As building after historic building disappears from Phnom Penh’s landscape, one organization has a plan to educate the public about the cultural value of the capital’s architecture.
By attaching plaques describing when they were built and by whom, the NGO Heritage Watch is hoping to protect 40 endangered buildings considered to be of particular historical and architectural significance.
Heritage Watch hopes the plaques will increase the market value of old properties that would otherwise be destroyed, and has approached the Royal Palace about the possibility of King Norodom Sihamoni awarding commendations for people who restore such buildings.
“When it’s historical buildings we’re talking about, there should be some consideration for larger values,” Dougald O’Reilly, Heritage Watch director, said Monday.
“[Historic buildings] make it a better place for people to visit as well as a more attractive city to live in,” O’Reilly said.
The 40 buildings have not yet been selected, but would likely be buildings dating from the French-colonial period right up to the 1970s.
“We have to accelerate this considerably” given the rate at which the buildings are being destroyed, O’Reilly added.
With lofty promises of large-scale investment projects to be built in their place, several of Phnom Penh’s colonial-era buildings have been traded by the government and demolished by developers in recent years. The projects, however, have not yet materialized.
Following the demolition of the Cambodian Red Cross building on Norodom Boulevard earlier this year, Red Cross Secretary-General Mey Samedy said a private Singaporean firm had signed an agreement to redevelop the site. The site would house a supermarket and serviced apartments, he said at the time.
On Monday, however, the only investment to report at the former Red Cross site was a car wash and 24-hour parking lot used by customers of the beer garden that has sprung up behind it.
Eang An, the car park’s manager, claimed that the site now belonged to Kith Meng, whose Royal Group owns MobiTel and the CTN television station.
Kith Meng declined to comment on whether he had plans for the site.
“The Red Cross had been abandoned. The land was free and nobody cared,” said an 18-year-old cashier working at the beer garden.
A stone’s throw from the car park, the former T3 prison site near Phsar Kandal stood empty for years after the colonial-era jail was flattened in 2000 as part of a deal between the government and the Sokimex company.
In February, Sokimex President Sok Kong said he was waiting for approval to build a 12-story business center on the property. On Monday, however, a small entertainment center and car park was the only investment in evidence.
Sok Kong said Monday that he would build a 4-star hotel on the site.
“We plan to build a 15-story hotel but we would like to build a 7-story hotel temporarily,” he said, adding that the plan is being drawn and will be finished in two weeks.
A short stroll from the T3 site, dead branches and rubble are all that remain of a majestic colonial-era villa that once housed the Municipal Tourism Department’s riverfront offices.
In April, Lim Sinith, chief of the department announced that the historic building had been traded to a private firm that planned to build a new hotel.
Lay Bunpa, owner of the New Hope Company, which now owns the rubble-strewn site where the building once stood, said Monday that he now plans to build a tall business center.
The site’s caretaker, Loch Mao, said that the colonial villa was very well-built and difficult to dismantle when workers moved in demolition equipment earlier this year.
Loch Mao said that he had liked the old building, which he compared to Wat Ounalom pagoda across the road, and noted that it would always be easier to destroy such buildings than to rebuild them.
“As long as people have money, they can knock them down. But they could not build the old buildings like this again,” he said.