Phnom Penh once was known as the Pearl of Asia thanks to its beautiful tree lined boulevards, French villas and manicured gardens. The old heart of the city was build during French colonial times and many of the old buildings still remain, although quite a few are neglected and some are even beyond repair. Furthermore, an estimated 30% of these historical buildings have been destroyed in the last 15 years.
Fortunately, more and more people realise the city should make every effort to preserve these structures, as they are an integral part of Phnom Penh’s identity.
A signature Phnom Penh landmark can be found on Sothearos Boulevard, very close to the riverfront. The impressive villa was built in 1917 and is known as “The Mansion”. It’s a typical French colonial building, but incorporates a whole combination of styles, including Corinthian capitals and intricate sculptural designs. It served as a private residence for almost 60 years. In the 1960s, this villa was famous for its jet set parties.
In 2008 it was purchased by the FCC. Back then, the FCC proudly announced that from mid-2008 works would begin to restore this beautiful rococo palace to its past glory. However, nothing happened and in 2014 they even tried to sell it, apparently without success. Finally, after almost 12 more years of neglect, in November 2019 the FCC announced that it will renovate its existing building on the Riverside and The Mansion, which will include 4 luxurious suites.
Apart from tourist highlights like Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace, this is one of the structures most photographed by visitors to Phnom Penh.
Next door to that decayed building on Sothearos is a structure that has been restored already. No wonder, because it houses the UNESCO representation in Cambodia.
But there are more preserved French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh. A fine example is the General Post Office, pictured at the top of this page.
The post office stands in what once was the French Quarter. Other examples of colonial architecture are the National Library and of course the beautiful Raffles hotel Le Royal. Wander around this quarter and admire what the French have left.
You can also find a few colonial-era buildings along Norodom Boulevard, one of the main north-south thoroughfares in Phnom Penh, starting in the north at Wat Phnom.
Once there was a French cathedral along Monivong Boulevard, but that has been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
Unfortunately you can also find quite a few examples of colonial architecture that are beyond repair. Pictured above is a building on Street 108, on the corner of Norodom Boulevard.
Until 2005 the Tourist Office was housed in a French villa at the junction of Sothearos Boulevard and Sisowath Quay. The building has been destroyed to make way for serviced appartments…
But times may be changing. More and more organizations and people (including Cambodians) are concerned and want to save colonial buildings from neglect and disrepair. They realise that these structures lend charm to the city and increase its appeal for citizens and tourists alike.
Every time one of these historical buildings is torn down, Phnom Penh loses a part of its identity.
One initiative to preserve these structures is Heritage Watch, tel: +855(0)23-222743.