Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and a Phnom Penh native. On the 41st anniversary of the city’s fall this week, he sat down with Audrey Wilson to recall some of his favourite sites of memory in Phnom Penh – and his hope for the capital’s future.
In the old days, this building belonged to the National Bank of Cambodia, and my uncle worked there. It was the tallest building in the city. Any employee of the National Bank could buy an apartment. Every other weekend, we would go there. On the fourth floor, you could see the river and the view. They had a soccer field, tennis court, volleyball court. It was very private. It’s also the first place in Phnom Penh to grow the royal yellow flower – I remember because I used to pick it and sell it to the foreigners. When I returned, it had become the Russian Embassy, so I had no access to it. It’s something that the past has taken away, and I want it back.
I love the streets near O’Russey Market. At Battambang Restaurant they sell num pav, you know, the Chinese cakes. They are considered the best in the city. I always buy it from that place – very cheap and very convenient. For me, the city is about food. When you come to Phnom Penh, you come to eat noodles. But in the noodle place, you also have num pav. Without the Chinese influence and num pav, it’s not Phnom Penh – it gives flavour to the city. Usually you go early in the morning – the cakes are fresh from the hot pot at five o’clock. I think most of my favourite places are based on memory. And num pav reminds me of Phnom Penh – that time and that place, it’s like when I would come with my mother, father and sister and buy that cake and bring it home. It’s not just the place, it’s the memory attached to it.
The first things I think of when I think of Phnom Penh are the phka trabek prey (purple flowers) on Norodom Boulevard. When I was a little boy, I used to ride my bicycle down it, and the flowers grow just during this time of year: April, May. When you think of Phnom Penh in the ’60s, before it was touched by war, it was a garden. Every house, every home had a garden. There’s a song about this flower by a woman named Dy Sakhan. She sang this song during the war, and the flower became a symbol of the city. She beautified the war. I like Norodom Boulevard most on Sunday mornings: jogging, running, bicycling. For me, the city now belongs to vehicles. That’s why Sunday morning is the only time: you can walk there, you can cross the street without worrying about traffic.
Tuol Kork Primary School
I go to my old primary school, Poeuv Oum, almost every holiday. It was the first place I learned to read and write. I put a little memorial there, at the high school. A lot of former students have returned and helped out. But the primary school brings back a lot of memories. It was very close to my old house, and the structure remains the same, still the same compound, still the same classrooms. In the high school in the old days, they had a flower called Tuesday Morning. I used to pick it and make tea for my grandmother. Now they’ve cut all the trees down, and it is called Tuol Kork primary school. My old house was knocked down six months ago – the house I was born in. It became a garage and carwash. The school is across the street, and that’s part of why I like to go. It’s still the same.
Sleuk Rith Institute
The Sleuk Rith Institute is my project for the future of Phnom Penh. I worked with Zaha Hadid to try to bring Phnom Penh to the globe, transforming the tragedy to strength. We also wanted to redesign Phnom Penh – I’ve been thinking a lot about the city plan since I started to work with her in 2013. We planned to reinvent the past, the canal bridges for example, and to create more space for the public. We studied photographs from the 1800s, 1900s – what Cambodia was like when it was not touched by war. It would be beautiful if our master plan were developed and adopted. We’ve worked with Cambodian engineers, architects and scholars; we all agreed that the charm had been lost, but there is no master plan. That’s why the idea of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the master plan came together: we believe in the future.