This decaying mansion at 32 Sothearos Boulevard has been up for sale for a year. A prospective buyer hopes to clinch a deal soon.
Prince prepares to part with mini-palace
Chea Sakhan has one of Phnom Penh's most stunning views. From the balcony of the
ornate colonial-era villa where he lives, Sakhan can gaze directly at the National
Museum and the Royal Palace. From this perch, just below the building's impressive
Corinthian capitals, he can look down on the bustle of Phnom Penh's frenetic riverfront
Sakhan and his family live at 32 Sothearos Boulevard - a building many Phnom Penh
residents have at one time or another stared at with appreciation, amazement or concern.
It's a decaying yellow-hued rococo palace from a bygone age - a crumbling architectural
relic with an estimated worth of US$1.5 million.
Sakhan agrees that the building, which backs on to the FCC, is a home that most people
can only dream of living in.
"Normal people cannot live in this kind of style," Sakhan told the Post.
"Only a prince or the Prime Minister can afford to have a house with such style."
For two years Sakhan, 46, has been the caretaker of the building. A former soldier
and bodyguard for National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sakhan said
he began living in the villa in 2003 after King Norodom Sihanouk gave it to his son
Ranariddh. According to Sakhan, the building has since been used to house the prince's
bodyguards and their families.
However a palace spokesman said Sihanouk never owned the building, and he speculated
that it was formerly owned by the Ministry of Interior. How it came to be owned by
Ranariddh remains a mystery.
The future of the building is also unclear. For nearly a year, 32 Sothearos has been
for sale. The site - covering 1,195 square meters - is appreciating rapidly and could
be worth nearly $2 million in five years, estimates Saroeun Soush, managing director
of Asia Real Property Company, which has a listing for the property.
According to Soush there have been several interested buyers, but all the deals have
One riverside businessman told the Post, however, that his company is presently negotiating
to buy the building and the sale may conclude as soon as next week.
When told the building was for sale, Sakhan expressed disbelief.
"The prince likes the building," he said. "And in any case he would
not sell it because it previously belonged to the King Father."
A spokesman for Prince Ranariddh refused to comment on the future of the building.
Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, said in an email that the building
should be preserved because it is a signature Phnom Penh landmark.
"It is one of the structures most photographed by visitors to Phnom Penh and
the city would be much worse off were it destroyed," O'Reilly wrote. "These
are the kind of structures that lend charm to the city and increase its appeal as
a tourism destination. Every time one of these structures is torn down the city loses
an opportunity to attract visitors as well as losing a part of its identity."
Preservationists like O'Reilly have become increasingly concerned about the disrepair
- and disappearance - of many colonial era buildings. On January 16 and 17, UNESCO
and the Municipality of Phnom Penh are jointly organizing a national seminar on the
preservation of Cambodia's urban heritage.
Inside, gaping holes riddle the ceiling, exposing old wooden rafters. Decorative tiles on the floor are loose and cracked.
Although the building's exact history has been obscured by war and civil strife,
the house was probably built in the 1920s, said Helen Grant Ross, an expert on Cambodian
architecture. The National Archives have no record of the building's original owner
"It's definitely a landmark. Just about everyone refers to it as 'that run-down
colonial building opposite the National Museum,'" said Darryl Collins, a historian
at the National Museum. "It's a typical French colonial, but has a style that
incorporates a whole combination of styles imported from Europe. It was certainly
built in the 1920s and most colonial buildings of that time are this type of pastiche."
Only two families live in the 10-room, two-story building full time, said Em Sopheap,
Sakhan's sister, whose husband is a bodyguard. "Sometimes there are as many
as thirty people staying inside. Some police and bodyguards come to stay at night."
Inside, gaping holes riddle the ceiling in many areas, exposing the old wooden rafters.
The fading blue walls are pocked and covered with graffiti - drawings, English lessons,
names and dates - from previous bodyguards and Royal Gendarmerie who lodged at the
site. The decorative tiles on the floor are loose and cracked in several places.
A grand staircase, blocked by a broken shutter, sweeps up to the second floor.
"We don't use the second floor because there is enough space downstairs,"
Amid the building's faded glory, the occupants have made a home. In one room, several
plastic chairs are arranged around a TV and the smell of Khmer cooking seeps through
the cracked door from the kitchen in the next room.
"For me, living here is OK - we have electricity and water," says Sopheap.
"It has a good view and fresh air," agrees Sakhan. "There is always
Sakhan said he is unconcerned about the building's present state of disrepair.
"I don't feel worried about the collapse of the building even though it is old,"
he said. "The quality of this old construction is much better than new buildings.
It is strong enough."
Sakhan said a contractor came recently to inspect the building, but no work has started
yet. He believes that Prince Ranariddh is planning to renovate the building next
year and that the original style will be maintained, as the prince values Cambodia's
"I think it will be good if they renovate it," said Sakhan. "The style
is different from other buildings."
But if the building is sold, he is not worried about moving. He said he is just looking
after the building for Prince Ranariddh.
"After it is renovated or sold, its OK. We will go back to the prince's palace.
That's where we were living before," he said. "We are all like children
of the prince. If he lets us stay here, we protect it. If it's renovated or sold,
we will leave."