Since arriving in Phnom Penh three weeks ago, I have been daily struck by the contrasting architectural styles of the city. Besides appreciating the beautiful, though often decaying, facades of the French colonial buildings or marveling at the juxtaposition of old and new construction, the beautiful, classical style and the sleek modern lines of new high rises, I had little understanding of the historical development of Phnom Penh. Seeking to gain a greater appreciation of this city, this past weekend Ross and I went on an architectural tour. Led by an architecture student from the local university, and traveling by foot and cyclo (the old-fashioned bicycle powered rickshaws), we explored neighborhoods both familiar and new to us. And in the process, we gained an unexpected “property” education.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they forcefully evacuated the city and eliminated any records of personal property. After the Khmer Rouge, when people were finally able to return to Phnom Penh, it was basically a free for all property grab. People would pick a building, move in, and then 15 years later go before an official and have the property recognized as theirs—adverse possession Cambodian style. The redevelopment of the city was somewhat haphazard, with no zoning restrictions. As a result, residences are located next to schools which are located next to businesses which are located next to refuse disposal areas, and in addition to the varied uses, there are no rules governing height or size of the properties. There is also a noticeable lack of historical preservation. Besides these beautiful old buildings falling into disrepair or being torn down, businesses like KFC have come in and put a modern, less than appealing façade on a number of buildings. Apparently there is now a preservation society, but it seems to be in name only as little is being done to protect the rich architectural history.
Apparently unconcerned about trespassing either, our tour took us into a number of buildings, including the old police station (which now serves as home for dozens of families), the old Chinese neighborhood where the former temples are largely gone or repurposed for housing, and down the hallways of what were essentially people’s homes. As explained by our guide, privacy is not of as great a concern as it is in Western society. The architecture tour provided us a unique opportunity to see areas of the city we would otherwise have not seen, to learn a bit more about the history of the city, and to witness the daily life of some of its residents.