By Cyclo, Discover the Secrets of Phnom Penh’s Past

Beneath the eternally smiling gaze of Colonel Sanders and de­pictions of fried chicken, Yam Sokly is conjuring a Phnom Penh few could imagine.

“This was the Grand Hotel,” the architect and tour guide ex­plains, gesturing to Sisowath Quay’s KFC fast food outlet.

Now covered in gaudy bright red siding and advertisements for buckets of fried chicken, an intricate balustrade along the roof is one of the few hints of the building’s former glory.

When Mr. Sokly holds up a photograph of the ground floor of the KFC building in the early 1900s, the group murmurs in amazement. Filled with potted plants and heavy wood furniture, the interior could hardly be more different from today’s florescent-lit plastic.

It’s just one of many moments that surprise participants on Khmer Architecture Tours excursions, which are held most Sun­days as well as privately upon request. The non-profit organization, founded in 2003, specializes in showcasing a side to the Cam­bodian capital that is now largely overlooked—and, in many plac­es, lost entirely.

“Phnom Penh was referred to as the Paris of the East, or the Pearl of Asia,” Mr. Sokly, our guide, says. “It wasn’t only because of the [buildings]; there were also nice, wide pavements, lined with trees. The idea was to make things quite like Paris by importing architecture from the metropole.”

Built in 1890, the Central Post Office, a custard-colored wedding cake of a structure that dominates its small eponymous square on Street 13, is one of the most visible results of that colonial-era effort. It is also one of the few buildings that have been fully restored; many of its contemporaries have been either torn down or left in varying states of decay. Standing in front of its wrought-iron front gates, Mr. Sokly pins the city’s ambivalence to its French protectorate-era heritage on a mix of factors both practical and political.

“A lot of people have a negative perception of French architecture because it’s ‘not adapted to Cambodia’s climate.’ Actually, not all the buildings are like that,” Mr. Sokly says, explaining that on a hot day, the Post Office’s high ceilings keep it several degrees cooler than outside.

But the claim that colonial buildings are not comfortable in the heat is secondary to the other reason that they are disliked—they aren’t Cambodian.

It is easy to stand in Post Office Square—which, as the heart of the former administrative district, best preserves the look of the city at the turn of the last century—and indulge in the fantasy of Southeast Asia sometimes presented in novels and films about “Indochine.”

Entering one of the crumbling apartments that face the Post Office compounds that effect. A winding wooden staircase, peeling paint, wooden shutter doors with the faded original number plates; it is scruffy, but in a unique way, romantic and mysterious. Some of the tour members, university students from the U.S., Europe and Cambodia, hurry to have their pictures taken in the dimly lit corridor.

But these places, alluring as they can be, are also products of the nearly nine-decade domination of the country by France. Some of the disinterest in preserving them, according to Mr. Sokly, arises from what is seen as their fundamental foreignness, and their origins in a period on which few wish to dwell.

A short ride away by cyclo, the bicycle rickshaw that was once common on the city’s streets but has lost ground to faster forms of transport, we learn that Phnom Penh’s urban fabric bares traces of other influences as well.

“This was a small, but cosmopolitan city. It was a city of ethnic enclaves,” Mr. Sokly says. In addition to the European and Khmer areas, Phnom Penh also played host to Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese neighborhoods. The districts were separated by canals, most of which were filled in by the mid-19th century.

To illustrate the point, he leads the group through a wooden gateway into a quiet courtyard. A Chinese temple occupies the side opposite the road, while next door, children run in and out of a Chinese-language school. The complex has been here since the 1880s, but today, only two windows in the temple’s facade are originals; the rest was rebuilt in the 1960s. Nonetheless, with its bright red banners and creeper-draped trees, the temple still feels more Old Canton than Cambodia.

“You can see the integration between Chinese and Khmer culture here,” Mr. Sokly says, pointing to the temple’s roof. It is festooned with an elaborate series of carved blossoms and birds trailing long, feathery tails: an Angkorian motif. Though they formed a distinct community, and imported both designs and materials from the motherland, Phnom Penh’s Chinese immigrants also made architectural choices that reflected their new home.

However, while the Chinese temple has managed to hold on for more than a century, decades of war and emigration doomed the two other temples in the im­mediate vicinity. Cutting through a narrow set of lanes, Mr. Sokly leads us to a massive, multistory ceramic roof, on which Chinese characters are discernible.

“It was the largest wooden Taoist temple in Cambodia,” he explains. But now most of the structure is gone. While the remaining roof soars over a large conurbation of tightly packed houses and shops, it is almost invisible from the nearby road, swallowed by the city around it.

A similar fate has befallen a French colonial church, tucked a few streets away. A squat, solid yellow building crowned with red shingles, it was one of just three churches left standing by the end of the 1970s. Its gardens, visible in archival photographs, have long since been covered over with construction; the satellite buildings that hosted an orphanage and hospital have disappeared. Inside, a warren of haphazard masonry and metal has divided the apse into a set of poorly lit, miniscule rooms. The air is suffocating. According to our guide, more than two-dozen families live crammed beneath the neo-gothic arches.

The last stop on the tour brings us to Freedom Park, the ribbon of tree-lined open space between Streets 106 and 108 near Wat Phnom. Until the 1920s, a canal flowed here, bustling with small wooden boats. It was the dividing line between the French and Chinese quarters, a boundary that can still be seen in the buildings along the park: chockablock shop houses on one side, large and stately administrative buildings on the other.

We then turn our gaze to the corner of Norodom and 108, where the Bridge Tower building, with its unique turret, had once kept watch over the street for more than a hundred years until it was unceremoniously knocked down and replaced by a blue-fronted shop.

“This used to be a beautiful building,” Mr. Sokly says. “But last year it was torn down. There was a lot of discussion, but ultimately nothing could be done.” The owner originally pledged to build a replica of what was, admittedly, a unique but highly decayed structure. But after demolishing the building, the owner then claimed she could not afford to rebuild the structure as it once looked.

On the other side of the intersection, large stone banisters flank the roadway through the park, topped by statues of nagas at each end. Before the canal was filled in, the Naga Bridge on this site was one of the most iconic structures in the city. But the stonework here is brand-new, commissioned in 2006 as a memorial to the original bridge.

While the Naga Bridge is a rare attempt at restoring some of the city’s long-lost heritage, it is also a reminder that a new chapter in its urban history is rapidly being written.

“In the ’60s, [the mark on most public works] was NS-Norodom Sihanouk. See the letters here?” Sokly asks, pointing to initials inscribed on the nagas’ chests. “HS for Hun Sen.”

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