MY PHNOM PENH: VIRAK ROEUN

Virak Roeun
Virak Roeun architecture graduate.

MY PHNOM PENH: VIRAK ROEUN

Virak Roeun is best known around Phnom Penh as a guide on the Khmer Architecture Tours. We caught up with him to ask what he’s come to love about the capital over the past six years, after moving here from Battambang to study.

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Building
My favourite architecture in Phnom Penh is at the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL), which is part of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It was designed by Vann Molyvann, so I take visitors there on the 1960s architecture tour. It’s perhaps not the best work of his, but I find it really interesting because all the buildings he designed for there are tiny, so they’re kind of cute – I don’t really like his big buildings like the National Stadium. The best building at IFL is the froggy building. It’s not actually called that, but I once took a school group around and that’s what the children called it, because it looks like a line of squatting frogs. The way he dealt with the heat in that design is amazing. Today, if you want to protect a building from the sun, you do it with materials – those horrible glass stickers on the windows. But Vann Molyvann knew how to build around the problem. For example, the heat comes from the west in the afternoon, so he put a double wall system with a space in between the two walls on the western side.

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Cafe
My favourite place to eat is not really a restaurant, it’s just a small shophouse within walking distance of the National Stadium on Street 140. In fact you could hardly even call the place a cafe – it’s just a family business with no name, but it’s impressive for a local place and the sellers are friendly. I often go there when I’ve finished guiding my morning tour – they’re open from 2pm until 7pm or 8pm. They serve noodle soup, but also ban soung [rice noodles], which you can have with pad Thai or fish balls and coconut milk for 3,500 riel. It’s $2 if you want to double all the toppings and get really full on it. And it’s quite clean compared to other places of the same style.

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Contemporary architecture
There aren’t really any amazing architects working in Phnom Penh today, which is a bit sad. In terms of commercial design, I really appreciate the work of Hok Kang Architects, who designed Brown Coffee and also the new Embassy Residences building in Tonle Bassac. I don’t think what they do is incredible, but of all the local architects working in Phnom Penh, they’re the best. With Brown, they knew they needed to attract people, and I think they did it justice with the design – the branch on Russian Boulevard has a nice element of industrial design to it. To be honest, all the materials are fake, so it’s still not so good, but I like the concept that they are trying to deliver to the people in Cambodia.

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Bar
In the evenings, I like Alley Bar on Street 240-and-a-half. Before I came to Phnom Penh, I’d never been to a live concert in my life, but at Alley Bar they often have singers who’ll sing whatever you like. The design is quite contemporary and it mainly attracts foreigners and students, but it still feels private because getting there is complicated – you need a friend to take you or you won’t find it. The only problem is that they have a cover charge of about 10 per cent, which is quite rare for Phnom Penh. But that whole street is a great place to go because it’s so small and quiet even though it’s in the middle of the city.

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Library
When I moved here from Battambang to study, I didn’t make many friends at first, and anyway, if you wanted to hang out, you needed money, which I didn’t have. So I thought OK, I’ll just stay alone and go to the library. I didn’t even know the National Library existed at that time, so I always went to the Hun Sen Library at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Architecturally, it’s alright, but the most important thing for a library is just the space to read and store books, and it’s got that. It also has good books in it compared to other libraries in the country, although still not much that was related to my architecture studies. When I went there, I’d read everything: maths, physics – I even read a Khmer translation of Anne Frank once. I loved that book, although I couldn’t finish it because it was so thick.

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