Ron Gluckman, 04.02.10, 10:20 AM EDTForbes Asia Magazine dated April 12, 2010
Phnom Penh is one of Asia's most architecturally intact cities.
Photography by Jerry Redfern / Onasia.come for FORBES
Tourism and investment are booming in Phnom Penh, and the Cambodian capital's rich architectural heritage is a big draw. It seems like a city from 50 years ago, the result of the Khmer Rouge taking Cambodia back to Year Zero. The eerie sense of a bygone Asia is a perfect backdrop for the boutiques, galleries and restaurants springing up by the score in the historic mansions. But development inevitably brings demolition. "Every day something seems lost," says Alexis de Suremain, who runs hotels in several historic estates and Chinese House, in the city's oldest Chinese shophouse.
Help could come from Asian Heritage Properties, a fund open to large investors that aims to buy key heritage buildings, restore and rent them out. "Call it social capitalism," says Patrick Davenport, who plans to launch the fund with Douglas Clayton, who runs Leopard Capital, Cambodia's largest investment fund. "It's sad to see Phnom Penh repeat all the same mistakes of the rest of Asia," he says. "But there is still time to try a different approach."
RIGHT:This tower-topped structure often stops traffic along the busy intersection of Street 108 and Norodom Boulevard. One of Phnom Penh's oldest buildings, it claims numerous features that are not found anywhere else in the city. Historic preservation groups such as Heritage Watch put it high on the list of municipal architectural treasures that runs to hundreds of buildings.
LEFT: Largely the residence of squatters and ghosts in recent years, this ornate, early 1900s estate has been a favorite of filmmakers chronicling the war era; bullet and mortar holes are still visible. Often threatened with demolition, it was recently acquired by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Cambodia, which runs a restaurant and bar in a renovated colonial structure nearby. The fcc plans a boutique hotel; guests will have views of the National Museum and the fairy-tale Royal Palace.
RIGHT: The Hotel de la Poste dates to the 1890s, when it was a center of trade during colonial Cambodge's first boom period. The French laid out the neat city grid during this time, and it survives today, providing a rare view of an Asian urban center largely unaltered from more than a century ago.
LEFT: The Commissariat (Central Police Station), from circa 1910, commands a corner view by the Post Office. Shuttered for decades, it was featured in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts. One feature is the late addition of exterior terraces after French troops learned firsthand that the city's screened terraces weren't entirely ornamental but vital for cooling off in the tropic heat. Rumors have circulated for years that it may be reborn as a boutique hotel.
RIGHT: The original Post Office has been in service since the late 1800s, except for the period when the Khmer Rouge blew up the central bank, banned money and emptied Phnom Penh of people. Renovated repeatedly, the grand colonial edifice overlooks a square that is the starting point for architectural tours. See Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) for details and free walking maps.
LEFT: A worker sweeps the terrace of Romdeng, one of many restaurants housed in Phnom Penh's glorious old mansions. Many more mansions are being knocked down as developers race to erect apartments and offices. Romdeng is run by Friends International, which rescues orphans and street children and trains them to work in the upscale Khmer-cuisine restaurant.