A delicious taste of modern history
Khmer Architecture Tours run weekly visits to Phnom Penh’s fascinating but rapidly vanishing modern architectural sites, with the aim of both promoting an understanding of the genuinely Cambodian style known as New Khmer Architecture and also, more generally raising awareness of the value and beauty of the city’s historic architecture.
The three group tours are run in rotation and cost $15 a head, with one tour running each Sunday of the week. Should this not fit in with your schedule, private tours are also available (at a higher cost, see their website for details) upon request. Each tour focuses on a specific architectural area; the colonial period, the work of Vann Molyvann, (who was responsible for almost 100 building projects over 13 years in the heady post-independence kingdom), or houses of worship of the four religions present in Phnom Penh (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Catholicism). Tours vary—some are made by cyclo, some by bus, some on foot or a combination.
In the past we have done the Vann Molyvann tour, but most recently did the Phnom Penh by cyclo tour which focuses on Phnom Penh’s colonial period (both are detailed below). In a way emphasising the threat these historic buildings face, when we did the Vann Molyvann tour, places on the roster included Chaktomouk Conference Hall, his Hundred Houses project, the White Building and the enormous Olympic Stadium (officially the National Sports Complex). The White Building was demolished in 2017.
The tours will allow you to 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.
New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s
Our first run around the block with Khmer Architecture Tours was a few years ago, when we went on the New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s tour 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 the 60,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, once the most highly regarded arena in Southeast Asia and still the largest venue in the country. 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—a government architect can expect to earn perhaps $300 per month, while a single square metre in the complex sold 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.)
Central Phnom Penh by cyclo
More recently (early 2019) we tried the Central Phnom Penh by cyclo tour which focuses on architecture related to the colonial period and it was outstanding. Starting at Post Office Square (in front of the, umm post office) we were led by the dilapidated Police Commissariat (built 1930 but now purchased by a developer who is now waiting for it to fall down so he can build something else), the Grand Hotel (1890, now inhabited by squatters for the most part, with an Australian family living on the top northern floor), Indochina Bank (1930ish) and the Treasury (1894) before jumping in cyclos for a spin up to northern Phnom Penh.
In this northern area we visited the Chapel of the Sisters of Providence Hospice (1900ish, also the only church the Khmer Rouge did not destroy) and The Jade Mountain Temple (1913). What was interesting with both of these was that as with the Grand Hotel, they’re now lived in by squatters who have built houses within the walls of the existing structures. Fascinating! From here we moved on to the Chinese House (1905 and now home to a high end restaurant), one of the best examples of a period building in the entirety of Phnom Penh—it is just so gorgeous and it used to be a warehouse!
Back on the cyclos and then down to the National Library (1922 the Khmer Rouge used it as a piggery), Raffles (1931), Phnom Penh train station (1932) and then, after a couple of minor diversions, finishing up across the road from the Hotel International (1910), of which precious little remains, and which, again, is now lived in by squatters.
Throughout the tour our two guides (we were in a group of 15) were both informative and happy to answer a never–ending stream of questions. Even for the non–architecture–inclined traveller, the tour can be a great device for peeling off a few layers of the city and to also better educate just how vast the damages wrought by the Khmer Rouge were.
We think a half–day spent with KA Tours (which started as a non-profit organisation in 2003) is a half–day very well spent. 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. (Available for both Phnom Penh and Battambang). Highly recommended.
Address: Tours meet at Post Office Square, Phnom Penh.
Coordinates (for GPS): 104º55'33.76" E, 11º34'29.87" N
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Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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