Sisowath Quay: Phnom Penh Boulevard

View from Sisowath Quay blocked After years of extensive works by the Japanese to improve Phnom Penh’s drainage system, Sisowath Quay is back as the capital’s main boulevard, situated along the Tonle Sap river. But…, is it better than before? Well, hopefully the flooding in the centre of Phnom Penh will be less, but it seems the Quay itself has lost quite a bit of its charm.

The women selling food, fruits, snacks, and toys or foreseeing your future have all gone. Instead of the green spaces, large swats have been paved. And who is the one responsible for those new and ugly lampposts?

Oh, and try to walk near the riverbank after some rain…, there should be warnings: ‘Slippery when wet!’

The sellers may have gone, but the beggars and children selling books seem to have doubled instead (read why we discourage you to buy from them). Combined with the heavy traffic on the road and police every now and then removing restaurant and cafe terraces (yes, they do, don’t ask us why, apparently terraces have to make way for the SUV’s to park on the sidewalk…), we are not as fond of Sisowath Quay as before.

Read below what Sisowath Quay was like and compare to what is today.

A Day on the Quay

In the morning, the street cafes of Sisowath Quay come to life, as business people and tourists take breakfast with the latest recycled newspaper. I buy a paper from a war veteran who has lost both legs in a land mine accident. I read the paper, and then give it back to him to sell again.

Sisowath Quay as seen from the FCC
Sisowath Quay as seen from the FCC

Just a minute’s walk off Sisowath Quay is the National Museum, with its superb sculpture collection. Designed by a French archaeologist in 1920, the Museum is one of the few cultural monuments to survive the Khmer Rouge era. The spires and roof cornices of the Museum nearly seem to puncture the clouds, while the striking red ochre facade stands out starkly against the sky.

The Museum’s treasures include bronze sculptures from all over the country, particularly showcasing the riches of the civilisation that built the temples of Angkor. In pride of place at the Museum is the uniquely Khmer figure of Harihara, a god that is half Vishnu and half Siva.

Fronting the Tonle Sap River is the sumptuous classical-style Royal Palace. From the Royal Gatehouse on the River to Napoleon III villa to the gilded gazebos in the gardens, everything breathes panache and flair. But the spectacle never becomes ostentatious, never overdone.

Evening on Sisowath

Come evening, the riverside boardwalk once again becomes THE place to congregate. On the walk, a near-blind gentleman is led by a little girl. He moves ever-so-slowly but in a totally poised and dignified manner.

Nearby, fortunetellers huddle surreptitiously with their clients, intimately revealing the meaning of the fall of the cards. On the little seance tables are vases holding sticks of burning incense, an offering to the gods or the authorities.

Late in the evening, anybody who is anybody (together with most who aren’t) congregates at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia, right on Sisowath Quay overlooking the River. The FCC is world-famous, both as a hangout for respected reporters and as a haven for hack journalists.

Sisowath Quay at night

Nothing could be more accurate than a remark by Swiss travel writer and official election observer Marcel Stoessel, commenting on the elections of 1998: “A peaceful vote in a former war zone, one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, with a turnout of more than 90%, doesn’t make big news. A little bit more violence would have been nice, especially for the free-lancers who have to sell their stories.”