A cyclo tour group is whizzing past the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun and Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post
Khmer Architecture Tours take in the sights of Wat Phnom
The Post Office
The old Phnom Penh Hotel
There’s nothing wrong with taking a guided tour of a city that can never really reveal all that it is, was and will be. Anyone who thinks their top-of-the-charts coolness factor forbids them from joining an organised tour simply is not interested enough in the place they live in or are just travelling through.
Another way to look at it is by getting an insider’s view of the “Charming City”, you really can have some of its charm rub off on you; perhaps even the beginnings of an appreciation of architecture as the mother of art.
After searching for a neat sounding architecture tour of the city I live in, I signed up for “Central Phnom Penh by Cyclo,” run by Khmer Architecture Tours. If that sounds pretentious, keep in mind that this tour is at least partially by cyclo, and who hasn’t wanted to jump into one of those, go around at a leisurely pace and not worry about whether you are an important person or not?
The tour runs every second Sunday from 8:30 in the morning. The meeting place is downtown, behind the landmark Old Post Office building. On tour that Sunday were three local student tour guides, seven French visitors and a couple of hung-over and late Aussie girls. Finally, at 9am we all met under the only public clock on display in Phnom Penh.
Going into the post office was an insight into how natural ventilation works in tropically designed structures. High ceilings and large open French panelled windows keep the breeze going, so only the personnel offices on the top floor are equipped with air conditioning.
The main guide, going by the name Liam, brought us out slowly so we could appreciate the classical facades of the building.
His English was not as good as his French, but that didn’t matter when we crossed back and walked into some “low-rise charm”—apartments that were originally one of Phnom Penh’s first hotels. Now in seconds we were in the common courtyard.
The Cambodian families living there didn’t seem to mind as we casually made our way through their living quarters. The barefoot kids were running around their playground hello-ing us and the grownups were just slow-pace moving through the kitchens and bedrooms going about their Sunday.
Liam explained the traditional urban importance of the courtyard as a sanitary ploy to let the light in and dirty waste out for all of the families living there. There were old brass and iron keys functioning in the dilapidated doors and while us outsiders were fidgeting with them and glimpsing inside the various rooms in use, it was, if it can be said, a beautiful intrusion.
The 10 minute cyclo ride around Wat Phnom was obviously the most relaxing component of the tour. It seemed a little short to me, but I wasn’t the one cranking up and down on the pedals. We went along the river till arriving at Chinese House.
Formerly the hub of Chinese trade in the city, it’s now part business office, part super selective restaurant.
I felt real at ease here as the design style is part French and part Chinese coming from the concept of “Feng Shui”, meaning air and water in English. The shorthand of it is that if you build an edifice by considering the balance of the natural elements surrounding it, the building and its inhabitants will be prosperous.
Feng Shui is more landscape ecology than physical architecture; with some psychological symbolism mixed in. The front of a dwelling should always face an open space for coming and going and the back of it should face the woods or a natural physical barrier where any journey has to end. It’s a lot like life.
I felt the next part of the tour — hanging in front of the riverside KFC, which used to be the lobby of the Phnom Penh Hotel — was the beginning of a Francophile’s architecture tour of Phnom Penh. The student guides held up images of the art-deco looking lobby of the grand old hotel while we gazed in at a few groups of Cambodian hipster teens debating whether their chicken should be regular or extra crispy.
Most of the tour had a spit-on-the-pavement-while-cursing-modernity moment, but I just wondered why we didn’t go in and check out the Chinese House?
Only then did it occur to me that the repeating motif of this tour had a French connection. There was never a visit or even a nod to any modern or postmodern architecture that can really stand on its own in Phnom Penh. I was aching for a visit and an architectural primer on, for example, the Prime Minister’s Office or Peace House.
The zenith of what seemed to me to be a certain cultural pandering came at the Gothic Revival style “Sister of Providence” Christian church. At the ostensible end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, people began coming back into the city squatting in and around the church grounds.
While our still intact group was shuffling around this squalid place looking for pretty tiles placed lovingly by a French priest, I got the shuttering feeling that the tour had gone too far-flung, and now everybody was lamenting squatter homes as obstacles to their view.
I know voyeurism is a French word, but I am not a philistine or a class warrior. I think it’s shameful how much beauty has been rubbed out by thugs in Cambodia. Yet at just this point of the tour, and with local families whom we just a few hours ago were bouncing around the urban courtyards, we had all now in this churchyard offered not a single smile and have all now become semi-catatonic zombies. I left the tour with an understanding that if architecture is the mother of art, then nostalgia is its bastard child.