Efforts to preserve French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh have taken a backseat in the municipality authorities’ list of priorities. Despite these buildings drawing a substantial number of heritage enthusiasts in many forms – locals, expats, and tourists – there seems to be a lack of concerted intentions to conserve such history.
The most recent report on heritage-listed buildings in the capital counted a smattering of more than 500 heritage buildings within Phnom Penh.
According to the 2013 report by the Phnom Penh Administration, only 34 out of 523 heritage buildings were ranked in the first class – meaning they retained most of their original structure and oozed a substantial amount of their past grandeur. Twenty four were categorised under second class, while the fourth and last class comprised 448 residential heritage buildings.
Under colonisation by the French for almost a century, legacies have been left behind in manifestations of monumental edifices of French architectural design. Four hundred of these buildings, however, have thus far been remodelled into restaurants and clubs. City Hall authorities had no control over these renovations, since the land they were on was owned by locals.
Park Café, one of Cambodia’s most popular food chains with numerous branches across the capital, has one of its outlets in a French colonial house. The building is parked on Monivong Boulevard, coincidentally in front of French-government-funded Calmette Hospital.
Heng Sengly, general manager of that particular Park Café, said the decision to open a restaurant at the location was due to its high flow of traffic, and the bonus feature that eludes many places in Phnom Penh – a large parking space.
“I think the design of the building is its most attractive aspect, but besides that fact, this is a great location that can accommodate many cars for parking,” Sengly said.
He added, “The crowd that patronises our outlet is a good mix of people of all ages. The younger customers are mostly indifferent to the architectural design of the building, but the older customers who are aware of the valuable heritage this building holds often spend more time here.”
Sengly personally feels a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness when he comes to work. “It’s a strange feeling. It’s as if I’m walking into a museum, or reminiscing about the past.”
Nevertheless, the building’s old age has caught up with it – riddling it with construction issues that require the repairing of its roof, support beams, and exquisite tile flooring.
A minister from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, who asked not to be named, disclosed that with the cooperation of French heritage and historical experts, Phnom Penh authorities have conducted much research and evaluation studies on classical French buildings. According to the studies, the municipality has implemented an overarching Cultural Heritage Asset Protection law drafted in 1996.
The inclusion of these historical heritage sites, however, might exclude its age. For instance, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, although shy of 50 years in age, is considered a historical site. On the other hand, colonial French buildings of 70 to 80 years old are not part of the heritage list and are mostly pocketed as private property.
It is estimated that there are more French colonial buildings in Battambang province than there are in Phnom Penh. According to Ho Vandy, secretary general of the Cambodian Tourism Federation, these colonial buildings are regularly swarmed by older European tourists interested in preserved European culture and architecture in Asian countries.
“I once brought up the issue [to the City Hall] about conserving these buildings remaining from the French era about ten years ago, but the ugly truth is that we’ve been losing them gradually due to remodifications and sabotage,” Vandy revealed.
Mean Chanyada, vice-governor and spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall, declined to comment on Vanny’s input.
Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ secretary of state, Thai Noreak Satya, told Post Property that it was a ministerial policy to conserve all buildings remaining from the French Colony era – and this includes the forbiddance of the owner to demolish or modify, in any way, the building. In the event that the owners wish to fix or repair the building without amending its original state, they need to first consult with heritage building experts.
Although the ministry has drafted a sub-decree aiming to conserve these buildings in its absolute state, no approval from the National Assembly has been given.
Most of the French colonial buildings in Cambodia were constructed in the late 19th century until the 1920s, and did not have steel supports. Instead, extra durable and strong bricks and nets were used to support the pillars and ceilings, Satya continued.
“In Cambodia, even though we build skyscrapers, we won’t be able to compete with the first world countries as the tourists have already seen them, but they can never see such buildings from the French colony period that are as well-conserved as historical assets as they are here.”