less romance, more reality
we signed up, last minute, for an architecture tour... of phnom penh, so instead of a cambodian architect taking us, we went with a german woman who works with the project. first we went to their office, in an old colonial building that, like so many of the old buildings, has been divided up into lots of small offices and upstairs residential, where we saw old city planning maps from the french colonial era - 1860's through 1954. there was a definite european area that was surrounded by canals, and could be closed off by sealing the bridges. now most of those canals are filled and are big roads. current city planning appears to be non-existent - build what you can afford, where ever you like. then onto cyclos for a close-up of the buildings and how they are used now.
the french colonial style included some good accommodation for the intensely hot weather and monsoon rains- thick masonry walls, high ceilings, air circulation vents high on the walls, louvered shutters, window awnings, and covered balconies that often surrounded whole sides of the building.
some of the remaining buildings are still intact and are used as government offices, schools, the main post office, and police headquarters. Raffles Hotel has been preserved and rehabilitated to modern standards. but many of the old elegant structures were lost during the pol pot years, and others while still standing, are in jeopardy.. some are currently empty, others are filled with residents, often whole families to a room.
ownership of property in cambodia is tenuous - all records were destroyed by the khmer rouge. when the regime was overthrown, people simply moved into whatever was available. in the aftermath, people were granted title to where ever they happened to be living. but there is no real "title" so the big buildings with many occupants are owned by their inhabitants, or by no one.
one of the buildings we toured is part of a complex of old hotel, church, and chinese buddhist temple. each of the rooms in the hotel houses a family; most of the families cook on charcoal stoves under the portals covering the walkways around the outside of each floor of the building. as we walked by we could peak into the rooms and see people watching tv, cutting fabric on the floor, eating at a small tables, or see kids playing with plastic toys on a mat. the hotel still has its elegant tile floors and beautiful staircases, but in some places the banisters are gone and trash is piled in corners.
the church has been colonized; small homes have been built within the big open space of the nave, and spaces between the church and hotel have been filled in with brick walled tiny houses. doors and windows have been cut into walls, high-ceilinged rooms have been made into 2 story homes. there is a lot of activity in the alleyways connecting all this; people cooking, washing clothes, riding bicycles and scooters, kids playing, old people sitting in the sun that filters through. the current residents have created a vibrant, if not always tidy, in-fill community.
an empty but intact chinese owned building is in jeopardy - the preservation group is urging rehabilitation, but the owners lean toward demolition to make room for a tall condo or hotel project. there is no current zoning or building restriction, and the old city center is now peppered with skyscrapers and projected skyscraper sites.
because there is only vague ownership, and because of the corruption and "money talks" orientation of the government, evictions of residents is extremely common. right now, over 4000 families are facing eviction in the "lakeside" area of PP where a high government official wants to build a new complex, residents were promised $8500 per family for relocation, but the government then reneged, saying that people were building houses just to get the money. sand has been pumped into the lake to force mud into the homes and make then unlivable. other desirable areas have been cleared by bulldozers, not even leaving time for residents to move their possessions. former residents are loaded onto trucks or buses, taken to distant areas of the city, and perhaps given minimal housing, or simply left in an empty field.