Visiting Battambang is to discover how a typically Asian town, which had not changed for centuries, was transformed over a rather short period of time into a 19th-century Thai outpost, then a European-style planned city and finally, after Cambodia’s independence in the 1950s, into a major regional hub.
Architect Helen Grant Ross says that each of these conversions came with works and buildings that, left fairly unscathed in the 1970s and 1980s, today clearly illustrate 150 years of the city’s history, she said.
Battambang was meant as a small chapter in a two-year research on Cambodian architecture after independence that Grant Ross, Darryl Collins and Hok Sokol completed last year with funding from the Toyota Foundation. But the information they collected was so fascinating that they decided to use the city as a case study.
Some of the photos and documents they uncovered, now on exhibit at the French Cultural Center, show changes that took place in Cambodia’s second city since French naturalist Henri Mouhot made a sketch of it in the early 1860s.
Hok Sokol, an architect and urban planner, was amazed that such detailed information still exists on Battambang, considering the large number of records that disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era. “This is probably the only province for which there are so many documents to authenticate its [architectural] history,” he said.
Their search in Battambang, and at the National Archives and the National Museum in Phnom Penh. unearthed material ranging from the city’s 1907 urban plan and a 1923 drawing of the then-planned Phnom Penh to Battambang railroad line to 1930s photos of Wat Damrei Sor and Wat Sangker and a photo of students coming out of a newly built high school in the 1960s.
Grant Ross, Collins and Hok Sokol started their research on Battambang aware that its architecture was distinctive.
The province was part of the territory that fell under Thailand’s jurisdiction in the 1790s, said Collins, an art and architecture historian specialized in Southeast Asian works. This was the result of the political maneuvering of various Cambodian leaders who sought either the support of Vietnam or Thailand, he said.
Battambang and Siem Reap provinces would remain under Thai control until 1907 when France, having established its protectorate at Cambodia’s request, insisted and obtained their return to the country.
As their work progressed, the researchers found one surprise after another. First, they found out that the residence of the “lord governor” did not refer to the house of a French colonial administrator as they had assumed, but of the Thai governor.
As Tauch Chhuong explained in his book published in Khmer in 1974 and in English in 1994, the Thais built a rectangular fort called kampheng in Khmer made of brick and mortar in the late 1830s. Buildings within the walls included the governor’s residence, food warehouses, stables and elephant shelters, and an arsenal with more than 100 cannons to defend the 5-hectare compound, he said in his book.
In the 1900s, Apheuyvong Chhum, the last Thai governor of Battambang, brought in Italian builders to erect a new residence, writes Tauch Chhuong. But he had to leave in 1907 without having lived in it, he said. The building now serves as Battambang City Hall, Hok Sokol said.
The French used the fort for military purposes, and later built a prison inside of it. Some portions of its walls are still standing near the prison.
As soon as Battambang was returned to Cambodia, the French administration devised an urban plan for it. At the time, the town was less a city than an agglomeration “stretching along the Sangker River, from the area that now is Battambang to the Tonle Sap, with a population of about 100,000 people,” Grant Ross said.
“It was a society that lived on water and from water, typical of the Southeast Asian culture.” Their wooden houses were built as temporary structures that could be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, Grant Ross said.
The French brought in their European concept of cities built on land and homes made to last, she said. They designed a four-sided space of well-defined streets, put in an urban infrastructure, and built roads and a railway to link Battambang to Phnom Penh. The market, a concrete structure in the middle of town, was built in 1936.
This created two lifestyles that coexisted rather than clashedÑthe traditional way of life in the province, and urban activity in the city, Grant Ross said.
Cambodians of Chinese descent ran small shops in Battambang. “The French used this group to put life into the commercial center of this town,” Collins said, adding that they did the same in Phnom Penh, where a number of Chinese-Cambodians had businesses around Phsar Thmei.
The French had filled numerous canals in Phnom Penh, and went about doing the same in Battambang. But and this came as another surprise to the researchers it was not the French but the Cambodian government that filled most of them after independence.
In fact, the French administration did not have much time to develop its plan for Battambang. In 1939, Europe was engulfed in World War II. In Southeast Asia, hostilities broke out between Japan and France in late 1940, when Japan seized portions of Cambodia and Laos. In 1941, the French were forced to turn over to the Thais most of Siem Reap and Battambang provinces and sections of Laos.
King Norodom Sihanouk mentions in his book “Sweet and Sour Memories” that Cambodia had to wait until 1947 to regain its territory. After 1953, Battambang became part of the vision that the Cambodian government of then-prince Sihanouk had for the country, Grant Ross said.
“There was a will to transform Battambang into a modern city turned toward not only Phnom Penh, but also Thailand,” she said. “Plans of the Sangkum [government] for the development of Battambang were about five times the size of the city under the French.”
Battambang grew as the industrial and commercial center for the region. Textile and garment factories were built, the airport was set running and the railway line was developed to reach Poipet, she said. Numerous schools and a university also were built.
The government filled a number of canals and converted some of them into sewers, Grant Ross said. This did not seem to affect the city’s traditional drainage system the Sangker River seems to have been deepened at some point, which reduced the risk of flooding, she said.
Crucial data on this period came from Sieng Saing Em. The 65-year-old architect from Battambang was principal draftsman to architect Vann Molyvann before the Pol Pot regime.
“He is the living memory of Battambang’s architecture,” Grant Ross said. “He knows the architect’s name and construction date for every building.”
Sieng Saing Em will give a conference on Battambang’s architecture at the French Cultural Center on Sept 4.
Unlike Phnom Penh, in which older sections of the city disappeared through modernization, “Battambang today is quite pristine,” Collins said. “Evidence still remains of those three eras Ñthe Thai period and its fort, the French colonial town and the modern city of the 1960s.”
Even monasteries have survived, unlike the numerous pagodas that disappeared during the war years, Hok Sokol said.
“I was told that the [Battambang] Khmer Rouge governor did not want pagodas destroyed,” he said. “But we are concerned about how it will be developed in the future, whether historical Battambang will be torn down to be turned into a ‘global’ city.
“This is why we want to promote Battambang’s history and historical buildings,” so that people realize their great value, he said.
Grant Ross, Collins and Hok Sokol have written a book on their two-year research. “Building Cambodia, New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970” should be published next year.
In addition, their research on Battambang has convinced Grant Ross to write a separate book on the city based on their research. Titled “Bad Tam Baung,” the three words that form the city’s name, it should come out later this year.