from the late 1950s to 60s. Fortunately, some fine examples of this style remain, while others have suffered neglect and a few are currently threatened by insensitive development.

10. Sisowath Quay
Chaktomuk Conference Hall: 1961

This multi-functional conference hall designed by Vann Molyvann has recently been refitted and renovated to once again function for the purposes for which it was first constructed. This aesthetically pleasing fan-shaped hall topped with a traditional Khmer tower is sited close to the Royal Palace and hovers like a bird on the embankment overlooking the river junction at Chaktomuk.

11. Streets 41, 268 & 274
Monument of Independence: 1962

The monument that celebrates Cambodian independence in traditional Khmer prasat form with a refined sense of proportion, sits with an appropriate air of solemnity at the centre of a traffic circle at the junction of Sihanouk and Norodom boulevards. Designed by Vann Molyvann the delicacy of decoration echoes that of Banteay Srei temple in its soft pink granite-finished concrete forms.

12. Streets 19, 163 & 274
National Sports Complex: 1964

Massive in scale and deceptively simple in conception and execution, this Vann Molyvann masterpiece encompasses track and field, open-air stadium, indoor sports hall, swimming and diving pools and grandstand to international Olympic standards. Utilised through the sixties for international and national sports events, public rallies to welcome state guests and spectacular political and theatrical events, this complex is in danger of being rendered useless by unsympathetic development. The product of a team-effort during the 1960s, a host of architects, engineers and experts contributed their services to see this spectacular complex completed - it was originally designed to cover over 40 hectares.

13. Moha Vithei Confederation de la Russie
Institute of Technology: 1964

Designed by Russian architects and built with Soviet funds, this gift to Cambodia was an important addition to the growing number of tertiary educational facilities that were planned along the aptly named former boulevard USSR on the western outskirts of the city at Tuol Kok. Probably better known by its abbreviation ITC, this complex of buildings is superbly designed to accommodate students in airy classrooms and corridors through louvered screens that extend over the entire façade of the main building. Renovated with French funds, the university functions to teach the subjects for which it was originally designed.

14. Moha Vithei Confederation de la Russie
Royal University of Phnom Penh (formerly Centre Universitaire du Sangkum Reastr- Niyum): 1968

The French architectural partnership Leroy and Mondet was responsible for the university buildings, originally known as the Centre Universitaire du Sangkum Reastr Niyum that line blvd USSR to the west of ITC. The main buildings appear to float in mid-air, almost defying gravity by resting on slender supporting columns that allow the passage of air to circulate around the structures. Renovated recently, the university buildings form an impressive entrance to the city along the main boulevard from the Phnom Penh International Airport.

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