A Phnom Penh native and scholar of Cambodian history with a current focus on the independence and post-independence periods, Sombo Manara, director of the Center for Khmer Studies at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about sites in the city and their often-overlooked histories.
Veal Dab Cheam
Veal Dab Cheam, literally “blood-stained square”, was near Wat Phnom. During the French colonial period, we had demonstrations there. In 1941, Norodom Sihanouk came to the throne at just 17 years of age. I believe he did not have any clue; he just came [to power] because the French pushed him to their benefit more than anything. But Veal Dab Chem used to be an open field where people gathered to protest the French, because the French lived nearby there [in the French quarter, pictured]. In particular in 1941, the monks gathered there for the “umbrella war” as the French called it. At the time, the French arrested a monk and a demonstrator and the demonstration became violent.
Peth Chin, the Chinese Hospital
Now it’s that massive unfinished construction site [Gold Tower 42] at the intersection of Monivong and Sihanouk [boulevards]. The young people don’t know it. But if you ask the old people “where is Peth Chin?” they will know it and remember. It’s the hospital that was used for our people a long time ago; it was built during the Sihanouk period from 1955 to 1970. It was a public hospital, an important civic institution, like the White Building.
Ponheayat is the name of the king, [the last of the] Angkorian period, that built Phnom Penh and established it as the capital city. I studied [at Ponheayat school] during the time it was called Ponheayat, but then after the 18 March  coup [and the establishment of Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic] it became Tuol Svay Prey, and since 1979, it’s known as Tuol Sleng. I had classes in buildings C and D. When I go there, I remember about my generation and my friends who played there. So then I think not just of my history but of the national history. In my time, it was also where we gathered to do demonstrations, and I was a demonstrator as well during that time.
Preah Yukunthor High School
Preah Yukunthor High School was the name of it from 1955 to 1970, then it changed to 18 March High School in the period of the [Khmer] Republic, and now it is Yukunthor again since after 1979. So why is it historical? In 1972, the then-ministers of education and health were arrested and put in this high school, and after that, the two of them were killed during a huge student demonstration against the government. Nobody knows who killed them even now. I think a part of it is that at that time [authorities] didn’t know how to handle demonstrations. But Yukunthor is where youth leaders and organisations gathered at that time.
There used to be a casino at the Cambodiana Hotel during Norodom Sihanouk’s time. Why don’t we talk about that? In 1967, we had economic troubles, so the King built that casino place to attract all the foreigners and the gamblers to solve this financial problem. In that time, it was the only large building, along with the White Building. What caused the financial problem is that as the communists and capitalists came to the peak of confrontation, Sihanouk’s neutralism could not stand for long, and in 1967, everything started to shake.