Leaning over the railing on the roof of the Khmeroyal Hotel along Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay, 54-year-old scholar and long-time Cambodian resident Olivier de Bernon peered across at his crumbling riverfront apartment yesterday.
“It’s so sad,” he said, as he and his friend, Xavier d’Abzae, pointed at the cracks along the exterior of his third-floor colonial-era apartment, which are worsening each day.
“I spent almost 20 years in that home. I loved it, and my wife and children loved it,” Mr de Bernon lamented.
Moving to Cambodia in 1990, Mr de Bernon has spent years working for Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, collecting, cataloguing and preserving ancient Khmer Buddhist texts gathered from pagodas throughout the country. He has been knighted as a Grand Officer of the Royal Order of Cambodia by King Norodom Sihamoni.
So imagine his surprise two weeks ago when word reached Mr de Bernon in France that work on a building site on Sisowath Quay had led his historic colonial riverside apartment to the brink of total collapse.
“I was completely shocked,” he said yesterday, fresh from arriving in Phnom Penh on Friday. “The damage to the building will wipe away part of the history of Phnom Penh. This is something that will certainly have a resounding effect outside the country.”
Residents of the block between streets 178 and 184 on Sisowath Quay complained to Daun Penh district in June that excavation on a Vattanac Properties project, said to be either a hotel or a bank, had caused extensive damage to their homes and businesses.
The district responded last week by shutting down the project and requesting that tenants immediately vacate their damaged buildings.
“The way things have been handled, to me, seems extremely amateurish,” said Mr de Bernon. “Not only does the work look nontechnical, nonsensical and uses the wrong techniques, [but it is] the wrong season, using the wrong people, the wrong [building] method, everything,” he said.
With the condition of his building now deteriorating by the day and still no sign of authorities cordoning off the area in case of collapse, Mr de Bernon said he would take it upon himself to ensure people’s safety.
“We are going to put a large piece of wood…on the door [this morning]. I don’t want the kids to climb up, and I have absolutely forbidden people to go up there,” he said of the stairway from Sisowath Quay to his third floor apartment. “And [today], I will request to the district to block off the area. I want it to be cleared.”
At a scheduled meeting of government officials, Vattanac representatives and building owners slated for today, Mr de Bernon said he would also suggest that an apparatus be placed around the perimeter of the building to keep it from falling.
On Saturday, he and Mr d’Abzae said they encountered an unannounced visit by Vattanac employees who surveyed the damage to the building.
The Vattanac representative spoke in “vague terms,” regarding compensation, said Mr de Bernon.
“The general feeling is that of nonprofessionalism,” he added.
“It is a complete disregard of the national heritage. [If] they would have done it properly from the start, nothing would have happened,” Mr de Bernon said of Vattanac.
Mr de Bernon said that although there is no ideal solution, he still had faith in the authorities and Vattanac to resolve the situation and in a manner agreeable to the affected property owners. If negotiations take a sour turn, however, Mr de Bernon said he was ready to fight.
“As they say in Khmer, one needs a back [a strong person]…. I am not lacking a back,” he said.
“I am young. I am healthy, and I am determined. I have been in there for so many years, and I know I can say I love Phnom Penh, and I want to protect the heritage of it.”