The religious history of Phnom Penh is as complex and fascinating as any other. A new tour led by some experienced operators brings it to life
Facing west towards the river on the Chroy Changvar side stands an old Catholic chapel, tucked away from the road behind a low concrete wall. If you weren’t looking for it, you would almost certainly miss it.
The Khmer Rouge did. The chapel, founded in 1919 by Carmelite nuns, was one of few Catholic churches in Cambodia left untouched by the regime. Its Vietnamese neighbour down the street, as well as the grand cathedral across the river, were both dismantled in 1976.
The church grounds now host a state-run orphanage complex, with residents quite different from the cloistered sisters who once made it their home.
But this weekend, Khmer Architecture Tours will bring visitors to the site to learn about its little-known history, as a stop on its newest route, “Four Religions of Phnom Penh”.
“At least this one was an example of an old church in French colonial style and still standing. It was impossible to find an old mosque to show in Phnom Penh,” says Ester van der Laan, an architect and senior tour coordinator.
Van der Laan served as a primary researcher on the project when she joined the company last year, interviewing resident experts like François Ponchaud, an author and Catholic priest who first came to Cambodia in 1965, and Emiko Stock, an anthropologist who runs the blog ChamAttic.
But mostly she’s delved deep into archives — and the internet — to piece together the stories behind the four spaces featured on the tour: Wat Pipaot Rangsey, north of Wat Phnom; a Taoist temple near the riverside; Darusalam Mosque, in the Cham community on the Chroy Changvar peninsula; and the Carmelite chapel.
“It’s a bit like a treasure hunt in a way,” Van der Laan explains, her fingers tracing the hand-drawn route the Carmelite nuns took from Poitiers to Chroy Changvar and, later, to Bangkok.
The result is a complete tour that has been in the works for over two years, and one that deviates from the well-traversed routes that KA Tours is known for.
Rather than old colonial buildings or hallmarks of New Khmer style, the four religious sites are each home to small, lively communities, the remains of diverse populations that have passed through the Kingdom over the centuries.
Virak Roeun, the 24-year-old guide who will lead the new tour, says that reading deeply about these spaces and then meeting the people who occupy them was a different type of training than he was used to.
“When I was young, I didn’t know there was such a Cham community or a Chinese community. To go to the different communities has been the most interesting” part of the tour, he tells me.
“What I like about it is the continuity you see through the history of people coming to Phnom Penh, either settling and staying for generations or – like the French – going on again,” Van der Laan says.
The Taoist temple, flanked by an affiliated school, and the Cham mosque, built in 2012 atop an old one to accommodate a growing village, certainly possess the most visibly vibrant communities. One afternoon this week, children filled the schoolyard outside the temple, and a group of Cham men drinking tea invited us inside.
At Wat Pipaot Rangsey, the community well predates the unique wooden structure, one of many to have stood on the site since the 15th century. The wat itself is a relic amid a lively complex.
The grave markers that surround it bear characteristic Hindu influences, evidence of the waves of migration from the sub-continent. A few even have Burmese script.
And, of course, the Carmelite chapel stands as testament to a community that never fully took hold, and was in turn shaped by another: the Vietnamese, who made up a significant portion of Christians in Cambodia mid-century.
Organisers wanted to bring people to “tiny spots that you would normally not see”, Van der Laan says, and the tour shines in its details, many of which have been buried under the decades.
She also hopes that an increase in visitors may bring forth yet unearthed information about the sites.
“Sometimes people just ask questions that I will never think of,” Rouen, the guide, says.
The tour may also bring an opportunity to ensure the sites don’t fall into disrepair.
Wat Pipaot Rangsey has bits that are crumbling, and restoration would require approval from the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Cults and Religion, and UNESCO. Nonetheless, Van der Laan has been making calls.
“Of course, there are lots of temples to restore. But this one is here in Phnom Penh. It’s alive and still being used.”
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