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'I will spend the last of my days living on the soil of Siem Reap'

Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument is one of Vann Molyvann’s most iconic works
Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument is one of Vann Molyvann’s most iconic works. Meng Kimlong

'I will spend the last of my days living on the soil of Siem Reap'

The father of modern Khmer architecture, Vann Molyvann, finds peace away from Phnom Penh

In a quiet, leafy road running along the Siem Reap River sits a modest house that’s been a topic of much conversation in the neighbourhood recently.

A woman who owns a nearby grocery store nearby said she heard a rumour that the house, in Siem Reap’s Trang village, was the new residence of Vann Molyvann, the father of modern Khmer architecture.

Vann Molyvann’s home in Siem Reap.
Vann Molyvann’s home in Siem Reap. Thik Kaliyann

“The neighbours told me that Mr Vann Molyvann came to live here, but at first I rather did not believe it because I have never seen him travel along here,” said the woman. “If it’s true, it is a great honour for the people who live in this village.”

The famous architect moved into the house six months ago, turning his back on Phnom Penh, where most of his most famous works were built, but he and his family haven’t made their presence widely known.

“I wouldn’t like to surprise our neighbours,” he said with a typically generous smile during a rare interview in the library of the two-storey house.

At 90 years old, Molyvann and his wife have a caregiver, Chuonj Chhoeun, to help them with day-to-day tasks but he still dresses in his trademark crisp blue shirt, tie and grey trousers and can walk up and down stairs unassisted.
“Here is calm and quiet, and we have a lot of nature, which is lovelier to live in than Phnom Penh,” he said.

Between 1956, when he was appointed Cambodia’s chief architect by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and 1971, when he left the then war-torn country, Molyvann designed almost all of Phnom Penh’s iconic landmarks: the Olympic Stadium, Independence Monument, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Tonle Bassac Theatre and many more.

But since returning to the Kingdom in 1991, he has watched his legacy destroyed.

The Tonle Bassac Theatre burned down, the Council of Ministers building was demolished and the Olympic Stadium is slowly being hemmed in by residential towers.

Vann Molyvann and his caregiver, Chuonj Chhoeun.
Vann Molyvann and his carer, Chuonj Chhoeun. Thik Kaliyann

Recalling all the buildings which have been ruined one after another, Molyvann took a deep, sad breath and remained silent for a moment.

Finally, he said: “I feel regretful, but what can I do? I can do nothing.”

He said he is happier in Siem Reap, a place with which he has a strong connection.

He designed a few projects in the town – such as its first airport built in 1963 and now a military base – and developed its master plan during his tenure as head of the Apsara Authority between 1995 and 2001.
After he was removed from the position, Molyvann spent four years writing an architectural history book called Borei in Southeast Asia, Past and Present, which was published in Khmer and French in 2009. An English version is being translated in London and will be published later this year.

His other written works include Modern Khmer Cities – a treatise on the planning and development of Cambodia’s urban centres.

Molyvann said he was trying to fill the gaps in Cambodia’s historical record that left students ill-informed about their country’s past, especially the Khmer Rouge regime.

He said he has no plans to return to Phnom Penh, where the family home he designed and lived in for many years has been turned into a furniture showroom.

When asked about his future, Molyvann smiled and said he had already found a place for his and his wife’s stupa in Wat Preah Enkosei, also known as Wat Leu.

“I will spend the last of my days living on the soil of Siem Reap,” he said. “I cannot go anywhere else, as I am too old. I just stay here for happiness, that’s enough.”

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