Virak Roeun is best known around Phnom Penh as a guide on the Khmer Architecture Tours. We caught up with him to ask what he’s come to love about the capital over the past six years, after moving here from Battambang to study.
My favourite architecture in Phnom Penh is at the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL), which is part of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It was designed by Vann Molyvann, so I take visitors there on the 1960s architecture tour. It’s perhaps not the best work of his, but I find it really interesting because all the buildings he designed for there are tiny, so they’re kind of cute – I don’t really like his big buildings like the National Stadium. The best building at IFL is the froggy building. It’s not actually called that, but I once took a school group around and that’s what the children called it, because it looks like a line of squatting frogs. The way he dealt with the heat in that design is amazing. Today, if you want to protect a building from the sun, you do it with materials – those horrible glass stickers on the windows. But Vann Molyvann knew how to build around the problem. For example, the heat comes from the west in the afternoon, so he put a double wall system with a space in between the two walls on the western side.
My favourite place to eat is not really a restaurant, it’s just a small shophouse within walking distance of the National Stadium on Street 140. In fact you could hardly even call the place a cafe – it’s just a family business with no name, but it’s impressive for a local place and the sellers are friendly. I often go there when I’ve finished guiding my morning tour – they’re open from 2pm until 7pm or 8pm. They serve noodle soup, but also ban soung [rice noodles], which you can have with pad Thai or fish balls and coconut milk for 3,500 riel. It’s $2 if you want to double all the toppings and get really full on it. And it’s quite clean compared to other places of the same style.
There aren’t really any amazing architects working in Phnom Penh today, which is a bit sad. In terms of commercial design, I really appreciate the work of Hok Kang Architects, who designed Brown Coffee and also the new Embassy Residences building in Tonle Bassac. I don’t think what they do is incredible, but of all the local architects working in Phnom Penh, they’re the best. With Brown, they knew they needed to attract people, and I think they did it justice with the design – the branch on Russian Boulevard has a nice element of industrial design to it. To be honest, all the materials are fake, so it’s still not so good, but I like the concept that they are trying to deliver to the people in Cambodia.