Many of Phnom Penh’s most cherished buildings were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, but a number of historic sites survived and remain intact. From ancient temples to extravagant palaces, Cambodia’s capital is a treasure trove of architectural wonders.
Phnom Penh’s most beautiful buildings stand as monuments to kings, deities and colonial powers, extending Cambodia’s rich and complex history far beyond the trauma of Pol Pot’s regime. Over the years the capital has built up impressive feats of modern architecture, sending Cambodia into a new era of cultural identity. Here are the 10 best architectural highlights of Phnom Penh.
Anyone interested in history should head to the Royal Palace and adjoining Silver Pagoda. In 1866, the royal family moved from the ancient capital of Oudong to the newly built Royal Palace. The next year, Phnom Penh was officially named the country’s capital. Remaining King Sihamoni’s official residence, sections are open to the public. The palace compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda, named after the five tonnes of silver that cover its floor. Originally constructed of wood by King Norodom in 1892, it was rebuilt in 1962 in its current form.
Founded in 1442, Wat Langka is one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important temples. Established as a sanctuary for the Holy Writings and meeting place for Sri Lankan and Cambodian monks, it is still home to a large collection of ancient scriptures. During the Khmer Rouge reign, temples were torn down. However, Wat Langka came off relatively unscathed as it was used as a storehouse by soldiers. Many of the teaching monks are of the country’s most highly regarded. Guests can roam the sprawling grounds and temples, provided they behave respectfully.
Designed by founding father of the New Khmer Architecture movement Vann Molyvan, the Olympic Stadium stands proud as one of his remaining creations. Built in 1963 and 1964, it takes in the striking lines and sharp blocks that were signatures of the architectural style. Entry to the 84,000-seat outdoor arena is free. It is home to a sports arena and swimming pool, with sports such as boxing, volleyball, gymnastics taking place inside. Astroturf pitches and a running track are also included. The area comes to life at dusk, with locals attending aerobics classes, hitting the tracks or kicking about a football.
Established in 1937, Central Market, known locally as Phsar Thmei, is a unique Art Deco interpretation of a traditional market, with a well-designed dome forming the centrepiece. Initially designed by Jean Desbois, its creation was overseen by French architect Louis Chauchon and Russian-born engineer Wladimir Kandaouroff. It remains one of the capital’s most iconic pieces of architecture and top tourist attractions. Stalls sell everything from jewellery, gems and trinkets to homeware, food, souvenirs and handicrafts. The central dome is surrounded by stalls. This is popular with tourists, with prices reflecting that.
Chaktomuk Conference Hall is another of Van Molyvann’s creations. Sitting on the riverside, on the banks of the Tonle Sap, it opened in 1961 in time to host the sixth conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. The 570-seat auditorium is carefully designed to capture the breeze from the river, with its design inspired by an unfolding handheld fan. It continues to host a string of performances throughout the year, including several traditional dance shows so keep an eye on its Facebook page for upcoming events.
Sitting proudly at the centre of Cambodia’s historic quarter (or French Quarter), the Post Office and many of the surrounding buildings in Post Office Square underwent huge restoration in 2004, taking them back to their former glory. The spacious Post Office was built in 1890 on the small square on Street 13. The huge yellow building once formed the centre of the capital’s administration and financial heart, and is often the first stop-off on archaeological and historical tours.
Neighbouring the Post Office is Van’s Restaurant – an elegant French restaurant that is a stalwart on the city’s dining scene. Acting as the headquarters of Indochina Bank, which was established in 1890 predominantly to serve Chinese merchants and the French, the building was sold to a private owner in 1960. Post-Khmer Rouge, it was used as the State Rural Development Bank, and in 2004 it was rented back to the children of the former private owner, and the French-Cambodian Van family has been running it ever since.
This is another Van Molyvann masterpiece that was completed in 1972 as a teacher training college. Again, carefully designed to ensure air and light flows throughout the structures, the buildings contain elevated spaces with carefully placed daylight and cross-ventilation to eliminate the need for AC. The site’s plan and use of elevated walkways draw their influence from Angkor Wat. Today, it forms part of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, where a variety of languages are taught.
Today, Chinese House stands as one of the capital’s most stylish restaurants and bars, overlooking the Tonle Sap River. Built in 1904 as the home of wealthy merchant trader Tan Bunpa, it served as a trading post at a time when the capital was undergoing rapid modernisation. The last decade has seen it restored back to its former glory, with the lofty building’s upstairs serving delicious fusion fine-dining meals in the evening, while the downstairs serves as a bar, with a tropical terrace as outdoor space.
Phnom Penh is peppered with delightful remnants left over from French colonial times in the form of villas, former businesses and homes. While development means an increasing number of the often-dilapidated structures are being torn down, The Mansion FCC – owned by FCC since 2009 – is evidence of the capital’s pre-war glory. Built in 1910 by a wealthy Cambodian trader, the building has an intriguing history. The Vietnamese Army set up camp there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and it was the Municipal Police Office headquarters for 11 years before being left to decay. In 2009, FCC snapped it up and have used the atmospheric crumbling building and its grounds to host concerts and various events.