The Central Market - Psar Thmey - one of Phnom Penh's most distinctive
landmarks, is a giant beehive of activity. Beneath its towering yellow art deco
dome, tourists snap photos and shop for scarves and sunglasses beside Khmers
buying fresh fruit and vegetables, houseware, and other odds and ends of daily
And visible from Psar Thmey, another, more modern dome looms over
the market square - the blue glass of the Sorya Center, with its shops,
supermarkets and fastfood restaurants. With the rapid development of the city,
the contrast between old and new is an increasingly common sight - one that
raises questions about whether the future will coexist with the past or replace
The changing face of Phnom Penh - and many provincial centers - is
not going unnoticed, as highlighted by a national seminar on preserving
Cambodia's urban heritage, sponsored by UNESCO, the National UNESCO Committee
and the Municipality of Phnom Penh on January 16-17.
The Governor of
Phnom Penh, Kep Chuktema, acknowledged in his opening address that historic
preservation in the city so far has been largely ignored, but emphasized that it
was a centerpiece of the city's long-term vision of development and was vital to
As part of Phnom Penh's Master Plan for 2020, the municipality
is looking to establish regulations for development that would preserve
architectural and historic monuments, complete an inventory of urban heritage,
and rehabilitate historic buildings in Khan Daun Penh.
certain structures contributes to preservation of the city itself," Chuktema
said. Investment interests needed to be balanced with preservation. "We need to
keep our identity, because if it's lost, we cannot buy it back, no matter how
rich we are."
Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, told the Post
that the seminar was encouraging, as it shows that the government has some
interest in preserving its urban heritage. But, he said, he would also like to
see it begin to implement measures to save buildings.
As high rises,
apartment blocks, and glitzy glass storefronts go up along the city's main
thoroughfares, other buildings are being torn down to make way. Several unique
examples of colonial and Khmer modern architecture had been destroyed, he said.
If unchecked, the destruction could threaten the very charm that makes Phnom
Penh an attractive destination for tourists.
Augusto Villalón, an
architect and cultural heritage planner from the Philippines, said, "Phnom
Penh's architecture is very excellent in many ways. It is laid back, but has a
grandeur that you don't find elsewhere in Asia, especially because it is still a
Comparing the city today to his last visit 30 years ago,
he said it still had the same identity and the same feel even though it is more
built up. "This is what it must maintain," he said.
Heritage Watch is
hoping to get funding to install information plaques at historic buildings
around Phnom Penh and to organize audio tours, a project O'Reilly describes as
"a small step in the right direction in recognizing Cambodia's urban
Yet the challenges for saving the past are numerous, including
the lack of a legal framework under which the government can protect historic
buildings from demolition or careless renovation. "Without the law," says Ieng
Aunny, Director of the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism for the Municipality
of Phnom Penh, "even if we want to do something good to preserve urban heritage,
Public safety is another important concern, as some buildings
are in danger of collapse. Without funding to purchase and restore such
buildings - which the city lacks - these buildings face being torn
As a solution, the municipality is looking towards greater
engagement with the private sector.
"They are the ones who can contribute
financially. Without private sector participation, preservation is impossible,"
says Terou Jinnai, UNESCO Representative in Cambodia.
Says Villalón, "You
can make money out of old buildings. It is an old development fallacy that you
have to tear down the old to make way for the new." He said Singapore
successfully involved the private sector in setting aside historic districts,
offering a model for Phnom Penh of how the old and new can live
Inevitably, some landmarks will need to be torn down. According
to Jinnai, "What to keep and what to allow to fall away is a key judgment" that
the government has to make.
Only the future will tell whether the city's
preservation efforts are successful. Helen Grant Ross, an architect with
Architecture Research Khmer, says, "We are looking at the beginning of a process
that has only just begun. We will not be able to see if it worked until ten
years from now."
The Central Market, at least, can breathe easy - its
future is assured. As part of a nearly US$8.64 million project, the French
Development Agency and Phnom Penh Municipality began renovations of the market
in November 2005, which should be completed in April 2007. The edifice,
constructed by French architects in 1937, might even have a shot at becoming a
World Heritage Site - the municipality is working on completing the necessary
documentation - ensuring its preservation for generations of Cambodians and
tourists to come.
"We will not change any form of the building," says
Ieng. "We'll repaint it, but we'll pay most attention to the structural
integrity and foundation. We'll make sure it's strong."