Two books to better understand Phnom Penh’s history and architecture

While Phnom Penh is a pretty small city — its 2 million residents would be quickly swallowed in neighboring Saigon or Bangkok — it manages to contain significant architectural variety, and its manageable size allows for an easy exploration of the city’s history. Two books, King Norodom’s Head and Architectural Guide Phnom Penh, give readers the opportunity to understand more about the city and its unique architecture.

Ever wondered who these two dashing techos are, and why the prime minister so loves their story?

King Norodom’s Head by Steven Boswell is part travel guide, part history book, part ode to a city lost. It includes maps of key locations to assist intrepid explorers looking to follow the stories, or just better mentally placing things seen before.

Architectural Guide Phnom Penh, by Moritz Henning and Walter Koditek, is far more focused on the city’s various architectural stand outs, but has included interviews with experts and residents to try to offer more background where possible.

Together, they provide explanations and background on wide swathes of the capital.

Have you ever wondered why there are two large elephant head sculptures outside the National Museum, where Pol Pot lived in Phnom Penh as a child, or what connects Cambodia with the U.S. Navy’s first prosecution for mutiny on the high seas? Well, Boswell’s book answers those, and many more.

Such as the fact that Wat Phnom once housed a modest French-colonial zoo and the stupa atop was destined to be replaced with a giant Pol Pot statue, thankfully unrealized, or that a famous French looter of Angkorian art was once under house arrest next to Brown on the Riverside in what was a KFC when book written, now a Chinese KTV.

More interested in actual architectural studies? Then Henning and Koditek’s book contains far more detail and some of the old, and new additions to the capital’s skyline.

For many, Phnom Penh’s architecture of merit is bookended by the French. The remaining grand French-colonial buildings near Wat Phnom highlight Cambodia’s colonial history, while the 1960’s concrete creations by the French-trained father of Cambodia’s post-colonial “New Khmer” style, Vann Molyvann, showcase a post-independence creativity and self confidence.

The headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism is built on the site of an Ankorean-era tower, which is still visible if you look hard enough

But that ignores the host of religious buildings highlighting the city’s cosmopolitan history (Vietnamese, regional Chinese, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim all still visible), or some of the 1980s inspired Soviet buildings…and no one can ignore the recent Chinese-funded skyscrapers, of course.

The following description is Henning and Koditek’s reason for why visitors should visit Koh Pich (Diamond Island) to see these new additions to Phnom Penh:

“A tour of the island is particularly worthwhile for those interested in contemporary interpretations of French, Greek-Roman, or Baroque architecture. One might even call it a form of ‘Asian postmodernism’ that blends all these architectural styles together.”

Meanwhile, they do a good job of enticing visitors to the area around Orussey market, whose narrow and chaotic alleys are still home to the original Sino-Khmer community:

“Restaurants that offer authentic Chinese dishes lie hidden in small alleyways, and workshops repairing unidentifiable items with archaic tools open onto the streets,” while offering similar descriptions of the different characteristics of Phnom Penh’s various neighborhoods.

So with the rainy season coming to a close, grab these books and go for a walk around Phnom Penh. Not only will you learn something new about the city, but maybe gain a new-found (or rekindled) appreciation for the place.

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