Made famous by the film, City of Ghosts, Post Office Square is one of the last places in Phnom Penh to glimpse the slow-paced, pot-holed city of old. A short detour from riverside and Wat Phnom, the area deserves a visit in its own right.
The post office was built in 1890, then eventually restored and fully reopened in 2004. It fronts a small square on Street 13 — really it’s just a widening of the road — and is surrounded by other examples of colonial architecture in various states of upkeep. The post office is open 07:30 to 17:00, with a healthy two-hour lunch break from noon. Stamp collectors can make impulse purchases at the philatelic counter.
Historically, this area was the heart of the French Quarter, where the business of administering and financing the territory was conducted. Just south of the post office, moving towards Phsar Chas, is Van’s Restaurant. This was originally the office of the Indochina Bank — you can still see the vaults to your right as you head upstairs to the restaurant, where original mosaic tiles (look for the ICB in the centre of the floor) and wood panelling evoke times past. The terrace with views over the square is an excellent location for an evening aperitif, or try a $15, two-course, one-drink set lunch to really soak up the atmosphere.
North of the square is the decrepit Commissariat, or former police station, a previously impressive building now slowly rotting. These days the 1892-built station seems to be inhabited by squatters and the space behind is used by the neighbourhood too. Scenes from City of Ghosts were shot here.
Looking across from the post office to your slight left, you’ll see Seven Bright, a gleamingly incongruous white restaurant tucked into another fading grand dame. A sign used to say the restaurant starred in City of Ghosts (as the lobby of Gerard Depardieu’s hotel) but the sign has gone and when we last visitedin March 2016, Phnom Penh’s ubiquitous green fencing had enclosed the restaurant.
The restaurant is tucked into a much larger, and another glorious, building: the city’s former chamber of commerce. After the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge, it was used to house post office employees.
It’s not strictly on Post Office Square, but one building back along Street 100 (to the right in the photo below) riverside is the former Grand Hotel, where French citizens Andre and Clara Malraux were held under a kind of house of arrest after being caught brazenly looting Angkorian antiquities. Sadly, a KFC has gutted the facade of the building riverside.
As you turn down Street 100 towards the old Grand Hotel, with a cheap Khmer restaurant on your left, and meat being sun-dried on the street, you get the feel of the slow-paced, potholed city, which is rapidly disappearing. Without the competitive lit-up beer signs found on most riverside streets, it’s possible to see the old painted shutters and latticework window bars.
Back track to the square and pop into Artisans d’Angkor for a spot of souvenir shopping, to Van’s for a drink, try the Khmer restaurant or do head riverside to find a nearby outlet of the Brown’s coffee chain, just north of the KFC.
Take a video tour of the abandoned police station by Urban Exploration.
By Samantha Brown.
Last updated on 26th January, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.