A History Tour of Phnom Penh's Buildings

Phnom Penh is one of Asia's most architecturally intact cities.

phnom-penh Tourism and investment are booming in Phnom Penh, and the Cambodian capital's rich architectural heritage is a big draw. It seems like a city from 50 years ago, the result of the Khmer Rouge taking Cambodia back to Year Zero. The eerie sense of a bygone Asia is a perfect backdrop for the boutiques, galleries and restaurants springing up by the score in the historic mansions. But development inevitably brings demolition. "Every day something seems lost," says Alexis de Suremain, who runs hotels in several historic estates and Chinese House, in the city's oldest Chinese shophouse.

Help could come from Asian Heritage Properties, a fund open to large investors that aims to buy key heritage buildings, restore and rent them out. "Call it social capitalism," says Patrick Davenport, who plans to launch the fund with Douglas Clayton, who runs Leopard Capital, Cambodia's largest investment fund. "It's sad to see Phnom Penh repeat all the same mistakes of the rest of Asia," he says. "But there is still time to try a different approach."

0401_p32-cambodia1_246x164 RIGHT:This tower-topped structure often stops traffic along the busy intersection of Street 108 and Norodom Boulevard. One of Phnom Penh's oldest buildings, it claims numerous features that are not found anywhere else in the city. Historic preservation groups such as Heritage Watch put it high on the list of municipal architectural treasures that runs to hundreds of buildings.

0401_p32-cambodia2_246x164 LEFT: Largely the residence of squatters and ghosts in recent years, this ornate, early 1900s estate has been a favorite of filmmakers chronicling the war era; bullet and mortar holes are still visible. Often threatened with demolition, it was recently acquired by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Cambodia, which runs a restaurant and bar in a renovated colonial structure nearby. The fcc plans a boutique hotel; guests will have views of the National Museum and the fairy-tale Royal Palace.

0401_p32-cambodia3_246x165 RIGHT: The Hotel de la Poste dates to the 1890s, when it was a center of trade during colonial Cambodge's first boom period. The French laid out the neat city grid during this time, and it survives today, providing a rare view of an Asian urban center largely unaltered from more than a century ago.

0401_p32-cambodia4_246x165 LEFT: The Commissariat (Central Police Station), from circa 1910, commands a corner view by the Post Office. Shuttered for decades, it was featured in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts. One feature is the late addition of exterior terraces after French troops learned firsthand that the city's screened terraces weren't entirely ornamental but vital for cooling off in the tropic heat. Rumors have circulated for years that it may be reborn as a boutique hotel.

1 comment:

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