Last updated on September 7th, 2017
Architecture Heritage and Open Spaces Around Wat Phnom
We’d like to think that Phnom Penh is the biggest small capital city in Asia. With around two million people, it is by far the largest human settlement in Cambodia. The city has the trappings of your typical Asian metropolis, people hanging around everywhere, lots of motorbikes (traffic has been horrendous for the past several years), noise, dirt, grime, glaring income disparities (Rolls Royces and child beggars)…
No doubt on the way from the airport to your hotel (a slow ride if you were caught in traffic congestion), you would have witnessed all of the above. But Phnom Penh is not overwhelming: it’s smaller in pollution and in congestion than most of its Asian neighbours. This is due in large part to pre-War urban planning with pleasant avenues lined with trees, open spaces and calming views over the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers.
Phnom Penh is a city steep in history, with a heavy past and hopefully a radiant future. If you like historical buildings (about to be bulldozed), urban architecture or simply like to stroll around town to feel the local pulse, take to the streets of the Cambodian capital city.
1. Naga Bridge (Norodom Boulevard corner of Street 108)
The bridge was first built in the 1890s and crossed the canal leading to the Tonle Sap. It linked the European area to the North of Phnom Penh, to the Chinese and Cambodian districts to the South. At both ends, a seven-headed Naga, the mythical serpent, faces outwards.
2. Crumbling House with a Tower
South of the Naga Bridge lies a crumbling villa, built approximately at the same time as the bridge. Possibly at first a private residence, it later was used for different government offices.
3. Row of Shophouses
South of this esplanade is the area often referred-to as the “Chinese District”. Here a row of restored shophouses can be seen, their construction dates displayed on the façades. Spatial organisation is simple : the shop is located at street-level, and living quarters above. Shophouses often have an inner courtyard, allowing light and air to circulate.
The canal was dug-out in the 1890s. In the late 1920s, it was filled and became an open green space, between the Phnom Penh Railway Station and Tonle Sap River.
5. Phnom Penh Railway Station
The Phnom Penh Railway Station dates back to 1932. Reinforced concrete was used to build vaulted structures and high ceilings. The use of latticework makes the hall light and airy. In front of the station stands a Buddhist stupa built in 1956, just after Cambodia’s independence.
6. Hôtel Le Royal
The hotel was designed by Ernest Hébrard. His building is mainly of French influence, but local architectural elements were also incorporated. Since its opening in 1929 with 54 rooms, it has undergone many extensions, renovations and restorations. The hotel was also used as barracks for Japanese soldiers in the 1940s and later by the Khmer Rouge.
7. Cambodia’s National Library and Archives
Next to Le Royal along the tree-lined esplanade leading to Wat Phnom lies the Library. Located in a garden, it was first opened in 1924. The architecture is a reinterpretation of classic Greek and Roman influences. Cambodia’s National Archives are located behind the Library, and opened in 1926.
8. Wat Phnom
Legend has it that Daun Penh, or Lady Penh, found Buddha images hidden in a tree trunk along the river. In honour of her discovery, she decided to have a hill, or ‘phnom’, constructed close by. This is how Wat Phnom was founded. Around the same date, between the late 14th and early 15th centuries, King Ponhea Yat fled Angkor. He settled his capital in Phnom Penh and his remains are still to be found in one of Wat Phnom’s stupas. The Wat has been extended, rebuilt and restored many times since the 14th century and remains one of the most important in Phnom Penh.
9. Council for the Development of Cambodia
This building North-East of Wat Phnom is said to date back to the 1930s. It used to be the ‘Palais du Commissariat de France’ and also served as headquarters during Pol Pot’s regime and later for UNTAC. The extensive building and gardens face both Wat Phnom and the river.
10. Phnom Penh Central Post Office
A few protectorate period buildings are located around this square : the post office (built in the late 1890s or early 1900s), former police headquarters (to the North, built between 1925 and 1935), villas (the former Indochine Bank to the South, built in the early 1900s), hotels (such as the Hôtel Manolis, where André Malraux stayed) and apartment blocks, either restored or in varying states of decay.
11. Phsar Chas (Old Market)
Phnom Penh’s Old Market is located at the North end of Street 13 (also called Ang Eng or Ohier Street), one of the main historic commercial streets in the city.
12. Phnom Penh Night Market
A more recent creation, located on the East end of the esplanade, close to the Tonle Sap River.
13. River front
Get a cold drink and enjoy the view.