Phnom Penh : Walking with Khmer Achitecture Tours

Khmer Architecture Tour

 

About Khmer Architecture Tours (KA Tours).

KA Tours conducts architectural tours in Phnom Penh in order to promote understanding of modern architecture in Cambodia. The tours focus on buildings erected after Cambodia’s independence in 1953, described as ‘New Khmer Architecture’ while setting these in the historical context of Phnom Penh. The tours started as an independent, non-profit organization in 2003 and is now a part of Space for Architecture Cambodia (SAC).

SAC aims to raise awareness about the dangers of losing the Khmer cultural heritage with more historical examples of Cambodian Architecture being demolished or just crumbling down with neglect. They also aim to increase tourism besides the popular landmarks such as the Royal Palace.

Joining the KA Tours & first impressions.

I met an Australian and Spanish travelers while waiting for our guide to arrive. They in turn, had assumed that I was the tour guide for this tour because I looked like a Khmer (which I get so often). We chatted and joined a few other people at the Chaktomuk Theatre while our guide led us to the main entrance. I had gotten to know about this tour from a Trip Advisor review as I was searching for a weekend activity in Phnom Penh.

Joining the tour is easy as I needed to email to the group to confirm the space. The response on space availability was quick too. The tour was conducted by Architect students who studies about these heritage. They’re really passionate and speaks highly of Mr Vann Molyvann, a Khmer architect for his worldwide craftsmanship on his creations.

“Discover why the Bassac area is such an important part of Phnom Penh’s history and its socio-cultural significance in the 1960s; the vision of a modern cultural center as well as innovative social housing for its growing urban population.” – Khmer Architecture Tours

If you plan on taking the tour on your own time, you can download the map from KA Tours page or follow the guide below.

1. Chaktomuk Theatre.

I’ve never been inside the theatre and unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to do the same today. We were introduced to the significant feature of the building which is shaped like a hand-held fan, built by Mr Molyvann. It was built in 1960 and has 500+ seats for classical to modern performances. The land that the theatre is built on used to be the river, until they covered it with land and extended it for the hotel next door. The ‘V-shaped’ design can often be seen in his building as a trademark and wherever we see them, we are reminded of the brilliant Khmer architect.

The distinct V-Shaped design which is Mr Molyvanns signature.

The distinct V-Shaped design which is Mr Molyvanns signature.

 

2. Cambodiana Hotel.

Just next door to the Chaktomuk Theatre is the Cambodiana Hotel, built on manmade land along the Mekong river in 1969. Yellow is popular color in Cambodia as it represents grandeur and elegance. This is why most of the iconic landmarks are painted in yellow. The grand entrance leads us to the hotel lobby and the view of the traditional structured roof.

The 4-star Hotel Cambodiana with gym, swimming pool and rooms facing the Mekong River.

The 4-star Hotel Cambodiana with gym, swimming pool and rooms facing the Mekong River.

 

3. Sangkum Reastr Niyum Exhibition Hall (of Industry Products)

Another one of Mr. Molyvanns work is the exhibition hall with a view of the Grey and White Building. This is one of the buildings which has been transformed into an IBC Bookstore, one of the biggest stationary companies in the country. The hall is made with red bricks, with windows running in a narrow horizontal band under the ceiling allowing light to enter the galleries. The roof was painted white, supported by white shaped concrete columns. These no longer can be seen as it was destroyed and renovated.

Former Sangkum Reastr Niyum Exhibition Hall which is now a bookstore.

Former Sangkum Reastr Niyum Exhibition Hall which is now an IBC bookstore.

 

4. Preah Suramarit National Theatre

This is the former site of the Theatre which burnt down after the Khmer Rouge era due to human error. The theatre was built in 1968 and now houses the local Circus Performance and traditional kite museum (which is closed most of the time). The pique roof resembles the current Chaktomuk Theatre while a pool at the base of the stairs centers and cools the place. The National Theatre was an icon in the cultural landscape of Cambodia, where local artists taught and performed traditional dances, music for the public.

Our guide explaining the design of the National Theatre by Mr Molyvann.

Our guide explaining the design of the National Theatre by Mr Molyvann.

 

5. Olympic Village Apartments (Grey Building)

The Grey building was an urban experiment, offering a higher density housing in Phnom Penh in the 1960s. Although it has modern exteriors, the inside is built to follow the Khmer lifestyle. This means distinguishing public spaces such as the veranda, maids’ quarter from the private spaces such as bedrooms and living rooms. Voids were built on each level to allow interaction between neighbours below and above. In 1963, the Grey building was meant to be an Olympic Village for the Southeast Asian Games, which did not happen. It was then turned into this commercial building (sold to a Malaysian Company apparently) and leased out to local businesses.

Formerly known as the Grey Building, it is now a (yellow) Build Bright University (BBU).

Formerly known as the Grey Building, it is now a (yellow) Build Bright University (BBU).

 

6. National Bank Apartments

I’ve also wondered what this building was because of the way it was secretly hidden behind tall trees. It turned out to be the Russian Embassy, a building that was built for the employees of the National Bank of Cambodia. The interior has a spacious compound allowing cool air to come in through one end and hot air to go out from the other end. With only ceiling fans, Mr. Molyvann was able to create a cooling space within the indoor compound. I wish we could see the inside but it’s not possible since it now belongs to the Russian Embassy. All we have is the view of the green trees.

Built in 1963, this row of apartments is now the Embassy of Russian Federation.

Built in 1963, this row of apartments is now the Embassy of Russian Federation.

 

7. Municipality Apartments (White Building)

While the Grey Building was built as the Olympic Village, the White Building served more as a residential place for artists, classical dancers, master musicians, skilled craftspeople, cultural workers, civil servants and moderate income earners. During the Khmer Rouge, tenants fled the building until it was over. After that, only few came back to occupy the space together with squatters. The current state of the White Building looks gloomy and sad. It is seen as a place associated with poverty, dangerous construction and poor sanitation, far different from what it used to be. Children can be seen running along the dark corridors and stairs with no handle bars. An art gallery in this building made sensory lights for residence to walk safely up and down the stairs at night. They are also compiling stories of the White Building in an archive for art and historical purposes.

Built in 1963, this building is now apartments for the local community.

Built in 1963, this building is now apartments for the local community.

 

The walking tour takes 2 hours and here’s where we walked : 

Here’s how to reach them:

Name:  Khmer Architecture Tours
City:  Phnom Penh
Web:  www.ka-tours.org
Contact:  contact@ka-tours.org
Fee:  USD $15 per person

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About Yafieda Jamil

A Malaysian girl currently working abroad in Phnom Penh city. I love a good road trip, hot cappuccinos, spicy food and staring at old buildings. My mission is to inspire people to see the world differently before we all get any older. Oh and giraffes are the most beautiful creatures on earth.

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