Khmer Architecture Tours run twice-monthly visits to Phnom Penh’s fascinating but rapidly vanishing modern architectural sites, with the aim of promoting an understanding of the genuinely Cambodian style known as New Khmer Architecture. The work of Vann Molyvann, who was responsible for almost 100 building projects over 13 years in the heady post-independence kingdom, features heavily.
On the roster of places visited are Vann Molyvann’s Chaktomouk Conference Hall, his Hundred Houses project, the White Building, imposing university buildings, and the enormous, Colosseum-esque Olympic Stadium (actually the National Sports Complex).
The tours will let you catch a glimpse of Cambodia’s modern heritage — some of it very little known — before it disappears under the weight of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wrath. (Molyvann worked with the approval of then-King Norodom Sihanouk, Hun Sen’s nemesis, it would be pretty fair to say.)
Now run almost exclusively by Cambodian architecture students, it’s one way to say you don’t want to see this happen and help people who care fight for the survival of important sites.
Tours vary — some are made by cyclo, some by bus, some on foot — but we went on the New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s one led by knowledgeable architect graduate Virak. We kicked off with a stop at the Hundred Houses project, built out towards what is now the airport. The houses were low-cost housing built for National Bank of Cambodia staff in 1965-67, a clever modern interpretation on traditional Khmer homes. (And, by the way, there were probably more than 100 — Virak quipped that he’s come across one number 105… We saw number 15.)
Most of the houses have now had their stilted ground levels filled in and various renovations and modifications have rendered them very far from the original. But one house appears almost as it did back in the day — sadly, it’s almost derelict now, but you can get a real sense of what it must have been like.
Though modest in size — a single storey raised on stilts, with a single bedroom and living area, plus a small kitchen and bathroom on a slightly lower level — the design is sleek and must have been very appealing. The houses were owned by staff, who were in theory supposed to pay them off over a period of 20 years or so. Of course, the Khmer Rouge interrupted that plan.
Next stop was the Royal University of Phnom Penh. We saw the magnificent modernist auditorium and marvellous Institute of Languages, built as a kind of modernist homage to Angkor Wat, with its causeway and similar placing of library and gallery. Virak described the clever ventilation design — both on the walls and the roof — that have allowed for the rooms to remain un-air-conditioned to this day.
Last stop was 60,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, once the most highly regarded arena in Southeast Asia and still the largest venue in the kingdom. It was built in anticipation of hosting the 1963 Southeast Asian Games but these were cancelled; instead it is best remembered for hosting, in 1966, the (short-lived) Games of the New Emerging Forces and a visit by then-president of France, Charles de Gaulle.
Today, the stunning stadium is dwarfed by a massive residential development that is still under construction — a government architect can expect to earn $300 per month, while a single square metre in the complex is selling for up to $3,000. If the government can’t pull all of Molyvann’s buildings down — the National Theatre and Council of Ministers buildings are already gone — then it’s going to put them in its place, it seems. A complex moat system design to prevent the arena from flooding has been built over with little regard for what the consequences might be. Regardless, the outdoor and indoor stadium areas remain standing and worth going to see, even if you’re not on a tour. (You can join in an afternoon aerobics class for 1,000 riel.)
KA Tours started as a non-profit organisation in 2003 and is now a part of Space for Architecture, which promotes dialogue about urban heritage and design as part of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Tours now take place on the second and fourth weekend of each month.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with a tour, you can always download a high-res map from the site and make a tour on your own. Highly recommended.
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.