There are two swimming pools, dozens of exercise machines and a massage parlor at the Phnom Penh Sports Club. But for hundreds of visitors who have come to the gym since its January opening, that is only part of the attraction. The slightly more heady draw has been the complex’s former life as the home of former Khmer Republic President Lon Nol.
“Nowadays we have three or four hundred people who have come to exercise here who are younger and want to know more about Lon Nol,” said the club’s executive director, Long Sivan.
Lon Nol took control of Cambodia in a 1970 coup that toppled then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk. He was himself ousted in 1975 by Pol Pot and died in exile in California in 1985, addled after a stroke.
According to Mr Sivan, who lived near the complex when the former president was still occupying it, the house in Chamkar Mon district a short distance from Russian Market, has been in the government’s control since 1979. After Lon Nol’s flight in 1975, the house was used first by Cambodian, and later Vietnamese, soldiers. When the sports club began its 10-year lease in 2008, said Mr Sivan, the house had been unoccupied for 30 years. The structures were gutted to make way for the gym’s equipment, and an extra building was added to hold exercise machines, but it is otherwise unchanged.
“We fixed it up and painted it, but that’s it,” Mr Sivan said, noting that even the pool was an original fixture.
Darryl Collins, an expert on Cambodian architecture, said the address roughly corresponded to what he believed was the location, but he hadn’t researched it and couldn’t be sure.
“I think associating [buildings] with famous people here is a little bit of a red herring,” he noted. “I think some key buildings certainly need to be preserved, but I’m not sure whether ownership is nearly as important as the building itself.”