News / Asia

Cambodian Capital's Colonial Architecture Disappears

The Hotel le Royal, one of the best examples of renovated French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh, May 2010
The Hotel le Royal, one of the best examples of renovated French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh, May 2010
Robert Carmichael

Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, is in the midst of an architectual transformation.  Most of the buildings in the relatively young city are only two or three stories tall. But now much of the city's century-old French colonial architecture is being demolished, to make way for modern high-rises.

The change is being driven Cambodia's dramatic economic growth over the past decade, creating jobs and new infrastructure to one of Asia's poorest countries.  A robust economy also means that the capital's old French colonial architecture is being rapidly replaced with modern residential and office high-rises, altering the city's skyline.

Some architects and historians here say as many as 40 percent of the colonial buildings that survived decades of war and the brutal Khmer Rouge government have been demolished in the past 20 years.

The remains of Phnom Penh's oldest training school, built in 1908 and demolished this year
The remains of Phnom Penh's oldest training school, built in 1908 and demolished this year

Michel Verrot, a French architect and a longtime Cambodian resident, heads the Heritage Mission, a French-funded project trying to preserve what remains of the architecture from 150-year-old French colonial period. Verrot explains that during France's rule, Phnom Penh was designed as a city of gardens, avenues and pleasing views -- now lost in the rush to modernity.

"What is happening is that all the views are becoming very, very disturbed, with things very, very different without any idea, without any global idea of the town development," said Verrot. "This is really today the most important problem. The second one is that everything is done without any general plan. We do the things one after one," Verrot said.

The Heritage Mission has mapped the architectural history of Phnom Penh, and has helped restore several buildings, including the iconic Central Market, which is a favorite with tourists.

And owners have restored a few commercial buildings, like the Hotel le Royal.

Verrot thinks the government has little interest in preserving old buildings. He says that is in part because the gem of Cambodian architecture - the temple complex of Angkor Wat - so dominates discourse that it leaves little space for other types of architecture.

But Cambodia's colonial architectural heritage is also part of the country's history, even if recalling that past can prove uncomfortable.

Cambodia's top culture ministry official Samraing Kimsan says his office's ability to preserve the city's architectual history is limited.  The task is made more complicated, he adds, by the attitude of many Cambodians.

"They do not understand or do not love the traditional and old style of building," said Samraing Kimsan. "They do not understand."

Samraing Kimsan says the ministry struggles to educate people to value old buildings despite a lack of money in the budget to preserve historical structures. He adds, the French government has funded some preservation efforts, but that money may not last.

"Everywhere in Cambodia the provincial departments are all French colonialist buildings. So many old buildings are French buildings - [they] need to be restored. France has not much money," Samraing Kimsan said.  "But the government needs to get money. But we are now on the way of development."

Samraing Kimsan himself seems less than enthusiastic about colonial buildings, describing them as windy, in need of air-conditioning, and expensive to restore. His preference is to develop a modern, Khmer-style architecture that marries the old with the new.

However, tourism is a key industry here in Cambodia, and the government is encouraging tourists to stay longer than the usual three days at Angkor Wat, in the town of Siem Reap. Verrot says preserving old buildings in Phnom Penh would fit with that aim. He and other preservation advocates also note that renovating old buildings has other benefits.

They say it is much cheaper to renovate than to rebuild. Renovation uses local materials, while new buildings require expensive imported steel and glass.

But the government does not see Phnom Penh as a heritage town, as it does Siem Reap. And critics say that means the focus for the capital is on modernity: glass and marble high-rise towers, as in other Southeast Asian cities, such as Bangkok.

You May Like

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid