Exploring Phnom Penh's architectural heritage - review by Rusty Compass
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Exploring Phnom Penh's architectural heritage

| 02 Mar 2015
Exploring Phnom Penh's architectural heritage
Our rating
02 Mar 2015

If you’re interested in architecture, Phnom Penh’s offerings are more impressive than you may have previously imagined. 

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service


Phnom Penh’s standing as a city of notable architecture is something few travellers appreciate before arrival. The city is home to many noteworthy traditional Khmer and French colonial structures. Less acknowledged until recently, is a form popularly known as New Khmer Architecture. The modern New Khmer style was born of the late 1950s and 1960s, in the optimistic decades after Cambodia gained independence from the French.

Most travellers will experience traditional Khmer architecture in the buildings of the Royal Palace and the Wats that are spread around the city. The National Museum, while exhibiting many Khmer features, is actually French colonial in origin.

The most memorable remaining French colonial buildings include the National Museum, the Post Office, the Raffles Le Royal Hotel and the Railway Station. Visit these buildings and you’ll also encounter many other structures of note around them. Most parts of Phnom Penh can be negotiated on foot - but you may prefer to take a tuk-tuk.

Sadly, Phnom Penh is demolishing too many of its colonial buildings and replacing them with buildings that do little for the city's visual appeal.

The Le Royal Hotel - now a Raffles property - was designed by Ernest Hebrard, a man that left a significant architectural and city planning legacy in Indochina. He was the architect behind Hanoi's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and History Museum buildings.

Many Khmer architects contributed to the New Khmer architectural movement of the 50s and 60s. Nobody was more important than Vann Molyvann however.

Trained in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Vann Moltvann returned to Cambodia in 1956 to the position of Chief Architect. He was prolific and many of his architectural accomplishments still stand. Tragically some have been demolished.

Remaining Vann Molyvann structures in Phnom Penh include the Independence Monument, the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Institute of Foreign Languages and others. His former residence is located on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard is still standing as well.

Vann Molyvann, now in his late 80s, recently moved to Siem Reap.

If you’d like to explore Phnom Penh’s architecture, KA tours offer some excellent options. They’re a small non-profit, focused on developing awareness of Phnom Penh’s architectural heritage.

You can download their simple guide and make your own way around. If time allows, their 1/2 day private guided tours are well done. The guides are young, enthusiastic architecture students and they’ll share some great insights.  They focus on the New Khmer architecture of the 50s and 60s but they’re happy to tailor a private tour in line with your interests as well. Check out their website for more info.

Their details are:

KA Tours Phnom Penh

Website - www.ka-tours.org

Email -   contact@ka-tours.org

There are a couple of interesting books on Phnom Penh’s architectural heritage too. Check out Milton Osborne’s Phnom Penh: a cultural history and Jean-Michel Filippi’s Strolling around Phnom Penh.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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1 comment so far

The self-guided tour is great (easy download from the KA site - and they do one for Battambang too, if you're headed that way) but worth noting that they do have regular small group tours every other Saturday. It's a revolving schedule - details on the site. However, if the dates don't match, or content doesn't suit, then the private tours are superb value at around $30 pp for half day in a tuk tuk.

  • Philip Genochio
  • Phnom Penh
  • Sunday, 08 March 2015 19:37