Architecture tour unearths hidden gems

Architecture tour unearths hidden gems


Architecture month may be over, but people still have an opportunity to

appreciate the architectural gems of Phnom Penh through guided tours

Photo by: Eleanor Ainge Roy

Architecture student and tour guide Sokly Yam outside the National Library, which features in the tour.

THE character of the owner is reflected in the state of his property," says architecture guide Sokly Yam, standing in front of a dilapidated, privately owned and cheaply updated French colonial house by the river.

His mouth is set in a faint sneer, and an Australian tourist with a fondness for the grand mutters knowingly, "Tasteless, absolutely tasteless", clicking her tongue at the tinted aluminum windows and visible air-conditioning units.

Sokly Yam has been guiding tourists around Phnom Penh's architectural highlights for nearly two years and says that, although it is hard work, he loves it.

The tour today begins at the Central Post Office, a large, yellow French colonial building with high ceilings and wide windows and doors: a sanctuary from the tropical heat and monsoon rains.

"A space like this is rare now," says Sokly Yam, indicating the empty square outside, "Phnom Penh is very short of public spaces". Other public service issues he identifies are a lack of proper drainage facilities and inadequate rubbish collection services.

Gem for colonial enthusiast

The square surrounding the old post office is a gem for the colonial enthusiast, and it takes just a little imagination to see it as it was in its heyday - the buildings elegant and gleaming, the town clock ticking towards midday and broad trees shading the ladies dining at the small cafes.  How truly it was then - the Paris of the East.


Opposite the Post Office was once a boutique hotel, with curving staircases and expensive tiling.  "It was beautiful," says Sokly Yam wistfully, and the Australian ladies sigh in unison. This building and the old police headquarters north of the post office have fallen to ruin, and now their charm is of the archaic kind. The group of tourists that Sokly Yam is leading are shocked to hear that the pretty old police headquarters have been boarded up for ten years and could at any moment be knocked down.

"The heritage law doesn't really work," says Sokly Yam. "Recently a heritage building was demolished, and because it was privately owned, as most of these buildings are, there was nothing the heritage law could do to stop it. Changing that is a matter of education, and of enforcing the law. At the moment, I don't think preserving old buildings is high on the government's development agenda".

Old Chinese district

From the Post Office square we take a cyclo to the old Chinese district, once separated from the French area by a wide canal. "It wasn't intentional," Sokly Yam assures us, "But this was the most direct route from the river to the railway station".

We view an old Chinese temple currently filled with small family homes and shops, and a Catholic church - once the heart of an all-girls boarding school - now host to a dingy collection of corrugated iron shacks, blaring sound systems and frying food.

At times Yam looks sad at the state of these treasures - at other times angry - and the tourists he guides every second Sunday are uniformly indignant.

"Every time I talk to foreigners about the preservation of heritage buildings I feel ashamed. I want to offer them proper documentation and information but it is so difficult to find. I spend two days a week at the National Library, but much was left to rot and ruin when the Khmer Rouge took over."

Yam takes us to an intersection near Psar Chas (the old market) to show us the collision of three very different styles. A typical French apartment on one corner, a very '60s curved Chinese apartment on the other - utilitarian and somewhat blank - and beside it a sophisticated-looking '80s offering, also Chinese, with intricate designs on the window grates and balcony railing.

"The late '50s to '60s were a very good time for architecture in Phnom Penh," says Sokly Yam. "King Sihanouk understood art and culture - he had fine architectural tastes. Much good work was done in this period, and it is still very relevant today."

Sokly Yam lists The Japanese embassy, the Singapore embassy, and the Institute of Foreign Languages among his favourite new pieces in Phnom Penh. And the new National Assembly and the ECCC building as his least favourite. Sokly Yam's true passion, though, lies in modern heritage buildings, both French colonial and Chinese shophouses.

Preserving colonial history

"Many architecture students are very focused on preserving the Angkorian style and dismissive of the French colonial period. But we need to split the skilled people in Cambodia and preserve all sorts. We need to preserve colonial history - because, like it or not, it is a part of Cambodia. We can learn a lot from these buildings, the philosophy of the design can tell us about the values of the day."

Sokly Yam says the recent architecture month was a step in the right direction, and a good way of interacting with the public, but he has bigger plans for the architecture scene in Phnom Penh.

"I would like for us to have an annual architecture conference. To bring together working architects, architecture students, architects from the '60s and earlier, developers and investors. We could talk about the direction of Phnom Penh: Where we are going and what do we want our city to look like? The younger generation want to learn how to make something new, but with references to the past, and discuss how to prepare for the future."

The tour ends on a high note, outside a green and yellow colonial residential house about to undergo renovations. The satisfied tourists wander off into the darkening streets with a new appreciation for the mixed - and threatened - architectural beauty of Phnom Penh.

"It may take Cambodia another 10 years to catch on to the importance of preserving our history," Yam sighs, "And by then it might be too late".

Khmer Architecture Tours is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established in 2003 in Phnom Penh to promote the understanding of modern architecture in Cambodia. To find out more about the tours offered you can visit


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