People may have made Phnom Penh their home long before there were inhabitants in other Southeast Asian capitals, with recent archeological findings suggesting that the Phnom Penh area has been inhabited since the 5th or 6th centuries.
“Phnom Penh may very well be the longest, continuously inhabited capital of Southeast Asia,” said Philippe Delanghe, who heads Unesco’s Culture Unit in Cambodia.
Although further excavation and analysis is required to confirm this hypothesis, there are indications that suggest Phnom Penh’s environs have been populated for at least 1,600 years, said Mr Delanghe, who was speaking at a conference that brought to a close the Our City Festival on Sunday night.
As he explained, a huge circular village structure found in Dangkao district’s Choeung Ek commune may date from as far back as the 5th century, a time when Cambodia’s center of power was located in the southeastern region of the country.
“It’s a very unique structure, first of all because of its age, and also because it is a perfect circle of 770 meters in circumference,” Mr Delanghe said of the village.
Discovered by French researchers in the 1920s, work was conducted at the Dangkao location in the 1960s and a few years ago, said Mr Delanghe, adding that it was now imperative to fully excavate the site as land is being sold for new construction and villagers are digging the earth up to sell sand.
If archeologists do not investigate the site soon, an important page of Phnom Penh’s history could disappear, he said.
Mr Delanghe said the situation in Dangkao underscores the importance of conducting preventive archeology, that is, to allow archeological excavations before starting construction projects. Such an opportunity was lost a few years ago when underground-utility work was conducted on the Tonle Sap riverbank along Sisowath Quay. National Museum staff were able to rescue some porcelain fragments from the 18th and 19th centuries, but much older artifacts might have been found had preventive archeology been done, he said.
Speakers at the conference, which attracted around 100 people, focused on Phnom Penh’s urban planning, architectural heritage and the overall look of the built city, rather than on the people who populate it.
Some of the issues raised also addressed the destruction of urban heritage landmarks and unregulated building height while some of the presenters highlighted with photos or other visuals the need to enforce urban plans and building codes.
The conference started with Sin Boramey, director of the Urbanization Division for the Municipality of Phnom Penh, who talked about the city’s Master Plan 2020, which is now being reviewed by the Council of Ministers’ technical committee, he said.
Suggestions from the Urbanization Division include a network of satellite cities that would be accessed by widened roads and allow for green and even agricultural areas, the urbanization division’s Vice-Chief Phanim Cheam said.
The city master-plan map they showed at the conference reflected city-planning decisions of the last few years. For example, the city’s urban-plan map in the mid-2000s had made Boeng Kak lake a central feature of the city complete with walkways and activity centers around the city center lake. However, the lake on their latest map shows the body of water cut into two sections – through sand filling – and it reduced to a quarter of its original size.
On the sensitive issue of building heights in Phnom Penh, Mr Cheam said that was in the hands of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
Anne Lemaistre, Unesco country representative in Cambodia, told the conference that she hoped the government would choose to bar high-rise buildings from the center of the city where most urban heritage buildings are located.
To illustrate the need to keep high buildings outside that core area, Ms Lemaistre showed a recent photo of Independence Monument dwarfed by a high-rise building under construction in the background, the city’s landmark monuments losing majesty and beauty in the process of being overshadowed by the tall building.
Ms Lemaistre also presented a photo of a high-rise under construction on Koh Pich island that now obscures the view of the Mekong River from the Royal Palace, the park in front of the palace and the pavilion where dignitaries sit during the annual Water festival.
“We have some concerns in Phnom Penh in terms of visual integrity because it is a concept which is not followed or known,” Ms Lemaistre said.
“We need to be able, within the framework of this master plan, to respect as much as possible the historic urban landscape of Phnom Penh including its visual integrity, and including what has already been renovated,” she said.
Detailing the urban heritage that has already been lost, she showed a photo of the crumbling Bassac Theater, this famous landmark from the 1960s which was demolished, and the colonial-era shop houses on Sisowath Quay that were recently damaged due to careless excavation work on an adjacent building site.
Among speakers at the conference were architects Paul Robinson and Karno Chhay who teach urban design and planning at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Mr Chhay said architectural students are made to analyze Khmer architecture going back to Angkorian times to understand how water canals were once used to cool cities. And Mr Robinson said students are also presented with extremes of the city architectural spectrum, such as the Naga World Hotel and the new National Assembly building, to raise questions as to what might constitute Khmer architecture today.