Khmer Architecture Cyclo Tour

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been especially fascinated by Khmer architecture as of late. Today I went on a 3 hour architecture tour by cyclo led by Khmer Architecture tours. I can’t recommend this group highly enough and this tour did not disappoint. I was lucky that my tour guide was Sokly, the very passionate and articulate architecture student I quoted in my article on the Bassac Theater. This tour primarily focused on colonial era buildings. As usual, I took lots of photos. Some highlights when you click “Keep reading.”

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Cylco driver taking us to our next destination. The architecture tour was $12 and half of that fee went to the cyclo drivers, who are members of the Cyclo Centre of Phnom Penh.

What I find important to remember when looking at the buildings and photos is that the ENTIRE city of Phnom Penh was evacuated in just a few days in April of 1975, and the city sat empty and abandoned until the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Prior to the Khmer Rouge period nearly 2 million people were living in Phnom Penh, and many had recently moved in from the countryside to avoid the conflict there. In 1980 people slowly began to return to the city. Some could return to their family homes, while many others found a place to live wherever they could. Spaces that may have previously held one family were modified to fit many more. Many of the abandoned hotels were loosely converted to apartments. Many people today continue to live in these spaces that have been crudely retrofitted to fit their needs. Other older buildings have been purchased and rehabbed as more modern living spaces. Unfortunately what is becoming more and more common is the eviction of people from buildings or land so that the area can be cleared and sold to rich businessmen. The buildings we saw on this tour mostly fit into one of three categories:

1) Newly renovated and refurbished. For public buildings like the post office below, this is entirely dependent on foreign aid.

2)Older buildings that had been purchased by a private owner and who’s status is unknown. Will it become rehabbed as a luxury hotel? Knocked down?

3)Older buildings more or less in their original state (i.e. need some TLC) and with people living in them and modifying the spaces to fit their needs.

To begin…..

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The old Post Office built in the early 1900s with an extension added in the 1930s. Newly renovated and still in use as a post office.

This next series of photos is from the L’hotel Manolis which falls into category 3. The building was amazingly well-preserved. Some of the rooms still had the room numbers on the doors, there was original floor tile, and the original wooden staircase. People here had converted the hotel rooms to apartments and used the hallways as their kitchen area.


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Exterior Shots: On the right the L’hotel Manolis from the street. On the left, a peek into the courtyard from the street.

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On the right, the original floor tiles. On the left, the original wooden staircase. The upstairs occupants have added a gate to lock for security.

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Along the right side of this hallway are old hotel rooms now used as apartments. On the left is a balcony looking out onto the courtyard. You can see here how the residents use the hallway common space as a cooking area. Khmer cooking is traditionally done on over a fire with coal/wood and is quite smoky and pungent, therefore most cooking is down outside and not in a traditional cooking western kitchen.

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This photos is of a building nearby the L’hotel Manolis if you look through the second window from the left you can see how people have taken advantage of the tall ceilings in the colonial buildings to add extra living space: an additional floor was constructed.

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Chinese temple built in the 1880s.

The next section of our tour was especially interesting. It is a large compound that had previously housed a colonial school, a Chinese temple, and a Christian church. Sokly has been investigating this area as part of his thesis for his architecture degree. After the war (?) people began moving into this area and taking over the space. They added on to the existing structures, dismantled some for fuel and building materials, and perhaps most unusually, built homes and living spaces right inside these buildings. In many ways it seemed that the way people had grown into and around these old structures was perhaps not that different from how the ficus and fig trees have grown in and around the temples at Angkor. As an archaeologist, this part of the tour was intensely fascinating. Archaeologically, temples and religious centers are supposed to be sacred. Seeing how these spaces were re-used and adapted was very eye opening (what would an archaeologist in the future make of this?).

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School building and courtyard. There had previously been a basketball court but it is now filled with shacks and homes.

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On the far left at the top you can see a sign for the Chinese temple that people have built their houses into and around. In the middle is the roof to the entrance of the old temple, also with people’s homes built right up next to it. On the far right is a closer view of the roof, which is quite beautiful. This complex was built in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

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In these pictures we’ve walked forward through the passageway under the roof above. Some enterprising folks have chosen to build their houses underneath the pre-existing roof and using the old columns for support. On the far left is an example of one of the wooden columns. It is made from a single log, so our guide Sokly guesses that this was a very well-funded and expensive temple. The middle photo is what may be some of the original floor tile from the interior of the temple (now in a common hallway between houses) and on the far right is another view of the roof of this temple with part of an exposed sign in Chinese.

We wound our way though narrow passages between buildings when we ended up in a bit of a broader courtyard around the “Chapel of the Sisters of Providence Hospice” church. Like the temple before it, people had converted the interior of this church to living space.

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A few shots of the exterior of the church.

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Here are some shots of the interior of the church. It had been subdivided into many apartments. In the picture on the left you can see some newer brick construction (they were working on construction while we were visiting). Again because of the tall ceilings, people were building two floors to their homes, although each floor was very narrow and small. All of this was under the beautiful arched ceilings of the church.

We also visited some old Chinese shop-houses in the old “Chinatown” part of the city.

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This is a row of traditional Chinese shophouses from 1931, where the ground floors are used as shops and people lived in the apartments above them. This building had a particularly nice courtyard (far right). Our guide Sokly is in the middle.

We also visited an intersection close to my house that had some buildings from several different time periods on each corner.

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From left to right: Central Hotel building, 1900-1910; Chinese-style apartment 1920s; 1960s apartment; 1980s apartment, emulating 1960s style and with a bike vendor walking in front.

Phew! Our last stop was at a very unique and unusual Parisian style building. Some members of our group had been in the top most floor apartment and said it was quite beautiful. The ground floor hosts one of Phnom Penh’s most unusual bars, Broken Bricks. However our tour guide told us that the owner intentionally distressed the exterior of the building quite unnecessarily. The bar is covered with quotes from old songs.

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If you’re still reading this perhaps you should sign up for a cyclo tour when you are next in Phnom Penh!

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4 responses to “Khmer Architecture Cyclo Tour

  1. Russell Carter

    When I visit, I want to visit Broken Bricks!

  2. Oh, Alison, from your lips to God’s ears! If I get a huge advance for my book I’ll immediately fly over to visit and you can show me! (Uhm…by the way – I’m not expecting either an advance or a book any time soon, but a girl can dream!) Thanks for these, truly!

  3. Nice writeup! I was fortunate enough to take this tour 2 years ago and see the Bassac Theatre before it too was ‘intentionally distressed’.

    FYI Khmer Architecture Tours has a web site: http://www.ka-tours.org

  4. Pingback: 60s Architecture in Phnom Penh « Alison in Cambodia