A world away from the high-rises, Phnom Penh is in the throes of a more sophisticated property boom as expats snap up old properties and convert them into sleek apartments with a vintage feel
Marianne Waller compares renovating her colonial-era Phnom Penh apartment to childbirth. At the time it was difficult – dealing with intractable, superstitious neighbours, pounding the pavement to find suitable fittings, and battling the aged and cantankerous building itself – but in the end, it was all worthwhile.
“When the pain of renovating this place had worn off, I thought: Oooh, I’d like to do it again,’” she said. “People are like that with babies.”
Waller, the Australian co-owner of collectibles and ephemera shop Trunkh, now lives in the apartment with her Cambodian husband. She has since done two more renovations in the same part of town – one rented out and the other offered to travellers on Airbnb.
While the rash of condominiums shooting up along the Phnom Penh skyline is currently the most visible sign of the city’s changing architectural landscape, in some areas – particularly in the old colonial quarters between Riverside and Monivong Boulevard – a less conspicuous trend is under way. Cambodian families are selling their vintage properties and moving to boreys [gated communities], and a growing number of expats are stepping in to transform the old buildings into modern, Western-style apartments.
“Part of it is, you can pick up a house in a borey for 40 or 50 grand,” said Desmond Yap, the principal of Yong Yap Properties, which specialises in Riverside-area properties. “So if [Cambodian owners] can sell their apartment in the inner-city for the same price, they can go a bit further out of the city and get the whole building. A lot of the prices [for vintage apartments] line up with the borey prices.”
“It’s a gradual thing, but I think it’s going to keep progressing,” he said, adding that the minimum rental price for a renovated one-bedroom apartment in the area was now $350 a month.
When Waller bought her then dingy, un-renovated apartment for $49,000 in 2012, it had a mezzanine bedroom and an extra room partitioned off. The only natural light came from a small window, and a door that gave access to a sliver of balcony.
Now bright, homely and filled with colourful collectibles, Waller’s apartment would best be described as “shabby chic”. The mezzanine is gone, the front wall has been replaced by floor-to-ceiling glass, the balcony has been extended and the bedroom is now located in the back, over a new wooden floor. In total, the renovations cost about $12,000.
Waller said the biggest headache was her downstairs neighbour – a police officer who has since died – who believed that moving the bathroom would ruin the building’s feng shui.
“He didn’t like the idea of people s******* above him while he slept,” she said.
These days, the only clues the apartment was built around 1940 are the distinctive red and white tiles, a coffee table made of the old sky-blue shutters and the bath-room door, which was the one that used to open out onto the balcony.
Waller said that while she had treated the apartment as a “blank canvas” for her design, she had tried to be sympathetic to the building’s character.
“I didn’t want to just go in and kill everything,” she explained. “When I very first walked in the door, I thought: I love the tiles and the blue colour of the louver windows – to me it was really Cambodia.”
Dana Taylor, the American managing director of property management firm oromë, which has 35 renovated French-colonial era units, said his clients had good reason to prefer renovations over new builds.
“Even with all the progress construction/design-wise, when I walk into new structures, I often leave just shaking my head at the lack of character and the complete miss on obvious basics,” Taylor said in an email.
He said authentic flooring was critical.
“If your property still retains the classic Khmer tiling long since forgotten, you must keep it, regardless if it has modest wear and tear,” he said.
“Mostly though, you find yourself adding features such as bigger windows, double doors to the terrace, and perhaps creating expanded archway doors between rooms.”
One of the most lauded apartment renovation jobs by a Westerner in Phnom Penh is that of the five-storey apartment building at #163 Sisowath Quay.
When the owner, Marc, a French businessman who for privacy reasons asked that his surname not be published, first saw the building in 1995 it was in “absolutely terrible” condition.
The building, which dates from the 1940s, had missing windows, walls black with mould and rooms crowded with people in absolute poverty – some were living and cooking in the stairwells. The resident of one apartment on the fourth floor was using it as a duck farm.
Marc said he paid off all the residents – including those who lived in the stairwells – and in 2002 began a year-long renovation of the building, seeking to retain as many of the original features as possible.
Among those features that remain are some stunningly detailed French colonial-style tiles and a rare facade and staircase made from granito – a material formed by suspending pebbles in coloured cement which is then laboriously sanded and polished back to reveal the texture.
Its riverview studios now rent for about $1,000 a month.
Australian James Happell, one of the building’s tenants, said living in a heritage apartment had its drawbacks: the balcony was a little small; the elevator a bit slow; the stairs were “a bitch” because the four-metre ceilings meant it was a long way between floors, and air-conditioning was expensive as big rooms took longer to cool down.
But he said it was worth it.
“I like the vintage feel,” he said. “The amazing high ceilings, obviously the views of the river, and the windows are amazing as well. I really like the open-plan layout and the old touches like the tiles. It’s been renovated really well.”
The fact that it is mostly foreigners who are renovating the city’s old properties has not gone unnoticed.
Virak Roeun, an architecture graduate who works as a guide for Khmer Architecture Tours, said he understood the reasons why Cambodians might sell their vintage properties: the large sums foreigners were willing to pay, a lack of education about the importance of the country’s heritage, and the appeal of mod-cons in newer properties, especially parking.
Nonetheless, he said it was an unfortunate trend. “You’re the one who lives and was born here, and yet you don’t care about the buildings that were built here, but people come from other countries and pay loads to protect them,” he said, addressing Cambodians. “You can’t blame them, but it upsets me.”
Foreign renovators were quick to emphasise that they were performing a public service by undertaking upkeep on unloved properties.
“We just thought that even if we just lived here for a few years and then moved on, at least we could do something good for the city streetscape,” said Australian Mina Bui Jones, who along with her husband has renovated two apartments in the Grand Hotel building opposite the Post Office.
Bui Jones said that their renovation of the property had sought to restore the building’s character, including rebuilding part of the facade in the original style.
“Some of the building had been adapted by residents during the ’80s to make a second level inside, and this had destroyed the French-period windows,” she explained.
While the number of potential renovators is growing year on year, there is an obvious cut off point for this expanding industry.
“They obviously can’t build any more [vintage properties],” Independent Property Services sales director Bobby Peoples pointed out. “A lot of the old colonial buildings have been turned into boutique hotels, government buildings, restaurants and various kinds of commercial properties,” he said, adding that many had been destroyed.
Peoples said that he often had to manage clients’ optimistic expectations.
“They come to Cambodia with the idea that whole swaths of the city will just be full of French colonial apartments and villas. The reality is, it’s not.
“A lot of these properties are so highly sought after that you’ll find they pass hand among social groups and friends … They rarely come to market.”
However, for those seeking the challenge of restoring an old French colonial building, there are still some left to be had.
A “for sale” sign is displayed prominently on the apartment next door to the ones owned by Bui Jones in the old Grand Hotel.
“If only I had enough money, I would restore it,” said the owner, who declined to be named. “But I don’t, so I have decided to sell it to those who can afford develop it.”
Additional reporting by Monkolransey Mao