With Phnom Penh playing host to the ASEAN Travel Forum, Southeast Asia’s largest international tourism event, eTurboNews Asia Senior Editor Luc Citrinot takes a look at the latest changes in the Cambodian capital in a series of articles.
PHNOM PENH (eTN) – For long, Phnom Penh was considered as one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia as it seems to have escaped the boom fever of other large cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Ho Chi Minh City. Visitors were delighted by its large leafy boulevards, its colorful temples, and this French atmosphere still to be felt at cafes’ terraces. Phnom Penh also managed for long to preserve some of its colonial architectural heritage with dozens of magnificent villas painted in Indochina’s typical vivid yellow colors.
Times are, however, changing as city officials, as well as the government, wants to turn Cambodia’s capital into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Posters advertising new projects of shopping centers and skyscrapers can be seen all over the city, while the old Phnom Penh is slowly disappearing. According to some experts, already 30% of Phnom Penh’s colonial heritage already disappeared. “I cannot confirm this number, but it seems realistic,” acknowledged Stephanie Irmer, Head of Khmer Architecture Tours and Space for Architecture.
This small independent nonprofit organization started in 2003 and wants to raise awareness among locals and foreigners about the wonderful heritage offered by the capital. “It is a challenging task as French colonial heritage or tropical modern architecture from the sixties is not considered by Khmer people as part of their own heritage. They even learn from their teachers that it has nothing to do with their culture,” she explained. Over the last decade, wonderful structures such as colonial villas, the school of performing arts, old hotels made way to office buildings of concrete and glass or pretentious neo-baroque villas. Polemics recently raged around the preservation of the Renakse Hotel, a 90-year-old colonial building facing the Royal Palace. “We recently met the new hotel owners from Korea who looked for our advice and expertise. I believe that they now want to preserve the old structure,” told Mrs. Irmer.
Khmer Architecture Tours and the Heritage Mission, a French NGO funded by France, are today the sole institutions in Cambodia looking at preserving this unique heritage. According to Stefanie Irmer, the organization wants over all to promote the understanding of modern Cambodian architecture. Scheduled tours are conducted on bike, by bus, or by walks to look at French colonial heritage but also at the architecture of the independence. “For 17 years, between 1953 and 1970, a team of young Cambodian architects revolutionized local architecture. They managed to create stunning infrastructure by reinterpreting traditional khmer motives and integrating them into a modern concept,” added Mrs. Irmer. Tours are proposed on the second and fourth weekend but also on a private basis ( [email protected] ) with free maps to be downloaded from the organization website. Khmer Architecture Tours also gives lectures to architecture students to raise awareness about their heritage. Some of them are now conducting the tours.
The organization recently moved into Manolis House, across the old Post Office. “We want it as an open space and public facility with a library for anyone interested into architectural heritage and urban planning,” explained Stefanie Irmer. Ka-Tours have some projects in mind such as the creation of a calendar picturing some of Phnom Penh’s most interesting buildings. They also look at revitalizing the area around the post office by organizing street animations such as a food festival. They are also working on a data base on urban heritage in Phnom Penh. They also would like to put metal signs providing multi-lingual explanations of the city’s most remarkable structures. “It is ideally a project to be conducted with Phnom Penh administration. It also probably requests to find some sponsors. This is why we eventually look at turning into an NGO to continue our promotion work,” said Mrs. Irmer. And to contribute to retaining Phnom Penh’s charm.