Our local coordinator and architect, Pagna, took us on an architecture tour via cyclo (a one-person cycle-seat contraption). Phnom Penh was colonized by the French around 1863. Prior to that, residents of Phnom Penh were doing just fine living on elevated or floating homes along the Tonle Sap River. After the annual floods, homes would be rebuilt or repaired from the lightweight and locally-available materials.

The French weren’t OK with that — colonizers often are not OK with whatever you had going on. They created canals to control the floods, and then capped them to create Hausmann-ish boulevards; they then segregated the city into European, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese districts. They also began the practice of filling the numerous lakes in the region — a practice that is still going on given Phnom Penh’s crazy contemporary real estate speculation.

First up, the central post office. This was the first building constructed by the French in 1895. It’s French colonial style incorporated passive ventilation, but recently windows were put on and the ceilings were lowered to accommodate the HVAC and electrical systems.

The Post Office


Old post boxes

We then ventured across the street to the first hotel built in 1910. It was once a place for Europeans to stay while they conducted fancy business in their safari pants, but nowadays it has been taken over by Khmer families. In 1980 when Phnom Penh was reoccupied, the deal was that you would pick your building and that was that…

Water tower of the hotel, you can see how people have colonized and adapted this old structure
The hotel courtyard — now a place for informal businesses, laundry, and moto storage


Down the street from the hotel is the original French police station, built around the same time as the hotel. It became a factory between the 30s and the occupation by the Khmer Rouge, but was then a station for the military between 1979 and 2008. In 2008 it was transferred to a private bank, but there are still squatters and informal businesses in the front part of the building.


Plaster does not stand up well to heat and humidity….


We climbed into cyclos and pedaled over to the Chinese temple, constructed in 1880. The land was donated by the Cambodian king to China. Nowadays, children that complete high school at the school here are allowed to study anywhere in China. The roof style is a combination of Khmer and Chinese.


David… Sitting pretty


Our next stop was the National Library and Archive, constructed in 1923 and 1925, respectively. It was a monumental and beautiful building, whose steps and murals were nods to the traditions of Angkor Wat. The French considered the Angkorian civilization to be the pinnacle of Cambodian accomplishments and held onto this history to project a shadow over the Khmer culture that they knew.

During the occupation of the Khmer Rouge, the National Library was used as the military kitchen. Livestock were kept inside, and the texts were used as cooking fuel. After Phnom Penh was reoccupied, many texts were taken to France and the US, and have yet to be recovered.


Dark red is the national/representative color of Cambodia/Khmer heritage

We ended our tour near the historic border of the ‘European’ and ‘Chinese’ districts, and viewed some buildings constructed in the Chinese tradition.


There are some informal settlements on top of these buildings:


And because a lot of that was rather heavy, here is a fat monkey on an electrical wire: