Wednesday, February 26, 2014

20. Modernism in Cambodia, 1950s-60s

"The New Khmer Architecture" 1960s, Phnom Penh

Without a doubt, the city and architecture of Phnom Penh is one of the urban highlights of my trip. I referred in earlier posts to the rich fabric, still existing in whole ensembles and city blocs of the colonial French architecture (Cambodia was a French 'Protectorate', not a colony, but the term 'colonial' is used in this context) The iconic apartment building architecture, and what I am concerned the type of the French-designed corner apartment building in Phnom Penh, are still very much prevalent, some examples even beautifully, and correctly restored. 

After the independence of the country, for the first time, local Cambodian architects had more and more the opportunity to design buildings in the city, and the country. Of course their studies took them with the help of scholarships to the major architecture schools in Paris. While studying there, the strong influence of Le Corbusiers' building designs and theories was evident, in France and in the world. The Cambodian students must have absorbed his teachings and examples in awe, like the students elsewhere.

Teacher Training College (now Institute of Foreign Languages), Vann Molyvann, 1972

Cambodia's most prominent architect, Vann Molyvann, now in his mid eighty's and after a long exile in Switzerland again home in his city, went also to Paris with a French scholarship, like many others, initially not to study architecture, but law. After the switch in majors and the completion of his architecture studies he returned to Cambodia to execute a number of the country's key projects.

Unfortunately, some of Molyvann's iconic buildings were demolished already, to make space for more profitable, faceless developer architecture of a mediocre-kind. Lost forever are the Preah Suramarit National Theater, Vann Molyvann, 1968, damaged in a fire and demolished 2008, the Council of Ministers complex, Vann Molyvann and Grimeret, 1950s, demolished 2008, close to demolition are several examples of the so-called "100 Houses" complex, Vann Molyvann.

Single-family houses of the "100 Hundred Houses" complex, Phnom Penh, for employees of the National Bank of Cambodia, Vann Molyvann

"100 Hundred Houses" complex, Vann Molyvann

One of my riding buddies is friends with Molyvann's son-in-law and I hope to meet the great old man when I return in December. Maybe he sheds more light on the current condition of preservation of the Cambodian classic modern movement, the "New Khmer Architecture". I hope I have a chance to meet him.

National Sports Complex, Olympic Stadium, Vann Molyvann, Um Samuth, GĂ©rald Hanning, Claude Duchemin, Jean-Claude Morin, 1964

An extraordinary loss would be the demolition of Molyvann's design of the Cambodia National Sports Complex/Olympic Stadium. One can called it more than a rumor that the government considers this stadium a negligible, 'useless' entity, which -most likely- will have to make space for more of the same, a mixed-used commercial complex, whose first phase, named by the developers shamelessly  "The Miracle of Phnom Penh", is currently completing the structural concrete work.

It is not the lack of knowledge how to restore the architectural heritage of the 1950s and 1960s which is to blame. It is the incredible greed of the decision-makers, who sell out to foreign interests. 

Royal University of Phnom Penh, Main auditorium,  Leroy & Mondet, 1968

The "New Khmer Architecture" was not Vann Molyvann's work alone, but also the result of contributions by modernist foreign architects, such as the Frenchmen Leroy & Mondet, Royal University of Phnom Penh, 1968, Henri Chatel and Jamshed Petrigura, National Bank Apartments (now part of the Russian Embassy), and architecture teams from the former Soviet Union (Institute of technology, University of Phnom Penh).

What was once a model for modern, low-income municipal housing in Phnom Penh, is today a venerable slum. Once called the "White Building", the 300 meter long, five story complex on the Bassac Riverfront: Municipal Apartments, Lu Ban Hap with Vladimir Bodiansky, 1963, is today a much altered and added on housing complex which -most likely- will be demolished in the near future.

Municipal Apartments, "The White Building", Lu Ban Hap with Vladimir Bodiansky, 1963

Municipal Apartments, 1963

An interesting example of a new interpretation of what "New Khmer Architecture" could mean today is a narrow, maybe 4.00 meter wide building on prominent Preah Sisowath Quay (Riverside), owned by the personal physician of the Prime Minister. The six-story structure was completed two years ago, still awaits the first tenant (monthly rent for the entire building in this prime location: U.S.$5,000). It is probably very interesting to see the interior, which has several multi-story spaces, only 3 bedrooms and a narrow rooftop lap-pool. I couldn't find anything about the architect but will try some more research.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

19. The Honeymooners

Guillaume and Laure from Paris

We used the Adventure Rider Forum and message board ( to send messages for a while and some three weeks ago, Guillaume sent me a note saying that they are some 300 kilometers behind me when I was on my way down from Laos to Cambodia. I had hoped to meet them in Phnom Penh, but that didn't work out. Now in Kampot, we passed each other on the Bokor Mountain serpentine road, me without noticing them! 

But big motorcycles like ours are rare in this part of the world, so it was only a matter of time that we would meet in person.

In the background Koh Thonsay, the blue waters of the bay of Kep, the mountains are already in Vietnam.

They left Paris in July of 2013, crossed Europe, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, China (in a small guided tour of motorcyclists, using Guillaume's trip planning; individual riders are not allowed in China), India before heading to Myanmar. While I was turned around by the friendly Myanmar border personnel in Mae Sot, Thailand, the two Parisians were the first Western motorcycle in the last 15 years (during the British colonial rule Burma was a top motorcycle destination in Asia) to cross Burma/Myanmar. Prior to their departure from France, Guillaume managed to obtain an endorsement letter and permit by no other than the President, Thein Sein, a former military commander. With the letter -and a military escort, no less- they crossed the "forbidden" country. 

The last part of their trip was pretty much similar to mine, crossing Thailand "the long way round", Laos, and now Cambodia.

Cat painted by somebody in Central Asia on the fairing of the HONDA Africa Twin 700.

The two used for previous, shorter trips in and around Europe (Northern Africa, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Norway) a BMW GS Adventure motorcycle, similar to the one I have but with a smaller engine, yet decided to buy a HONDA Africa Twin 700cc for this "long haul". The HONDA is simply easier to repair and spare parts are more readily available. On this trip they broke already the aluminum frame of the HONDA, and it was relatively straightforward to find somebody to weld it back together.

Now they are here in Kampot. We explored on the motorcycles the area and the former French, and probably meant to be upscale "suburbs" of Kep, albeit never finished. In the evening we had drinks together and chatted about our trips, the evening was long. 

When we met, Laure looks like she just stepped out of an Air France flight directly from Paris, while in the case of Guillaume one can see the demand of a tour like that on the rider. He said that he also lost a lot of weight, and we made him order a second lunch.

I tried to talk them into staying a little longer here, but they are "on a schedule", not self-imposed but as a result of climate. They will leave from here tomorrow morning, cross the border to Thailand in Koh Kong, ride up to Bangkok and back down south to Port Klang, Selangur, Malaysia. From there the bike and riders are flown to Santiago de Chile, South America. 

If they want to cross the Atacama Desert and go all the way down to Patagonia, then crossing the Andes to Argentina, they better hurry, since winter in the other hemisphere is just around the corner.

We exchanged many stories, some great and not so great experiences we both gathered along our route and I hate to see them leave so early. They are a nice couple. This is one honeymoon trip they both will never forget.

18. Krong Kampot

Strolling around town

Kampot is a lovely, quiet town, a two and half hour ride south-southwest of Phnom Penh. Of course, like all towns in Cambodia it is based on a French-designed master-plan. The city grid is rectangular with the addition of three focal points, the roundabouts in "Arc de Triomphe-style", just a little smaller in diameter. 

The Durian vendor, Durian: The King of Fruits.

The biggest, and most prominent one is the "Durian Traffic Circle", with a huge sculpture of the "King of Fruits" in it's center. The fruit is cultivated here, tastes absolutely delicious, but has a distinct foul smell which causes several airlines, offices or hotels in the region to display a 'No-durian sign', a pictogram of the fruit in a red circle, crossed out. Matt Damon in 'City of Ghosts' says to his driver when he loads three of the fruit in the trunk of the car: "Are they supposed to smell like that?" Funny.

The second roundabout shows a sculpture of the "Salt-worker couple"; salt, besides pepper and durian, is the one of the other products of the town and the region. Large salt flats extend from Kampot to the sea border.

Radiating out from the traffic circles are several roads which violate the grid; as a result the town has interesting city corners. A central wide boulevard is a little over-sized but is still a pleasant place to wander around.

The last element of the French city plan is a fabulous river promenade, just as beautiful as in Phnom Penh.

The river promenade, called "The Front"

Kampong Bay river

There is not much to do here, except for watching the river flow by, sipping a cold beer, or cocktail in the few bars along the riverside, or going motorcycling. A few minutes out of town, the river enters the National Park (50 cent fee), and one can swim and spend a day eating, drinking and swaying in an hammock. Wonderful.

As they say: Off the beaten path. Indeed.

Watch for passing geese.

Our bikes at Ganeesha resort.

The famous Cambodian red dirt.

Dennis, his girlfriend and myself took the dusty dirt-roads to a mangrove forest to have a beer at an absolutely unique, stunning place, the guesthouse "Ganesha", owned and operated by the cool Emanuel, a young Parisian and his French girlfriend ( Rooms in bamboo huts, with shared bathrooms, can be had for a little as $10/day.

To get there means crossing people's yards, a Muslim village, passing by a scenic mosque, and waiting until geese and water buffalo crossed the narrow roads.

Abandoned French-designed movie theater No.1

Abandoned French-designed movie theater No.2

There are two French-designed 1960s cinemas in town (St. 700 and the diagonal street to Phnom Penh, but unfortunately both are used as storage or as a car wash. (Movies are shown in town near the Old Market at "L'Ecran", but it isn't a cinema in a traditional sense.) 

Old Governor's Mansion.

Architectural highlights are the old Governor's Mansion (James Caan's house in 'City of Ghosts', now restored), some of the French shophouses on Streets 724, 700 and along the riverside. Architectural-engineering highlight is the so-called "Old Bridge", consisting of various engineering styles and materials.

The Old Bridge

Architecturally speaking, my favored building in Kampot is a piece of classic modernism, of course, the French-designed railway station (CFC, Chemin de Fer de Cambodge). Now defunct, a lonely guard watches the premises, and once in a while a rare freight train passes by. Passenger service seized to exists some ten years ago. (Also featured in 'City of Ghosts')

In the morning I met a group of Cambodian Harley Riders from Phnom Penh who just had breakfast. (, The club now has almost one hundred members, most of them engineers, entrepreneurs and government officers. Bernard, one of them and I chatted about all kinds of things. When I met Bernard after my return to Phnom Penh I asked him how the ride back to the city was and he told me that what would normally take about two hours this time was an six hour ordeal. Some of the riders contracted food poisoning while in Kampot and they had to interrupt their ride every 20 to 30 minutes to throw up or frequent the bathroom! Poor guys!

Kampot prison.

The town has other features worth mentioning: It is home to a prison, a beautiful, large lotus pond, locally known as the "Mosquito farm", hehehe, and the so-called "American Ponds", meaning the numerous round bomb craters (The U.S. forces dropped in 230,000 sorties three million tons of ordnance on around 230,000+ sites in Cambodia between 1965-73.)

Large Kampot lotus pond, called the 'Mosquito Farm'.

The prison is a high-walled French-designed building which has currently an occupancy rate of about 270%, which means without air-conditioning it can get somewhat cozy in there. One has to be good, since staying in this facility will be a challenge, also in light of the daily food ration, which is said to cost about 1000 Riel, for all meals (25 US cents). On a regular basis, there are between three to five Westerners using the facility for their long-term accommodation.

The first draft beer has arrived in bars in Kampot, but my favored one, CAMBODIA beer (Cambodian owned, whereas ANGKOR is Carlsberg and ANCHOR is Singaporean) comes in a can and tastes very good.

Wonderful Khmer food, especially I like the soups.

Food safety education posters such as this one are seen all over town:
1. Do not use rusty cans, 2. Do not use dinged cans, 3. Do not buy 'home-made' conserves, 4. Do not drink expired, warm milk.
But meat is still kept all day at the market stalls at 90+ F degrees, and last week three children of a rural family died  in Stung Treng Province of Bird Flu, since the dad prepared a chicken which died of natural causes; he didn't want to waste the meat, he said.

Last items, odds and ends: 
1. Cats are numerous around here and are born genetically stunted, their tales are. They are not mutilated in any way but born without much of a tale. French settlers introduced them, together with pigeons and sparrows, I guess they are rare, at least the gene pool seems to be small.
2. Coconuts. Of course vendors selling coconuts from carts are everywhere, and a freshly opened fruit is a fabulous drink. However, out in the countryside, also while sitting next to the rapids along the river in Kampot one has to carefully scan the area where to sit; Under no circumstance sit under a coconut tree. Falling nuts claim 600 lives each year in neighboring Thailand!