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From harbor to high life: the riverside evolves

From harbor to high life: the riverside evolves


The businesses along the river front are primarily catering to foreign tourists. One local bar owner feels it is the lure of foreign - primarily tourist - dollars that has fueled the emergence of new and up-market eating and drinking establishments.

S troll down Sisowath Quay in the early evening and Phnom Penh's riverside reveals a remarkable juxtaposition of up-market Western establishments and Cambodian carnival.

Dragon kites and cages of fluttering sparrows compete with the sizzles and smells of street food for the attention of Phnom Penhois 'dah leng' - promenading - along the banks of the Tonle Bassac.

Seventeen percent of Cambodia's rural population may live below the food poverty line, but on Sisowath Quay low-fat decaf lattes, Mexican tacos, and 'fusion' duck-breast salads abound.

On the pavement next to the water are sparrows (both live and deep fried) and smiles; security guards and English menus dominate the opposite side.

"It was the war that gave the people back the river," says Vann Molyvann, renowned Cambodian architect and minister of culture, fine arts and urbanization from 1993 until 1997. "That was one good thing it did."

In the early years of the 20th century Phnom Penh's riverfront was a busy, commercial port.

"Following the independence of Cambodia in 1953, King Sihanouk decided to create a seaport in Sihanoukville. Thus Phnom Penh's riverfront lost its primary function," Molyvann said. "At the end of the Khmer Rouge period, when I came back from exile, the

Bassac was an empty, dilapidated harbor."

The Western side of the road

Now the formerly dilapidated harbor is packed with pizza joints, tuktuks, and wide-eyed backpackers. On colonial balconies above the madding crowds below, the wealthy quaff wine and pick elegantly at European haute cuisine.

Expensive bars and restaurants have mushroomed along the riverside. From chorizo to Kimchi, mojitos to Merlot; exotic delicacies from across the globe are now as readily available as fried sparrow along the quay.

The businesses along the river front are primarily catering to foreign tourists. One local bar owner feels it is the lure of foreign - primarily tourist - dollars that has fueled the emergence of new and up-market eating and drinking establishments.

"There are a lot of new bars opening," says the owner of Pontoon, one of the riverside's newest high-end bars. "The riverside is changing rapidly and the changes are really driven by tourism."

The need to attract tourist dollars dominates the design of the eating and drinking establishments along the river. Step inside the air-conditioned splendor of Café Fresco, and you could be sitting in a trendy coffee shop in any capital city in the world.

"The Phnom Penh Municipality wants to attract tourists," said Keat Toby, manager of the architect and urban planning team at the municipality. "Even the architectural style on the river is designed for tourists - the municipality has many regulations to make sure new buildings look nice."

The Cambodian side of the road

With even the architecture designed with foreign clientele in mind, it is unsurprising that the majority of patrons on one side of Sisowath Quay are not local Phnom Penhois.

"The cafes, restaurants and bars remain the domain of non-Cambodians," says Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development, a local NGO.

But on the other side of the road, ordinary Cambodians have recently started to reclaim public spaces on the banks of the Tonle Bassac, Seng said.

"More and more Khmer citizens are making use of the public parks and gardens in the city during evening and late night hours, especially along the riverfront," she says. "The increased use of public gardens began only within the last eight months [and] is a noticeable and significant change."

Other people working the quay have noticed the same trend. Fifteen-year-old Rath, a salt vendor, says the number of Khmers using the riverside area has increased dramatically.

"My family have always sold salt here," she says. "I have sat by the street every day for years and there are so many more people walking along here now than I have ever seen before."

Molyvann says that opening up the river bank to allow Cambodians to enjoy the beauty of their capital city was the guiding vision of the post-conflict reconstruction.

Phnom Penh was in ruins, but in the devastation lay the seeds of the newly flourishing riverside, he said.

"We took the opportunity to clear the riverside completely for public space and gardens," he says.

With the riverside being one of the Phnom Penh's most desirable areas, its evolution perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of balancing business-oriented urban development with the need to build a capital city that all Cambodians can enjoy.

Failed process of urban development

The buildings along the riverfront have been bought up and developed by rich entrepreneurs and investors. But Molyvann says that underneath the current glitz and sparkle of the shop fronts, restaurants and bars lies a failed process of urban development.

Molyvann moved to Paris at the end of World War II and studied architecture at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. While there, he watched De Gaulle's government transform the slums that lined the Seine.

"In Paris they used town planning to turn areas from slums to a beautiful riverbank," he says. "This was my inspiration [but] in Phnom Penh you see the reconstruction of the town is absolute anarchy."

The riverside's rampant and unregulated development has cost the capital some important aspects of its urban heritage.

"It is all driven by money," says Molyvann. "They have torn down some wonderful buildings.

Profit versus preservation

The municipality says it is struggling to balance the demands of private owners to make a quick profit, and the need to conserve urban heritage.

"We have problems with the owners of private buildings," says Keat.

"They don't want to restore old buildings; they want to build new houses and get money."

Keat agrees that valuable buildings are being lost, but says education and an adequate legal framework could help improve the situation.

"We don't have the basic laws and regulations necessary to preserve urban heritage," he said "They destroy many important buildings at the moment but this is because people don't yet know enough about the value of urban heritage."

But Molyvann says it is misguided to assume urban heritage is lost solely because the country lacks the legislation necessary to protect it.

"Under UNTAC all the requirements for town management were prepared with input from international experts," he says. "We have all the regulations necessary, but we don't have the political will necessary to enforce those regulations."

Experts agree that public support and political will are the key to protecting local architecture and public spaces, but say unless the public and parliamentarians are swift to get involved, there may be little left to preserve.

Teressa Davis of Heritage Watch, a local conservation NGO, says that the country's rich architectural heritage is rapidly being lost to unchecked development.

"This great legacy is being replaced with heartless modern constructions that are eroding Phnom Penh's celebrated charm one building at a time," she says, "[and] sadly the problem is exacerbated by public apathy."

But as the Cambodian public increasingly finds the confidence to enjoy its public spaces, it may feel more able to demand that the government give them the kind of urban planning that is beneficial to all.

"I consider this area along the river to be one of the best sites in the world," Molyvann said. "We would really like Phnom Penh to have areas with less concrete and more green space; we would like our town to be less mineral and more vegetable - so we can play with water, enjoy our river. That's a vision."


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