See & DoSightseeing

The Architecture of Phnom Penh

Independence Monument
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Architecturally speaking, Phnom Penh is a comparatively new city. Prior to the late 19th century the city was but a few pagodas and clusters of wooden structures along the riverfront. Almost every currently existing structure in Phnom Penh was built after the beginning of the French colonial period in 1863. The oldest part of the city stretches from the Wat Phnom area south to the Royal Palace, and is also where you will find most of the surviving colonial era structures.

‘Chinese shophouse’ style buildings dominate the city, characterized by deep narrow apartments composed of a combined ground-floor businessfront and upstairs residence. Standing in distinctive difference, European influenced colonial period structures are interspersed through the central city. At the height of the colonial period Phnom Penh was reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina – recalling Paris in its manicured parks and picturesque boulevards lined with ornate villas.

The historical architecture of the old city cener may be divided into three broad categories:

1) The ubiquitous ‘Chinese shophouse-style’ structures, some as old as the late 19th century but most later – from the 1900s through the 1960s.

2) Late-19th/early-20th century French Colonial buildings encompassing a range of influences and styles. Early villa-style residences and public buildings display an eclectic mix of European influences. Slightly later structures such as Phsar Thmei reflect the Art Deco movement and other western styles. Also of this period, ‘Colonial Traditional’ style buildings such as the National Museum that draw heavily on traditional Cambodian themes. Most of Phnom Penh’s colonial-era highlights are located within the city center with clusters near the Royal Palace, around Post Office Square and Wat Phnom, and dotting Norodom Blvd from Sihanouk to Wat Phnom.

3) ‘New Khmer Architecture’ of the late-1950s/60s, such as the Chaktomuk Theatre and Independence Monument, built in the post-colonial ‘Golden-era’ and displaying a modern but distinctively Cambodian direction. There are only a few examples in the city center.

For more on the architecture of Phnom Penh check out the books: ‘Phnom Penh Then and Now,’ ‘Cultures of Independence’ and ‘Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970.’

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Pagodas (Wats)
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