Discovering the Architectural Diversity of Phnom Penh

Any recent visitor to Phnom Penh can attest to the current construction boom which started about five years ago. But amidst the increasing number of high rise condominiums, hotels and office buildings that are seemingly being erected at every corner in this city, Phnom Penh still offers ample opportunities to discover its charming and rich architectural heritage.

Compared to Europe and even America, Phnom Penh’s architectural history is quite young. Phnom Penh was established as the permanent capital of Cambodia only after the French arrived by the mid 19th century. And many of Phnom Penh’s most historic and iconic buildings date back to that period.

The most common and significant architectural styles in Phnom Penh fall into one of the following three categories and time periods:

French Colonial Buildings/Mansions (late 1800s into early 1900s)

The first colonial buildings appeared by the 1880s around the city’s iconic Wat Phnom. Characterized by their sturdy brick construction, layout, distinctive roof styles, and stuccoes exterior walls, the grandest colonial buildings today are still existent around Wat Phnom and along Norodom Blvd. Another cluster of impressive colonial buildings is in the area around the National Museum.

Most of these buildings serve as government/municipal administrative buildings, organizational headquarters, hotels, or restaurants.

Buildings that are an easy and must see (inside and out), and which are all within an easy walking distance to one another include:

Main Post Office (1890): Place de la Poste, Sangkat Voat Phnum

Raffles Hotel Le Royal Classic (1929): 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh

Van’s Restaurant (former Banque de l’Indochine building) (late 1800s): Street 102 – Place de la Poste

Former building of the National Treasury (late 1800s): Street 106 – “Preah Moha Ksatreiyani Kossamak Ave”

Chinese Shop House Buildings (early to mid 1900s)

These traditional buildings were designed as multi-functional houses that featured a shop/business on the ground floor and residential accommodation on the upper floor(s). Some of these narrow and deep (usually 4.5 x 27 yd.) structures in Phnom Penh still feature beautiful facade ornamentation, tiling, and woodwork, inspired from Chinese and European traditions.

Most of the shop houses found in Phnom Penh continue the traditional model of operating a business on the ground floor (mostly restaurants, boutiques, bars, etc.), while others now serve as boutique hotels or fully private residences. The most well-preserved shop houses are located on street 240 and on street 178, where their respective businesses are chic boutiques, bistros and souvenir shops.

Another area that these shop houses can be admired is around the Central Market. Unique to some of the shop houses there is their covered walkway, which is technically part of the house’s property, but is for public use. These covered walkways are not so common in Phnom Penh and are more reminiscent of the shop houses in Penang, Malaysia and Singapore.

Art Deco and Art Nouveau structures (1950s into 1960s)

Found throughout the city in varying conditions are buildings based on Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Some of the more prominent structures of this period were designed or influenced by the famous Cambodian architect and 2013 recipient of the Nikkei Asia Prize, Vann Molyvann. Vann worked on almost 100 projects between 1955 and 1970 and pioneered the unique Art Deco/Nouveau styles in Cambodia; now commonly known as “New Khmer Architecture”.

While buildings boasting Art Deco styles are plentiful throughout Phnom Penh, the most prominent and well-known example is Phsar Thom Thmei (Central Market), which maintains its function as Phnom Penh’s most iconic market and landmark.

Central Market, Phnom Penh (Photo: Michael Kern)

The best way to truly experience and appreciate New Khmer Architecture is through a guided tour. The not-for-profit organization “Khmer Architecture Tours” offers several public and private tours (in English) focusing on specific buildings or areas. These tours are ranked in the Top 10 of the world’s best architecture tours (The Guardian).

For the more adventurous travelers who prefer to explore things on their own, Khmer Architecture Tours also offers a free and downloadable walking map of central Phnom Penh. The map suggests a safe and 3-4 hrs. walking route, lists the most noteworthy buildings along that path, and provides high-level background information on each building.

Regardless of someone’s interest in architecture, there is hardly a tourist who visited Phnom Penh and who did not leave without a snapshot of one of the city’s many architectural legacies.

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