Category Archives: History

Cambodge: Urban Legend

Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945 Penny Edwards

From Chapter 2: Urban Legend

“Elsewhere in French empire, the spatial and architectural foundation of colonial cities encouraged the possibility of combining modernism and tradition. In Cambodge, colonial architecture and town planning had a reverse effect. By promoting notions of the incompatibility of Khmer and non-Khmer symbols of national, grouped as these were in distinct milieux, they are implicitly segregated notions of antiquity (associated with Angkor and “Khmerness”) from modernity (associated with the French Quarter and the protectorate’s government offices.)

In 1889, a French visitor to Phnom Penh dismissed the colonial capital as a “place of transit”, preempting ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ condemnation of the new Brazilian city of Goiania, some forty years later as a “place of transit – not of residence.” This trope of transience tallied with common colonial castings of indigenous lives and spaces as ephemeral, fleeting, shadowy, and transgressive.

Clear distinctions were made between the indigenously built environment of the “golden age” of Angkor – which was deemed, like one of many twelfth- and thirteenth-century stone structures that has survived, as marking a stage of civilization from which Cambodians had ever since been in a state of flight, like nomad of history who had not yet found a firm footing in firm structures and the present, seen as unanchored, both in its predominate form – flammable wood – and design.

Considering Khmer palaces too makeshift to represent real power, European planners were brought in to supervise the construction of lasting monuments to “majest” in stone, brick, cement and concrete. A primary facet of this transformation was the development of a “national style,” first articulated as such in the national pavilions designed in a presumed “purely Cambodian style” for Europe’s grant nineteenth-century exhibitions.

Like other French colonial cities, Phnom Penh’s emerging geometric cityscape paid tribute to Rene Descartes vision of a “well-ordered” town laid out “on a vacant plane as suits [the engineers] fancy.” Colonial approaches to the city also reiterated notions of an unspoiled rule essence versus a corrupting urbane environment. Constructing a Cambodian quarter was one way of quarantining that quintessential, rural Khmerness, colonial planners inscribed the notion of the vanished Khmer on the very Quartier cambodgien (Cambodian quarter) that they built. The grafting of Angkorean symbols onto the new capital’s streetscape correlated witht he crafting of a new profile for the Khmer monarchy, with the Angkorean undertones and opulent dimensions, through palace construction and ceremonial function that allowed Kind Norodom I and his successors to embody the splendor – but not the substance – of kingship on a scale unseen since the fall of Angkor.”

“In the first two decades of the protectorate, the king retained complete power over the treasury as well as the farming of opium, fisheries, pig farms, gambling and other concessions, and he was the undisputed owner of all land in the kingdom. At Oudung as in previous royal capitals, wood and that housed royalty, mandarins, and peasants, while masonry was generally reserved for temples, reliquary stupas, and funeral monuments. Wood has been used by royalty and peasants alike since at least the third century, and early Chinese accounts note that rulers in the region lived in tiered, wood buildings, while commoners resided in thatched wooden houses raised on stilts, know in French as paillotes. This trend continued after the fall of the Khmer capital at Lovek in 1594, with the construction of the new royal palace at Oudong as a walled compound of wooden buildings. Most elaborate was the house of the queen mother, who remained at Oudong after the transfer of the royal capital to Phnom Penh in 1864.

The quality of building materials – which ranged from bamboo matting and thatch to fine timbers — and craftsmanship varied from one dwelling to another according the the rank and status of their owners. But the location of a residence and its proximity to sacred sites acted as more significant indicators of power and status. Centuries of upheaval, the perennial threat of war and relocation, and indigenous notions of power all ensured that political potency was vested in enduring ceremonial items and human constellations of kin and clientele, both of which could be quickly mobilized, rather than elaborate palace complexes or lavish personal abodes. Displays of power and ways to earn and express merit in the built environment took the form of the construction or renovation of a Buddhist monastery or ancestral temple, hospice or library.”

“In 1884, the French Protectorate, anxious to end its dependence on the king’s gift or loan of land and buildings, dealt a fiscal deathblow to the Cambodian monarchy in the form of a convention that established four categories of property ownership: royal property, public property, inalienable public reserves that could be leased, and inalienable private property. In October 1889, to achieve his goal of “sanitizing, developing, and embellishing” Phnom Penh RSC de Verneville issued a new convention securing the protectorate long-coveted development rights over Phnom Penh, whereby Norodom ceded all land and property rights in Phnom Penh to the protectorate, in exchange for an annual rent of thirty thousand piastres.”

“…RSC de Verneville began work on a canal that flowed into the Tonle Bassac River to form a triangular moat around the French quarter, thus protecting and isolating Phnom Penh’s European population. The resultant landfill transformed large tracts of swampland into the foundations of a future roads and streets…. A new printing house, treasury, pharmacy, customs house, and a new streets completed the capital’s transformation from a rambling morass into a highly segregated and hierarchical city.”

“The city was best known for its vast tracts of mosquito-infested swampland, the stench of stagnant water and human waste, and frequent outbreaks of cholera. In the wet season, boat travel was necessary between different sections of Phnom Penh.”

City Evacuation Routes – Khmer Rouge

Source: Redrawn by author from print material distributed at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center Top: All city routes. Bottom: Phnom Penh routes.

Year Zero: Francois Ponchaud

Cambodia: Year Zero

Francois Ponchaud was a French Roman Catholic priest and missionary to Cambodia where he worked for over ten years. He was among the last foreigners forced to leave Phnom Penh. He continued his work recording the stories of refugees who made it to the camps in Thailand and Vietnam. His book was published while the Khmer Rouge were still in power.

“On March 31, 1977 The New York Review of Books published my account of my book under the signature of Jean Lacouture, which provoked considerable reaction in all circles concerned about Asia and the future of socialism. With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked a polemical exchange with Rober Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and with Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the latter of a rectification of his initial account. Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and considering my book to be “serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,” he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by anti-revolutionary propagandists. He had made it my duty to “stem the flood of lies” about Cambodia – particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in “Murder of a Gentle Land.”

From Wikipedia:

“The term Year Zero, applied to the takeover of Cambodia in 1975 by Pol Pot, is an analogy to the Year One of the French Revolutionary Calendar. During the French Revolution, after the abolition of the Frenchmonarchy (September 20, 1792), the National Convention instituted a new calendar and declared the beginning of the Year I. The Pol Pot takeover of Phnom Penh was rapidly followed by a series of drastic revolutionary agrarian socialism policies vastly exceeding those of the French Reign of Terror and culminating in the Cambodian Genocide.

The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will (as an ideal) be purged and replaced from the ground up.”

Then and Now: Historical Photographs of Cambodia


Then and Now: Historical Photographs of Cambodia is a project linking the history of Cambodia from the past to the present through photographs and descriptions. It is a collaborative project between Arizona State University Libraries and Northern Illinois University Libraries aimed at digitizing old photographs taken by Mimi Palgen Maisonneuve in the 1950s and 1960s and photographing the same locations to show contemporary Cambodian life in the year 2007.

The Palgen Photo Collection from the 1950s and 1960s offers a unique look at life in Cambodia from royal ceremonies to the rural life of commoners. This time period is significant because the images record life in Cambodia just prior to the beginning of hostilities that would lead to the Khmer Rouge period and the devastation of the entire Cambodian society. The contemporary photograph collection, taken in June and July 2007, contains pictures of village and rural scenes, everyday images of the urban lives of people in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kampong Speu provinces, and historical monuments in Siem Reap province. The connection between these old and new photographs illustrates changes in village and urban life in Cambodia over these past few decades. Cambodia scholar and NIU Anthropologist, Judy Ledgerwood, along with Political Scientist, Kheang Un, coordinate this project for NIU with a graduate student in Anthropology at NIU, Pisith Phlong, as a research assistant. ASU Libraries’ Southeast Asia Bibliographer Christopher Miller coordinates work from ASU with Pamela Nguyen Corey as a research assistant.

Materials digitized under this project:

The Killing Fields


“The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975).

Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term ‘killing fields’ during his escape from the regime. A 1984 film, The Killing Fields, tells the story of Dith Pran, played by another Cambodian survivor Haing S. Ngor, and his journey to escape the death camps.

The best known monument of the Killing Fields is Choeung Ek. Today, it is the site of a Buddhist memorial to the terror, and Tuol Sleng has a museum commemorating the genocide. The memorial park has been constructed around the mass graves of many thousands of victims in Choeung Ek. The utmost respect is given to the victims of the massacres through signs and tribute sections throughout the park. Many dozens of mass graves are visible above ground, several which have not been excavated as of yet. Commonly, bones and clothing surface after heavy rainfalls due to the extremely large number of bodies still buried in the area.” (From Wikipedia)

Khmer Rouge list of enemies:

“Former soldiers, the police, the CIA, and the KGB. Their crimes was fighting in the civil war. The merchants, the capitalists, and the business men. Their crime was exploiting the poor. The rich farmers and the landlords. Their crimes was exploiting the peasants. The intellectuals, the doctors, the lawyers, the monks, the teachers, and the civil servants. These people thought, and their memories were tainted by evil Westerners. Students were getting an education to exploit the poor. Former celebrities, the poets. These people carried bad memories of the old corrupted Cambodia… The list goes on and on. The rebellious… the individualists, the people who wore glasses, the literate,… those with soft hards. These people were corrupted and lived off the blood and sweat of the farmers. very few of us escaped these categories…”

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

The Killing Fields

Drought Doomed Ancient City of Angkor

Another stab at the reasons behind Angkor’s demise. Although, I’m leery of Fox News as a source of scientific accuracy:
Drought Doomed Ancient City of Angkor By Charles Choi, Published January 04, 2012

angkor wat temple

Mary Beth Day, University of Cambridge – Bayon temple, constructed by Angkorian King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The faces may be representations of Buddha, the bodhisattva Lokesvara, Jayavarman VII, or a combination.

The ancient city of Angkor — the most famous monument of which is the breathtaking ruined temple of Angkor Wat — might have collapsed due to valiant but ultimately failed efforts to battle drought, scientists find.

The great city of Angkor in Cambodia, first established in the ninth century, was the capital of the Khmer Empire, the major player in southeast Asia for nearly five centuries. It stretched over more than 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers), making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. In comparison, Philadelphia covers 135 square miles (350 sq. km), while Phoenix sprawls across more than 500 square miles (1,300 sq. km), not including the huge suburbs.

Suggested causes for the fall of the Khmer Empire in the late 14th to early 15th centuries have included war and land overexploitation. However, recent evidence suggests that prolonged droughts might have been linked to the decline of Angkor — for instance, tree rings from Vietnam suggest the region experienced long spans of drought interspersed with unusually heavy rainfall.

Angkor possessed a complex network of channels, moats, and embankments and reservoirs known as barays to collect and store water from the summer monsoons for use in rice paddy fields in case of drought. To learn more about how the Khmer managed their water, scientists analyzed a 6-foot (2-meter)-long core sample of sediment taken from the southwest corner of the largest Khmer reservoir, the West Baray, which could hold 1.87 billion cubic feet (53 million cubic meters) of water, more than 20 times the amount of stone making up the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Also, to collect samples from across the greater Angkor region, researcher Mary Beth Day, a paleolimnologist at the University of Cambridge in England, hired a “tuk-tuk” (motorized rickshaw) driver, and was able to convince him to drive her around the countryside, “often on tracks that tuk-tuks probably aren’t designed to travel on,” she recalled. “We nearly got stuck in the sand a couple of times, but my driver was remarkably accommodating given that he probably thought I was crazy.”

The researchers deduced a 1,000-year-long climate history of Angkor from the baray. They found at around the time Angkor collapsed the rate at which sediment was deposited in the baray dropped to one-tenth of what it was before, suggesting that water levels fell dramatically as well. The discovery “really emphasizes how significant the events during this period must have been,” Day said.

As both water levels and sediment deposits ebbed, the ecology of the baray changed as well, with more bottom-dwelling algae and floating plants coming into existence.

“The ecological shift primarily serves to underline how environmental conditions in the West Baray have been fundamentally different since the 17th century, post-collapse, as compared to what the baray was like during Angkorian times,” Day said.

In the end, the water management systems of the Khmer might have been insufficient to cope with sudden and intense variations in climate. [10 Ways Weather Changed History]

“Angkor can be an example of how technology isn’t always sufficient to prevent major collapse during times of severe instability,” Day told LiveScience. “Angkor had a highly sophisticated water management infrastructure, but this technologic advantage was not enough to prevent its collapse in the face of extreme environmental conditions.”

“It’s important to understand, however, that failure of the water management network was not the sole reason for the downfall of the Khmer Empire,” Day added. “The collapse of Angkor was a complex process brought about by several different factors — social, political and environmental.”

The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more:

Phnom Penh Street Numbers

In October 2011 Google Maps removed the numbers from the Phnom Penh map – making it nearly impossible to use Google to navigate the city – unclear why they did this. Below a recent news story about how the streets are numbered – although this still doesn’t answer who numbered them and why. Or why the streets are numbered in irregular intervals along a regular grid?

Street Sign

Screenshot. Google Maps. December 13, 2011.

Screenshot. Open Street Map. December 13, 2011.

The twisted history of Phnom Penh street names

Phnom Penh Post Staff  Friday, 09 December 2011

A cyclo driver looks perturbed as he navigates his way down Sothearos boulevard.

It would make a good question in any pub quiz night: which capital city has streets named after Charles de Gaulle, Mao Tse Toung, Josep Brotz Tito, Pasteur, Czechoslovakia, France, Yugoslavia and the Polish Republic?

Any long-term Phnom Penh resident would know, but strangers to the city would be nonplussed. However, that is not to say we couldn’t play an enjoyable variant in Phnom Penh of “what were they called before” or “how far apart”: excellent indoor games for those rainy season evenings.

The first is not too hard. The Russian Boulevard, or more correctly Confederation de la Russie, was of course called USSR but the Quais Verneville and Piquet have over the years become the prosaic St 106 and St 108 respectively and nobody knows them as Treiyani and Oknha Plong anymore. Some are aware that Sothearos was Lenin, so to speak, and Norodom spent some time being Tou Samouth after the original name of Boulevard Doudart de Lagrée was overturned along with all the other luminaries of the French Protectorate. The one exception is Pasteur, which has the distinction of being the only survivor and is still used by Phnompenhoises.

The thing about Phnom Penh street names is that they are fun for every purpose except the obvious – identifying where you are or where you are going. The names, however, are as nothing to the problems of street numbers. Here the rule is that, in the main, odd numbers run north south (with the street numbers increasing as you head west) and evens east west (increasing as you head south). With the exception of the stretch of Mao Tse Toung [245] to the west of its junction with Norodom, this tenet applies reasonably well to most of central Phnom Penh, aside from the diagonal streets to the southwest of Olympic Stadium.

Could a street name or number cause a diplomatic incident? Well, our old friend St 128 nearly has. Known now as Kampuchea Krom, it was called Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship St when the Vietnamese were in charge and in the days of the French it was simply the Road to the Annamite (Vietnamese) cemetery. One commendable change is that St 96 has been named Christopher Howes after the gallant English de-miner who was abducted with Houn Hourth, his interpreter, and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1996.

One assumes there was a theory behind the naming of streets and one can sympathise with a desire for reclassification when the French stopped “protecting” Cambodia in 1953 and left behind Field Marshal Petain [St 86].

Again one can understand how everything had to be new under Sihanouk in the 1960s, but what was going on in whose mind when the numbers were given out? It’s almost as if the person behind the conundrum was given a mixed bag of numbers akin to lottery tablets and then asked to throw them on a map of the city.

Where they landed was the number of the street, irrespective of its neighbourhood’s location. I jest, but sometimes you get the feeling that there’s some evil genius behind the numerology of the street system that constantly conspires to make you late for every appointment.

It is not as if street numbers are the only problem in finding your way around. Try the house numbers. Many single dwellings have two numbers and many multiple dwellings have one, but never make the mistake of thinking any street has any house number that is exclusive to one location. Take St 310 for example, which has at least two house number 39s. Or St 178 where the house numbers increase as you head west from the river, then mysteriously begin at number one again as you cross Norodom Bvd.

To counteract this everyday confusion, there are plans afoot for the city fathers to bring rationalisation to irritation and revise house numbering in the capital. We await the results with more than a little interest (or is that scepticism?)

The other parlour game one can enjoy playing is “how far apart?” It relies on the common mistake of thinking that street numbers are adjacent to one another because they are numerologically close. Take St 516 and St 514 which, being even numbers, you might assume were close to one another. According to GPS, however, they are 5.4km apart by road, which is a long ride in a tuk-tuk if you are leaving one location and looking for a restaurant in the other.

Perhaps the whole matter is best summed up by a walk along the riverfront. Sisowath Quay – named after the king who reigned from 1904-27 – was, until the 1970s, a strip of three- and four-storey shophouses linked to the capital’s vital role as a thriving port capable of accommodating vessels of 6,000 tons. The pavements were a bustle of ship’s chandlers selling their wares and coils of tarred rope, provisions stores and shipping agents’ offices supplying ship’s bosuns and galleys. There was also a scattering of cheap diners and several coffin makers, two of which survive to this day.

Those rough and ready days, described by Henri Mouhout, the French explorer who rediscovered Angkor, as a long and dirty floating town, gave it the unruly and slightly shady look of a bazaar. The years have been good to the quay. Today it is a chi-chi and mostly fashionable line of modern glass and steel restaurants and bars.

As is the case of so many ribbon developments in cities around the first and third world, the street where they trade and live has had the habit of changing its name according to political whim, fashion and national pride. So over the years the quay has been Karl Marx, then the Grand Rue before it was christened with the royal hand-me-down name.

Not that the name changes mean a great deal to the city’s motodops and tuk-tuk drivers, who wisely follow the code of street numbers rather than names that seem to change with the weather, or rely on local landmarks to find their way around.

Few people, even those who have lived here a long time, know the actual designation of this most important thoroughfare in Phnom Penh. But yes, logic at last. You have probably guessed it . . . it is St No 1.

And finally, after 26 years in power Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padie Techo Hun Sen is to have a new road named after him. One of the biggest infrastructure  developments of recent years, the 60 metre wide, 9km road will link St 271 to National Road 2 at Ta Khmao.

Before the City Was Emptied

This is what was happening in the rest of the country. A common argument is that the United States bombing inspired many to join the revolution, making the country complicit in the formation of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Operation Breakfast, 1969: In an effort to destroy Communist supply routes and base camps in Cambodia, President Nixon gives the go-ahead to “Operation Breakfast.” The covert bombing of Cambodia, conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American public, will continue for fourteen months.

A bombardment in which American B52s and other aircraft dropped more bombs than fell on all of Europe during World War II. Up to 30% of those bombs failed to detonate.

These are photos by Cambodian-American photographer Khiang Hei:

“Although officially it never took place, between 1964 and 1973, the United States carried out some of the heaviest aerial bombardment of the war along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia trying to stop North Vietnamese Army from using the trail to attack American and South Vietnamese Forces in South Vietnam. It is estimated that over two million tons of bombs were dropped- exceeding the entire tonnage of bombs dropped during all of World War II and the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every hour for ten years. Estimates of the failure rate bombs dropped in the region- that is, bombs that have remained unexploded- are as high 30 percent. To this day, bombshells are still scattered everywhere, and have become part of the present day jungle landscape. Unexploded bombs, ammunition, and mines continue to maim and kill people, especially those who collect the scrap metal to sell to Vietnam and Japan.”

Or those who built houses, click image to go to the original image:

Jalanagara = the City of Water

The original City of Water.
Source: Hok Sokol

West Baray

West Baray