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The Forgotten Antagonist

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A young Keng Vannsak (right) with Ieng Sary in Paris. courtesy of philip short

The Forgotten Antagonist

Sat, 12 September 2015

The late historian, linguist, philosopher and politician Keng Vannsak was a pivotal player in the creation of modern Cambodia. Ninety years after his birth, his legacy remains as complicated as his prolific career

The 20th century intellectual Keng Vannsak is a hard man to pigeonhole.

Professionally, he wore many hats: philosopher, historian, linguist, professor, playwright, novellist, poet and, for a short while in the 1950s, statesman. During his life he invented the first Khmer typewriter, headed a major post-independence opposition party and published endless volumes of material ranging from literary criticism, to historical research, to linguistic treatises.

To some he was a champion of Khmer identity, regularly churning out grandiose treatises on Khmer history. To others, such as the late King Norodom Sihanouk, he was a menace and a quack.

Whatever he was, Keng Vannsak stands as one of 20th-century Cambodia’s most influential figures.

He is also one of its most controversial, having acted briefly as a mentor to the young Pol Pot in Paris.

But on the eve of what would be his ninetieth birthday on September 19th, the full scope of Vannsak’s legacy remains murky, and few outside of Cambodia’s educated elite have heard his name.

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Keng Vannsak making a speech during the 1955 legislative campaign. courtesy of philip short

“Keng Vannsak was not a man of certainties,” said Corsican linguist and historian Jean-Michel Filippi. “He was much more a perpetual researcher with new ideas all the time. I’ve never seen such a personality with so many new ideas within a day.”

Filippi speaks rapidly and authoritatively. With baby-blue eyes, a wide forehead and a chipped front tooth, he lectures passionately about the past, flashing a knowing grin or raising up his hands in exuberance when arriving at a point.

If confronted with a wrong date or clarifying question, he might let out a disapproving “C’mon!” or “You need to know this!”

In a Phnom Penh cafe, Filippi described the life of Keng Vannsak, who he first met in Paris in 1997. The pair corresponded regularly for the next 11 years, until Vannsak’s death in a Montmorency hospital from lung failure at the age of 83.

At the core of his work, Vannsak sought to discover the pure essence of “Khmer-ness”. “Keng Vannsak was looking for what was really deep inside Khmer civilisation. He was trying to go as deep as possible,” said Filippi.

Khing Hoc Dy, a former student of Vannsak’s and France-based Khmer literature authority, described his late teacher similarly in a 2008 obituary, writing: “Professor Keng Vannsak is a rare intellectual who had a long-term, universal vision and concept of our Khmer culture and civilisation.”

But it was an unorthodox vision. Vannsak was convinced that Cambodian culture had been corrupted by outside influences, mainly Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism.

To find the “original Khmer” meant tracing Khmer culture back to a time before Indianisation – a process which began in the first century AD and which brought Indian writing systems, cultural traits and religions to Cambodia.

“He had a lot of crazy ideas, one of which was that Theravada Buddhism destroyed the Khmer Empire.”

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Vannsak (right) by his French wife, Son Sen and an unidentified colleague. courtesy of philip short

War of the Words

One of Keng Vannsak’s most impactful works was his book Principe de création des mots nouveaux, (Principles for the Creation of New Words), published in 1964.

It laid out a framework for coining new Khmer words, and was put forth as an alternative to the authoritative system devised by prominent intellectual monk Chuon Nath, lead author of the first Khmer dictionary, published in 1938.

Vannsak’s system, called Khmerization, argued against Nath’s method of employing Pali and Sanskrit scripts as a basis for formulating new words.

Vannsak insisted that new words should be created true to Khmer’s Austroasiatic roots.

His new method spurned a vigorous debate among intellectuals and later a campaign, led mostly by former students, to reform Khmer orthography and introduce words made through Khmerization into schools and universities.

The debate burned until as late as 2008, when Prime Minister Hun Sen decreed that all schools, government documents and newspapers would henceforth use words strictly from Chuon Nath’s dictionary.

That is not a completely outlandish idea, but he embellished this with charts and illustrations of Angkor sculptures purporting to show the pernicious influence of Buddhism,” remembered Donald Jameson, a US diplomat in Cambodia during the ’60s who spent many afternoons with Vannsak in his “very unique wooden house” in Tuol Kork.

“[Historian David] Chandler once described Vannsak to me as ‘a suitcase full of loony ideas’,” he said.

Certainly, the Kampong Chhang native was a bold thinker and many of his ideas ruffled feathers.

After all, he was opposed to the two institutions which made up the backbone of Cambodian society: the Buddhist sangha and the monarchy.

While leading the Democratic Party’s campaign in legislative elections in 1955, Vannsak regularly advocated doing away with the throne.

He had published a book of poems, Virgin Heart, which used Buddhist metaphor to pillory the monarchy. To Vannsak, the royal family weakened national unity.

“To be Cambodian is to belong to the Royal Palace and the pagoda,” said Vannsak in a 2002 interview with journalist and Pol Pot biographer Philip Short. “[Cambodians] are not citizens! They are only serfs, servants and slaves.”

Unsurprisingly, he earned a nemesis in King Norodom Sihanouk, who imprisoned him briefly in 1955 on the eve of the Democratic Party’s defeat – and the abdicated king’s success – at the polls. Later, in mid-1968 following the Samlaut uprising, he was put under house arrest for allegedly inciting students to revolt and possessing leftist sympathies.

His fortunes changed after the coup d’etat in 1970, when coup-leader Lon Nol took a liking to Vannsak and his anti-royalist leanings and personally placed him as head of the newly christened Khmer-Mon Institute.

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Historian and linguist Jean-Michel Filippi. Kimberley Mccosker

But Vannsak quickly became disillusioned with the propagandistic school and stepped down a year later. He moved to Paris in 1971 to work for UNESCO as Cambodia’s deputy representative and chargé d’affaires of Lon Nol’s short-lived Khmer Republic in France, where he would spend the rest of his life.

In one of Vannsak’s final controversies, one that exemplified well his contrarianism, the historian claimed in a 2007 radio interview with Radio Free Asia that the mother of King Jayavarman VII, one of the most revered figures in Khmer history, was of Cham ethnicity.

Adding insult to injury, he claimed that the great god-king had given away Cambodian land to the Thais. It caused an uproar. In an open letter, more than a dozen Cambodian journalists labelled Vannsak’s ideas an “insult to the Khmer royal family”. The king himself weighed in, with Sihanouk shaming the octogenarian intellectual as an “inveterate republican, without any scruples, without any intellectual honesty.”

Vannsak clarified that he meant not to squander the ancient king’s reputation, but only to seek the truth regarding the roots of Khmer culture.

It was an intellectual quest that had come to define his life. It was also a question that had come to obsess another prominent countryman of his era – Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot.

Vannsak and Sar knew each other well. They had met while both in Paris during the early 1950s. Sar was there on a scholarship and Vannsak for teaching.

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Vannsak speaking to a crowd during the 1955 legislative campaign. courtesy of philip short

Sar and Vannsak became regular fixtures in each other’s lives: Vannsak’s French wife helped Sar find an apartment above a wine seller on Rue Letellier, across the street from Vannsak’s own flat.

Vannsak was a mentor to the young Pol Pot and other burgeoning Khmer communists in Paris.

They would often gather in Vannsak’s apartment in the 15th arrondissement to discuss events back home and political texts such as Stalin’s The National Question and Marx’s Das Kapital.

“I was their brother, their friend, the thinker, the professor. They learned to think, to reflect, by listening to me, by following me,” Vannsak told Philip Short.

Vannsak was never a Marxist, nor did he ever condone violence, but he lived on the political fringes and possessed an insatiable curiosity. In his own words:

“From certain points, I’m on the extreme left. Non-violent, of course. But from another side I’m accused of being an ultra-reactionary, because of the fact that I champion the autonomous identity of the Khmers; the return to all these traditional values and ideologies that have nothing to do with communism and socialism, which are a world away. It’s another philosophy.”

Historians debate the extent to which Vannsak’s ideas influenced Sar. Did the outspoken professor nurture Sar and company’s radicalisation? Filippi thinks not.

“It is very tempting and some people have considered that Keng Vannsak may have influenced these people. It is totally untrue. These people had already written their PhD theses,” he said.

From the fall of the Khmer Rouge on, Vannsak regularly denounced Pol Pot and his cronies. “They messed up everything … they put the country on its knees,” he said in 2002 to Short.

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Keng Vannsak’s book on Khmer orthography. victoria mØrck madsen

He did not, however, try to whitewash his relationship with the young Sar.

“What he received from me – I say this without any pretentions – was an intellectual and political formation, a way of seeing things, of thinking, of predicting,” he said in 2002.

Filippi said that despite Vannsak’s wealth of published material, most Cambodians’ understanding of the prolific intellectual remained surface deep.

“Everyone knows Keng Vannsak here. But ask what he did and what he wrote – people won’t know,” he said.

“The main influence Keng Vannsak has exerted on Cambodian intellectuals is through literature and literary criticism. He created a totally new way of expression.”

In his poetry, Vannsak ignored the traditional metring system employed in Khmer poetry and used a fresh form, often including crude language and facetious metaphor.

“His poetry is a masterpiece from several points of view … We could call it a revolution in poetry,” said Filippi.

Vannsak’s literary contributions, like his linguistic, historical and political work, fall into a category all their own. But perhaps that is the way he would have liked it. As the scholar himself once asserted, seemingly with some pride: “[People] don’t know where to place me. I’m unplaceable.”

Cambodia Sees World’s Fastest Acceleration of Forest Loss

Forest loss in Cambodia between 2001 and 2014 accelerated at a faster rate than in any other country in the world, according to new global figures based on U.S. satellite data.

The annual rate at which Cambodia lost its tree cover over the past 14 years increased 14.4 percent, according to figures released this month by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) based on data compiled by the University of Maryland and Google using the satellite images.

Blue shows areas of tree cover loss in 2014. Yellow, orange and red show areas in which tree cover was lost between 2000 and 2013. (University of Maryland)

“Cambodia is still the highest overall,” Matthew Hansen, who led the university’s research, said in an email.

Sierra Leone came in second at 12.8 percent, followed by Madagascar, Uruguay and Paraguay. Liberia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Vietnam and Malaysia round out the top 10.

The Institute said the latest data identified an “alarming surge” in forest loss in four “hotspots” around the world, including the Mekong River Basin.

“With the Landsat satellite system capable of delivering global coverage every eight days, we have an unprecedented ability to monitor global forest change,” Mr. Hansen said in a statement accompanying the new data.

“The 2014 tree cover loss data, incorporating hundreds of thousands of Landsat images, confirms that deforestation is not just high in certain countries, it’s speeding up,” he said.

“The next step is to use this information to improve forest protection and more equitably balance economic development with the invaluable ecosystem services forests provide.”

Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and its Forestry Administration could not be reached for comment.

Global Forest Watch, a WRI program, says Cambodia lost a total of 1.44 million hectares—or 14,471 square km—of forest between 2001 and 2013. That put Cambodia 23rd in the world for total forest cover lost, and ninth as a share of the forest cover the country had in 2000.

The WRI did not provide the total forest cover Cambodia lost by area in 2014. According to rights group Licadho, which analyzed the satellite data provided by the University of Maryland, Cambodia lost about 156,000 hectares of forest cover last year.

Also according to Licadho’s analysis of the data, nearly a third of the forest cover Cambodia lost last year disappeared from inside protected areas. Forty-five percent of the loss occurred inside of economic land concessions (ELCs), large tracts of land the government leases to private companies for agri-business operations, mostly rubber plantations.

The government will not release a detailed list of all active ELCs that includes the size and boundaries of each. Licadho maintains a list based on the piecemeal records the government does release and its own government sources.

Given the constraints, its figure for forest loss inside ELCs as a portion of total forest loss in 2014 —44.9 percent—is probably modest, said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for Licadho on land issues.

“This figure would jump at least to 50 percent if we added what is, clearly, plantations going beyond [their] boundaries, and if we would have the few remaining [ELC records] we’re missing,” he said.

Indeed, the University of Maryland’s updated map of global forest loss shows much of Cambodia’s losses continuing to take place in—and immediately around—ELCs, some of them inside the country’s protected areas. The map shows some of the most concentrated losses on and around ELCs inside the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Preah Vihear province and the Snoul Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area along the border of Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces.

The government claims that it leases out ELCs only over degraded forests already stripped of their public value by settlers, poachers and illegal loggers. But none of the country’s protected areas have the legally mandated zoning maps that are supposed to show where the degraded areas are, and few ELCs were preceded by the environmental impact assessments also required by law.

Recent satellite data gathered by NASA measuring carbon emissions from forest fires show that the ELCs actually overlap with some of the least degraded forests in Cambodia.

In July, U.S.-based environmental rights group Forest Trends said it looked at NASA’s forest fire data for Cambodia’s 2012-2013 dry season. It said emissions from evergreen forests being cut down inside ELCs were 10 times higher than emissions from outside of concessions, “confirming that corporations are targeting the oldest and most valuable forests, many of them on national forest lands, for logging.”

Local rights groups—including Licadho—have long accused the government of granting many of the ELCs as a way around an official ban on logging concessions. Under mounting pressure at home and from abroad, the government put a freeze on granting new ELCs in mid-2012, though about 30 were approved in the months that followed.

Despite Cambodia’s place atop the list of countries that saw the fastest increases in forest loss over the past 14 years, Cambodia’s year-on-year tree cover loss actually fell in 2014. Licadho’s Mr. Pellerin said the 2012 freeze on new ELCs may finally have started to pay off, but added that it was too soon to say whether the country had turned a corner.

“The moratorium on new ELCs would start in 2014 to have a tangible impact, whereas [in] previous years, fresh ELCs granted soon before the moratorium or after were still clearing,” he said.

According to the WRI, the world lost more than 18 million hectares of tree cover in 2014, an area twice the size of Portugal.

Storms rage on in parts

Locals contend with rising floodwaters in Pailin province on Friday, as coastal and northwestern provinces were inundated over the weekend.

Locals contend with rising floodwaters in Pailin province on Friday, as coastal and northwestern provinces were inundated over the weekend. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Storms rage on in parts

Mon, 21 September 2015

Rainstorms have battered coastal areas and the Kingdom’s northwest, leaving hundreds of homes flooded and thousands of hectares of crops underwater, a disaster management official said yesterday.

Battambang province was the worst hit, with at least one death reported and some roads blocked by floodwaters, according to national and local officials.

“The storm hit the four provinces at the coast and four provinces in the northwest,” said Keo Vy, cabinet director and a spokesman for the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM).

“The provinces nearby the sea are Koh Kong province, Preah Sihanouk, Kampot and Kep province. The four provinces in the northwest that also flooded are Battambang, Pailin, Banteay Meanchey and Pursat.”

Vy attributed the heavy flooding in Battambang to runoff from across the Thai border.

“Rainfall and water that flowed down from Thailand caused 757 houses to be flooded in Kamrieng and Bavel districts,” Vy said. “The authorities moved nine families to a place of safety. There were 9,839 hectares of cassava flooded, which might be damaged, and some roads were cut off.”

A teenage girl was also reported to have drowned in Battambang’s Bavel district.

“A 13-year-old girl died this morning when she went to swim under her house when her mother was not at home,” said Sar Sary, chief of Bavel district’s Bavel commune. “Her house flooded until the water came up the stairs.”

Sary went on to say that he was optimistic that farmers’ crops now underwater could be saved.

“We cannot know if their paddies are damaged because the water started to go down little by little. It would be better if the water went down quickly,” he said. “I think if there is no rain for two days, the water will go down quickly.”

In Koh Kong province, 245 houses were damaged and six destroyed completely, while in Kampot province 4,381 families were affected by flooding and 2,291 hectares of rice were submerged.

Three districts and one town were flooded in Preah Sihanouk province, where one home was totally destroyed, 75 houses suffered damage to their roofs and four boats sank.

However, according to Ian Thomas, technical adviser to the Mekong River Commission, the heavy rain is unlikely to signal an end to drought conditions, which have blighted crops in large parts of the country since 2014.

“Cambodia has to be ready for more extreme weather as a result of the El Niño in the Pacific,” he said. “When El Niño peaks around January, I expect even more severe drought in parts of Cambodia than the previous year.

The beginning of next year is going to be very bad for dry-season crops.”

But not every province will be affected.

“It’s not a consistent picture,” Thomas said. “Pursat and Battambang are the driest provinces, but Prey Veng and Svay Rieng are OK.”

Thomas added that the current El Niño, a climate event that occurs roughly every five years, is the strongest NASA has ever seen and the space agency has nicknamed it “Godzilla”.

Extreme weather could soon lead to an increase in the price of rice.

“In the drought of 2014, the price of rice fell because of Thai rice subsidies,” Thomas said. “But the IRRI [International Rice Research Institute] has just issued a warning that drought conditions have been so bad across Asia due to El Niño, the price of rice will go up.”

The current El Nino is expected to end next year, bringing some relief to farmers.

“I am hopeful that in February to March the El Niño will dissipate, but it will take a few months for weather to get back to normal,” Thomas said.



In praise of dirty, sexy cities: the urban world according to Walter Benjamin

In praise of dirty, sexy cities: the urban world according to Walter Benjamin
Seventy five years after his death, the Marxist philosopher’s passion for the seedier, messier delights of cities such as Marseille and Moscow are a stark reminder of how sanitised today’s urban environment is becoming
Modern Marseille is being sandblasted, primped and cultureified.
Modern Marseille is being sandblasted, primped and cultureified. Photograph: Alamy
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Stuart Jeffries
Monday 21 September 2015 04.41 EDT Last modified on Monday 21 September 2015 16.55 EDT
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Marseille isn’t as wicked as it used to be. In 1929, the playwright and travel writer Basil Woon wrote From Deauville to Monte Carlo: a Guide to the Gay World of France, warning his respectable readers that, whatever they do, they should on no account visit France’s second city. “Thieves, cut-throats and other undesirables throng the narrow alleys and sisters of scarlet sit in the doorways of their places of business, catching you by the sleeve as you pass by. The dregs of the world are here unsifted … Marseille is the world’s wickedest port.”

Much has changed since 1929. Gay doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Marseille isn’t the world’s wickedest port, but subject to one of Europe’s biggest architectural makeover projects. It has become respectable enough to serve as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Its port has been sandblasted and civilised. Throughout the city – Eurostar’s latest destination from London – there are new trams, designer hotels, luxury flats and high-rise developments.

The last of these changes is freighted with symbolism. Marseille has been overwhelmingly horizontal since Greek graders founded it 2,600 years ago, its terracotta-roofed buildings spreading inland from the bay. Now it’s going vertical, with new skyscrapers glassily returning your gaze, looking like a Mediterranean sibling for those other formerly raffish docklands made safe for business suits – London, Hamburg and Baltimore.

The worry is, as Marseille comes to look like everywhere else, it loses what made it special – the saltiness, the wickedness, the downright smelliness so off-putting to some.

Rue de l’Amandier in Marseille, 1920. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Rue de l’Amandier in Marseille, 1920. Photograph: Adoc-photos/Corbis
“Marseille – the yellow studded maw of a seal with salt water coming out between the teeth,” wrote the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. “When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine and printer’s ink …”

Benjamin wrote these words for a newspaper article in the same same year as A Guide to the Gay World of France excoriated Marseille. Unlike Basil Woon, he revelled in the city. Another French city, Toulouse, called itself la ville rose, the pink city, but for Benjamin, pink was more truly the colour of Marseille. “The palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discoloured women of Rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.”

What Benjamin wrote about cities in newspaper essays in the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as in his book about 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project, remains fascinating and instructive, and not just because he was one of the first thinkers to suggest that urban living intensified feelings of isolation and atomisation.

What makes this German Jewish philosopher even more compelling is that he also found the opposite in cities – flashes of the utopian in the abject – and realised they could provide solutions to, as well be the causes of, alienation. This oddball communist from segregated Berlin interpreted cities such as Marseille, Moscow and Naples as kinds of laboratories that, just possibly, suggested how we might live better.

In his essay Hashish in Marseille, Benjamin described an evening wandering from cafe to cafe after taking the drug (the philosopher stoned): “I now suddenly understood how to a painter – had it not happened to Rembrandt and many others? – ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty, better than any treasure cask, a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.” Benjamin encountered in his Marseille trance what his beloved Baudelaire had found when taking the same drug in Paris nearly 70 years before: an artificial paradise.

Marseille​ isn’t France. Marseille​ isn’t Provence. Marseille​​ is the world
Robert Guédiguian
But the Marseille Benjamin savoured, and that scared Woon, scarcely exists any more. The red-light district of the Rue Bouterie survives only as collectable postcards from the wicked era of the later 1920s. So too Basso’s, one of the restaurants in which Benjamin dined that night, nearly nine decades ago, to stave off the munchies. As I wander the Marseille streets trying, and failing, to follow Benjamin’s footsteps, I’m disappointed: the people are insufficiently ugly. Perhaps if I’d been on hashish like Benjamin …

A different Marseille – sandblasted, primped and cultureified – is rising in its place. On the Quai d’Arenc, where once Benjamin found beauty in ugliness, an old silo building has been repurposed as a 2,000-seater auditorium. Elsewhere, an old chateau has been converted into the Centre for Mediterranean Cinematography, a Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations and, my personal favourite, a museum devoted to La Marseillaise, the French national anthem where, depending on your taste, you can hear Serge Gainsbourg croaking a reggae version of Stephane Grappelli.

But the worry here is that what Benjamin’s colleagues of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – excoriated as “the culture industry” becomes a means of ripping the soul out of the place while making it look as though the opposite is happening. Without being unduly cynical, culture has become part of capitalism’s sanitising redevelopment of one of the most cherishably wicked of world cities.

Zaha Hadid’s tower rises above the city of Marseille. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Zaha Hadid’s 147-metre-high Tour French Line tower rises above Marseille. Photograph: Jose Nicolas/L’Oeil du spectacle/Corbis
The focus of that redevelopment, Euroméditerranée, is among the biggest renovations schemes in Europe. It echoes what Marseille’s twin city of Hamburg is doing at HafenCity – the German port’s former docks – and similarly risks making the raffish respectable, the salty sweet, the wicked merely nice. That, so often, has been the fate of docklands redevelopments: think of London’s Docklands now devoid of opium dens and free-swearing dockers. It risks, that is to say, obliterating everything Benjamin liked about Marseille.


New Marseille is typified by Zaha Hadid’s 147m-tall Tour French Line, the corporate headquarters for shipping container company CMA-CGM. Jean Nouvel has designed three more skyscrapers for the city which, to sceptics, are excellent ways of making Marseille lose its identity.

According to the French film director Robert Guédiguian, who sets most of his films (including Marius et Jeannette and La Ville est Tranquille) in and around his home city: “All that squeezes itself between the buildings, that insinuates itself between the architectural drawings and political plans, must be carefully preserved because it is there that one finds the city’s future.”

For Guédiguian, what squeezes itself between these plans is a much more interesting city – a multi-ethnic metropolis that includes 120,000 north African immigrants whose presence has led to Marseille being called Sahara on Sea. “Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world,” says Guédiguian.

So what would Walter Benjamin have made of the new city that is rising over the traces of the one he loved? What’s striking about his vision of the former city is how sensitive he was to false utopianism, to the bulldozing of the past and the dreams of progress.

Benjamin was always drawn to outmoded utopias – the formerly state-of-the-art technology, the ruins of progress …
Le Passage Choiseul shopping arcade in Paris, circa1900. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Le Passage Choiseul shopping arcade in Paris, circa 1900. Photograph: Roger-Viollet/AFP
The Arcades Project – that great ruin of a book he spent the last decade of his life assembling, until his suicide in Spain 75 years ago this month while on the run from the Nazis – focuses on the fading arcades of 19th-century Paris, in which once-fashionable shops, goods and building styles hung on briefly before Baron Haussmann destroyed them in favour of a yet-newer Paris. Benjamin was always drawn to these outmoded utopias, the formerly state-of-the-art technology, the ruins of progress – since they encoded, he thought, the delusions that capitalism instilled in its victims.

“Capitalism,” Benjamin wrote in 1922, “is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” By that, in part, he meant that capitalism abases us before the new, subdues us not with opium but with must-have commodities. And cities could be shrines to the cult, too.

To get a sense of this, simply take the tourist boat trip from the Vieux Port along the coast to see the legendary Chateau d’If (where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated) and the Calanques (the limestone cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean). Look back and you’ll see a city skyline that did not exist when Benjamin and Woon wrote. Since 1864, the city was dominated by Notre Dame de la Garde, standing high on a hill on the site of a former fort. Now though, it rhymes with Zaha Hadid’s Tour French Line. The Iraqi-British architect says that her tower complements the basilica. It also, though, represents a challenge to it: hers is a glassy temple to a newer deity.

Zaha Hadid’s Tour French Line Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Hadid says her shipping company HQ complements Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo
In promising newness, progress, built utopias, bulldozing wickedness and poverty, the development of urban landscapes could make the faithful believe more ardently in what – for a communist such as Benjamin – in fact, oppressed them. Again and again, he takes the perspective of one looking back on failed utopias, on the obsolete commodities that were once must-haves. The Benjamin scholar Max Pensky explains the political force of how Benjamin wrote about cities: “The fantasy world of material well-being promised by every commodity now is revealed as a hell of unfulfillment; the promise of eternal newness and unlimited progress … now appear as their opposite: as primal history, the mythic compulsion toward endless repetition.”


None of the above should suggest that Walter Benjamin disliked cities. Rather, he found in the ones he really liked – Marseille, Naples and Moscow in particular – antidotes to the socially zoned, ghettoised Berlin in which he had been raised around 1900.

For instance, in 1927, he took a sleigh ride through Moscow. “Where Europeans, on their rapid journeys, enjoy superiority, dominance over the masses,” he wrote, “the Muscovite in the little sleigh is closely mingled with people and things. If he has a box, a child, or a basket to take with him – for all this, the sleigh is the cheapest means of transport – he is truly wedged into the street bustle. No condescending gaze: a tender, swift brushing along stones, people and horses. You feel like a child gliding through the house on a little chair.”

Ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Benjamin was visiting the Soviet capital to study what he called “ the world-historical experiment”. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table,” he wrote. Riding on a Moscow tram was, for the pampered Berliner, a new experience – the poor got up close and personal. “A tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle usually overloaded to the point of bursting takes place without a sound and with great cordiality. (I have never heard an angry word on these occasions).”

Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table
Walter Benjamin on 1920s Moscow
A propeller-powered sleigh in Moscow in 1929. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A propeller-powered sleigh in Moscow in 1929. Photograph: Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images
For a German Jew born to a wealthy family, this new experience of city life was tremendously exciting. During Benjamin’s childhood, in the exclusive suburbs of west Berlin, the poor scarcely existed, still less got close enough to jostle him on public transport. In his memoir, A Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote of his upbringing that “the class that had pronounced him one of its number resided in a posture compounded of self-satisfaction and resentment that turned the district into something like a ghetto held on a lease. In any case, he was confined to this affluent neighbourhood without knowing any other. The poor? For rich children of his generation, they lived at the back of beyond.”

In the 1920s, Benjamin spent a lot of time in cities such as Moscow, Naples and Marseille – each in its different way giving him a cure to the disease of modern life in general, and the one in which he had been raised in particular. His compatriot, the German sociologist Max Weber, had written of the iron cage of capitalism inside which humans were submitted to efficiency, calculation and control. Cities were part of that system of control, which worked by keeping the poor and rich in their proper places. The cities that turned Walter Benjamin on were the opposite of that: porous labyrinths annulling class, time, space and even distinctions of light and dark.

Benjamin’s enthusiasm for these cities is, nearly 100 years on, contagious. Particularly as so many of the world’s leading cities have turned sclerotic – socially stratified cages to keep the riff raff out and the rest of us polishing our must-have Nespresso machines.

In Paris, the poor are banished beyond the périphérique so that when they revolt, they destroy their own banlieues rather than the French capital’s fussily maintained environment. London’s key workers strap-hang on laughable trains from distant commuter towns to serve the wealthy before being returned to their flats in time for the de facto curfew each day. Manhattan island is today a pristine vitrine on which the lower orders don’t even get to leave their mucky paw prints, but inside which the rich get to fulfil with unparallelled freedom their uninteresting desires. I’m exaggerating in each case, but not much. Many of the world’s leading cities are becoming like the Berlin that Benjamin called a prison, and from which he escaped whenever possible.

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism
Walter Benjamin
The monument to Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Spain. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The monument to Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Catalonia. In 1940 the Jewish philosopher escaped to Spain, but killed himself when he learned the authorities were likely to deport him to France and into the hands of the Nazis. Photograph: Ruth Hofshi/Alamy Stock Photo
The point of the cities Benjamin loved, by contrast, was that they broke through physical, ethnic and class barriers. In Marseille, Naples and Moscow, life was not a private commodity, but “dispersed, porous, commingled”. In Naples, about which he wrote with his Latvian lover Asja Lacis, he found private life had been effectively abolished: “What distinguishes Naples from other large cities is something it has in common with the African kraal: each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the northern European the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal, a collective matter.” He and Lacis found in Naples that “just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so only much more loudly the street migrates into the living room”.


In Naples, Benjamin noted with a north European’s shock, children are up at all hours. “At midday, they then lie sleeping behind a shop counter or on a stairway. This sleep, which men and women also snatch in shady corners, is therefore not the protected northern sleep. Here, too, there is interpenetration of day and night, noise and peace, outer light and inner darkness, street and home … Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought.”

Is Naples today anything like the one that Benjamin and his lover eulogised? The great Italian actor Toni Servillo once told me that what he loved about Naples was that it was the world in miniature. At the time, Servillo was promoting a film called Gorbaciof, set in the Vasto, the city’s multi-ethnic district around the main railway station. And what Servillo says remains true: the great port city of Naples attracts so many immigrant communities that it can still be experienced as a messy rebuke to cities that work through de facto ethnic cleansing and social exclusion. Today, there’s a Neopolitain walking tour that takes tourists from the Senegalese market in Via Bologna, to mosques in the Pendino district, past Arab pastry shops and African hair salons, to stalls selling Maghreb crafts.

As for Benjamin, his last visit to Marseille was a bitter one. In August 1940, he found the city teeming with refugees terrified of falling into the Gestapo’s clutches. He had arrived in Marseille for an appointment at the US consulate, where he was issued with an entry visa for the United States and transit visas for Spain and Portugal.
Marseille’s Muslims need their Grand Mosque – why is it still a car park?
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In mid-September, Benjamin and two refugee acquaintances from Marseille decided to travel to the French countryside near the Spanish border and try to cross the Pyrenees on foot. The myopic, weak-hearted, 48-year-old philosopher made it across the border to the Catalan town of Port Bou, but then learned that the Spanish authorities were likely to return him and his fellow refugees to France – from where, most likely, they would be transferred to concentration camps and murdered.

Benjamin’s body was found in a hotel room, and it is generally thought he took a drug overdose. The inscription on his gravestone in Port Bou quotes, in German and Catalan, from one of his last essays, Theses on the Philosophy of History: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

It’s an aphorism that has been interpreted many ways, not least as suggesting that the progress of capitalism was bound up with the rise of fascism. But it also can be interpreted as pertaining to what cities are.

Benjamin didn’t live in an era in which the development of new cities often means state-of-the-art golf courses fringed with fig-leaf social housing; leaf-shaped islands for the über rich that can be seen from the international space station; and gated estates expressly designed so residents can experience that same, perilously short-leased mixture of resentment and self-satisfaction that his parents enjoyed a century ago.

Nor, of course, did Benjamin live to see the attempt to purge Marseille of its wickedness. If he had, he would doubtless have seen through the ostensible civilisation to the barbarism beneath.

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What we talk about when we talk about floating toilets in Cambodia


What we talk about when we talk about floating toilets in Cambodia (9 min) by Jimmy Thong Tran…/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-…

Please donate and/or share widely ASAP (before Sept. 29th)

This is the backstory of HandyPod floating toilets for Cambodian Floating Schools crowdfunding campaign ending on September 29th, 2015

(in collaboration with the Irina Chakraborty & Taber Hand)


Phnom Penh’s Most Famous Urban Planner Sees a City on the Verge of Collapse

Vann Molyvann in his home. Photo credit: Daniel Otis

You can still see Vann Molyvann’s signature everywhere. It’s on the Angkor-inspired tower of the Independence Monument, the leafy grounds of the Royal University of Phnom Penh and in the breezy crosshatched walls of the immense National Sports Complex. You can see it too in the White and Grey Buildings – large cubist apartment complexes that were Cambodia’s first public housing projects. Renovated beyond recognition, the Grey Building currently houses offices, and whereas the White Building was once surrounded by manicured gardens, vegetation now sprouts from the cracks of a weather-stained vertical patchwork slum known for its drug dens, brothels and artists.

“It’s difficult to sit and watch the destruction of my children,” 87-year-old Molyvann says as we sit in the impressive Phnom Penh mansion he designed for himself in the 1960s. “Phnom Penh no longer has any development plan.”

Molyvann is Cambodia’s most important modern architect and urban planner. Born in rural Kampot province in 1926, he was sent to Paris to study law at the age of 20. Once there, he quickly shifted his focus to architecture, and soon after returning to Cambodia in 1956 he was made the country’s state architect and head of public works.

This was Cambodia’s Golden Age, an era of prosperity and cultural vibrancy that started with the euphoria of gaining independence from France in 1953 (Cambodia had mostly existed as a vassal state since a Thai conquest in the 15th century) and began to end when the Vietnam War spilled across its borders. Throughout this period, the late King Norodom Sihanouk ruled Cambodia as a (mostly) benevolent dictator intent on developing his poor rural kingdom. To accomplish this, promising young Cambodians like Molyvann were given scholarships to study abroad. Upon their return, many were granted high government positions.

“We were given carte blanche to design scores of buildings,” Molyvann reminisces. His voice is deep and assertive – rather incongruent with his now-frail frame – and he frequently opts to answer questions by reading from the well-worn French, English and Khmer books (his and others’) that he’s piled high on his kitchen table for our interview.

“The flurry of building mirrored the post-colonial mood,” he reads.

Through Sihanouk’s patronage, Molyvann spent nearly fifteen years transforming Phnom Penh from a sleepy colonial backwater into a modern Asian metropolis. Adding to the legacy of French colons – who had built schools, hotels, public offices, tree-shaded boulevards, the city’s grand villas and the royal palace – Molyvann oversaw the construction of a new airport, sewers, dykes, parks, offices, universities, factories, hospitals, mansions, theaters and public housing. His designs embodied what became known as the New Khmer Architecture, a style that adapted modernist aesthetics and materials to Cambodia’s tropical climate while employing both vernacular and Angkorianmotifs. In terms of urban planning, Molyvann says he was inspired by the concepts of theGarden City and La Ville Radieuse, and the intricate water management systems commissioned by medieval Cambodian kings. Phnom Penh’s area increased twofold under Molyvann’s stewardship, and between 1962 and 1970 its population grew from 400,000 to more than one million.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Christian Haugen via Flickr

Cambodia’s Golden Age would come to an abrupt end with a pro-U.S. coup d’état in 1970. Molyvann fled to Europe in 1971. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1991, the architect was aghast to see how two decades of conflict, neglect and greed had gutted a city that was once known as “the Pearl of Asia.”

For a brief period, Molyvann headed the APSARA Authority, an organization that is supposed to manage and protect Cambodia’s famed Angkor Archaeological Park. He was sacked in 2001 at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request after speaking out against damaging tourism developments at the site. Since then, Molyvann has devoted himself to writing and academia (he received his PhD in 2008), and has become one of the most prominent critics of the current Cambodian government’s urban development agenda.

“Mid-century buildings survived the Khmer Rouge only to be endangered now by the short-sighted development of Hun Sen,” Molyvann reads. He pushes aside the book. “Everything now is completely freehand.”

Throughout the city, historically significant buildings are being torn down in order to make way for new shops, offices and houses. Even the National Sports Complex, which Molyvann considers to be his greatest accomplishment, was leased to a Taiwanese firm in 2000. Most of its sprawling grounds are now being readied for a large commercial and residential development, and in the process, the main stadium’s Angkor-inspired drainage system has been filled with cement, causing the area around it to become swamped in the rainy season.

In a way, what’s happened to the stadium epitomizes the Cambodian government’s failure to deal with the city’s greatest environmental challenge: water. For half the year Phnom Penh is inundated with monsoon rains that flood its surrounding farmland, while during the other half of the year, the region is dusty and dry.

“The history of Phnom Penh,” Molyvann says, “is working with and fighting against water.”

The city, he says, has now expanded well beyond a concentric ring of dykes that was commissioned more than four decades ago. Compounding this, Phnom Penh’s few remaining lakes, which act as natural storm-water reservoirs, are in the process of being filled as a matter of real estate speculation. Throw inept drains into the mix, and Phnom Penh has become incredibly vulnerable to flooding. A major tropical storm, Molyvann says, could absolutely devastate the city.

“We would fill lakes too, but we would do it precisely,” Molyvann says. Those that remained, he claims, were purposefully left to collect floodwater. “Prime Minister Hun Sen rejects all of the plans that have been designed.” When I ask him why, his answer is simple: “To sell the land.”

According to Molyvann, the city is growing uncontrollably, having doubled in population to more than two million since the mid 1990s. Moreover, with absolutely no zoning rules in effect, factories can now be found abutting residential areas. A lack of public transportation means that the pothole-riddled streets of this rapidly sprawling low-rise city are increasingly congested with traffic.

In 2003, Molyvann published Modern Khmer Cities, a book he describes as his “political manifesto.” In it, he traces the histories of Cambodia’s three most important municipalities – Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh – and offers prescriptions for their future development. Molyvann’s recommendations for Phnom Penh are varied. First and foremost, he says, the city must put an end to all ad hoc development by creating and implementing a master plan. If Molyvann were to have his way, Phnom Penh’s lakes and canals would no longer be filled, new dykes would be built around the city, mass transportation would be created, students would again be sent abroad and then given government jobs, and stringent zoning regulations would be put into effect to create self-sustained neighborhoods. Molyvann would also like to see the city expand southward along the built-up banks of the Bassac River, instead of east into flood-prone plains. If such actions are not taken immediately, Molyvann says, Phnom Penh’s future will be characterized by chaos, congestion, flooding and poverty.

“There will be slums everywhere, like la favela in Rio de Janeiro,” Molyvann says. “The Khmer people are very resilient. We have been attacked and swallowed by other countries, but our culture was never completely destroyed.” But as long as Cambodia’s ruling party (which has controlled the country since 1979) remains in power, Molyvann believes that nothing in Phnom Penh will change for the better. “I have no hope that we can survive this time.”

Preemptive design saving cities

Miho Mazereeuw is the founder of the Urban Risk Lab. She designs buildings and cities in anticipation of disasters. “Working in a field that has traditionally been the domain of emergency managers and engineers, we bring preemptive design and community engagement into the risk-reduction equation,” she says.

An architect, landscape architect, and assistant professor of architecture and urbanism, Mazereeuw’s lab has a rapidly growing list of projects across the globe. Current projects take her to Haiti, India, Peru, and Japan—all sites vulnerable to earthquakes and floods. In Haiti, she and her research partners developed a framework for hurricane evacuation, working with the Department of Civil Protection and the World Bank. Considering the vast differences in terrain and levels of urbanization, the team developed nine strategies, with prototypes for coastal, valley, and mountainous areas.

In India, she is embarking on a two-year project in Odisha, a state on the east coast that is hit frequently by cyclones and floods. Working with a team that includes material science systems engineers and logistics experts, Mazereeuw is helping plan a large industrial corridor and the housing needs that will come with large-scale development, preemptively building disaster planning into the process.

Her work recently brought her to the White House for a discussion on and recovery, which focused on the most effective uses of technology to better prepare communities for a disaster.

Half Japanese and half Dutch, Mazereeuw has roots in two countries that have dealt with floods, earthquakes, and typhoons. “Ever since I was back in Kobe, Japan, volunteering in the aftermath of the in 1995, I’ve been researching how the city can be designed better to prepare for such events. Urban developers focus on livability and economic vitality, but risk factors rarely come into that dialogue.”

Initiating a community dialogue, in fact, is the center of Mazereeuw’s approach. In San Francisco, a U.S. city most associated with earthquakes and anticipation of “the big one,” Mazereeuw works with the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, tapping into one community at a time to engage people in disaster planning. It’s a six-step process, and by the end, she says, the community has its own plan to make its social and physical environment more resilient and is prepared for earthquakes, floods, and heat waves. This model goes beyond an individualistic approach to disaster planning—from “I’ve got my water, my food, and my batteries”—to community-based awareness, concern, and planning.

And that awareness can be used to recognize existing community assets. A park with a spray pool may not look like part of a , until you consider the water tank beneath it. That water may become vital to putting out a fire when other systems are impaired. We need to look at our schools, churches, parks, and everyday public places though that lens. “It is important to recognize the dual purpose of many community features, and better yet, when planning an urban environment, build in dual purposes preemptively,” she says.

“We define risk as the hazard times the vulnerability divided by the coping capacity. The hazard is about the probability, location, frequency, and magnitude of an earthquake happening.” How vulnerable, she asks, are the people? “How can the community’s resilience change the outcome? We have little control over the hazard, but we have great control over the living part—where we live, how we plan, and how we build and structure our cities.”

Read more at:

Is Phnom Penh Losing its Luster under Rapid Urbanization?

There were around 32,000 people living in Phnom Penh when the Pol Pot regime was expelled from the city in 1978. Today, there are over 2 million people crammed into Cambodia’s capital, growing by an estimated 50,000 people each year. Its rapid growth comes with increasing pressure on the city for jobs, housing, services, and transportation. As the informal sector in the city swells to accommodate more and more jobless people, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how economic development alone will take care of the basic needs of residents such as housing, education, and environmental and healthinfrastructure and services.

Phnom Penh sunset

Phnom Penh has played the role of economic, political, and social center of Cambodia for almost 150 years. Now, rapid urbanization threatens the city’s architectural heritage. Photo/Flickr user Jonas Hansel

Cities in developing Asia are known to suffer from extreme divisions. In many places, the poor live in informal settlements and slums while the rich live in gated communities and well-serviced condominiums. With urbanization comes the all-too-familiar problems of flooding, gridlocked traffic, trash removal, lack of access to sanitation, insecure land tenure, overcrowding, and air pollution. While the rampant destruction of heritages sites is equally commonplace, it is often overlooked or written off as “collateral damage” of development.

Cambodia in many ways is an outlier. Angkor Wat, a living symbol for the Khmer nation at its height of command almost 1,000 years ago, holds a place on foreigners’ bucket lists, attracting over 2 million visitors last year alone. The quality of Angkor Wat’s preservation is attributed to the Royal Government of Cambodia’s decision in 1993 to combat looting, clear landmines, and turn the site into a world-class tourist destination. Yet even with the influx of foreigners, Siem Reap province, home to Angkor Wat, remains one of the poorest in Cambodia.

Cambodia struggles with its past as much as it does with its current development. Visitors flock to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, while few appreciate the equally stunning sunrise over the less famous Olympic Stadium at the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh. The complex was sold to a developer in 2001, and today, new high-rise construction projects loom over the stadium, a heaving cornice of concrete. The number of new condominiums alone is expected to increase five times in the next five years. Inspired by Angkor Wat, the Olympic Stadium is a rare piece of Cambodia’s modern architectural heritage. For the thousands of city residents who come to the stadium for their daily morning exercise it provides one of the last open spaces in the city.

Olympic Stadium

Phnom Penh has played the role of economic, political, and social center of Cambodia for almost 150 years. The city’s primacy was fostered by the French colonial administration starting in the 1860s. Originally a small riverside market center where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac Rivers converge, by the 1920s Phnom Penh was described as the “Pearl of Asia.” The French colonial administration constructed the Royal Palace, museum, and other works promoting Cambodian culture. Extensive research and archeological projects revived the greatness of the Angkorian era, which the colonial administration offered as a national model to the Cambodian people. Following its independence from France in 1953 to the outbreak of civil war in 1970, under the direction of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia experienced a renaissance of architecture and the arts. In the 1960s, Cambodia was the only country in Southeast Asia to have modern, functional architecture, owed in large part to the genius of Vann Molyvann, by far Cambodia’s most prodigious architect and credited with being the father of the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. During this era, Vann Molyvann, leaving the French colonial edifices intact, designed iconic landmarks such as Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Council of Ministers, the State Palace (now the Cambodian Senate), and of course the Olympic Stadium. Through meticulous city planning, Vann wove environmental considerations into the urban fabric of Phnom Penh, making him stand out among modernists of his time.

From French colonization to Khmer independence, and from Maoist revolution to capitalist revival, Phnom Penh has always appeared to be a canvas on which its rulers have sought to remake their own history through surges of destruction and construction. The Vietnamese-backed government quickly made monuments out of the killing fields and S-21 interrogation center, a stark reminder to Cambodians and the international community of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot. Yet today, the embrace of the French colonial era and Sihanouk’s modernism appears to be less decisive. With foreign funding, the city has carried out rehabilitation projects including the Central Market (Phsar Tmei), and with private funding, rehabilitated several historic buildings in the old city center, including the Khan Daun Penh, for use as hotels, retail stores, and restaurants. The fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall, managed by the Ministry of Culture, still stands proudly near the Royal Palace. These are treasures of the city, and vivid reminders of Cambodia’s deep architectural heritage.

However, laissez faire city planning might be the greatest threat to the architectural heritage of Phnom Penh. After surviving American bombing, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese invasion, Vann Molyvann’s National Theatre and the Council of Ministers building were torn down in 2008. As no comprehensive record of these works exist, they have become ghosts of what has been called Cambodia’s “Golden Age.”

The sweet spot for architectural conservation is small and elusive. Finding a balance between individual political and economic interests and collective cultural and social interests is not easy. With an entire generation of intelligentsia wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, reviving collective cultural interests even among the rising middle class will undoubtedly take time and investment.

Fortunately, innovative inroads are being made. The soon-to-be-released film, The Man Who Built Cambodia, which received research and archival assistance from the Vann Molyvann Project and financial support from The Asia Foundation, will help tell the story of architectural icon Vann Molyvann. Acrowdfunding campaign for the film offers those who donate $9 the opportunity to get a high-quality digital download of the film before anyone else gets it. It’s a perfect primer before you take a cyclo ride through central Phnom Penh on an excursion guided by Khmer Architecture Tours led by Cambodian architects and students of architecture. But more is needed obviously.

The Man Who Built Cambodia – Trailer from Haig Balian on Vimeo.

Reaping the full value of Phnom Penh’s heritage requires vision and investment. In the heart of the old city sits Post Office Square, lined by Chinese-style shop houses, restaurants, and a hotel forming an open plaza. From there, you can duck into Van’s Restaurant, converted from the old Indochina Bank building, or enjoy a lunch in the shade of its courtyard. One barely has to squint across the plaza to visualize a pedestrian walk or outdoor shopping street. The possibilities are tantalizingly close and yet, for the time being, AEON Mall, Cambodia’s first mega mall, seems to be capturing the popular imagination.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


Virak Roeun

Virak Roeun architecture graduate.

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.

Contemporary architecture
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.
Content image - Phnom Penh Post

In the evenings, I like Alley Bar on Street 240-and-a-half. Before I came to Phnom Penh, I’d never been to a live concert in my life, but at Alley Bar they often have singers who’ll sing whatever you like. The design is quite contemporary and it mainly attracts foreigners and students, but it still feels private because getting there is complicated – you need a friend to take you or you won’t find it. The only problem is that they have a cover charge of about 10 per cent, which is quite rare for Phnom Penh. But that whole street is a great place to go because it’s so small and quiet even though it’s in the middle of the city.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

When I moved here from Battambang to study, I didn’t make many friends at first, and anyway, if you wanted to hang out, you needed money, which I didn’t have. So I thought OK, I’ll just stay alone and go to the library. I didn’t even know the National Library existed at that time, so I always went to the Hun Sen Library at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Architecturally, it’s alright, but the most important thing for a library is just the space to read and store books, and it’s got that. It also has good books in it compared to other libraries in the country, although still not much that was related to my architecture studies. When I went there, I’d read everything: maths, physics – I even read a Khmer translation of Anne Frank once. I loved that book, although I couldn’t finish it because it was so thick.


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