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The Architecture of Cambodia

Welcome today’s guest contributor James, a fellow architect here at Formus who has researched a topic I surprisingly knew very little about. His research has renewed my pride for my beautiful country Cambodia.


{Phnom Penh Royal Palace, motif seen on many buildings and Phnom Penh Monument}

When you think about the French Quarter, most people think of New Orleans in the States, but did you know there is a French Quarter in Phnom Penh, Cambodia? Not surprising since the French had control over the country for many years. The French not only played a role in the architecture of the country, but claimed responsibility for the discovery of Angkor Wat, the largest religious based architecture in the world. Angkor Wat has also been named as the eighth Wonder of the World. You can read more about Angkor Wat further down on this site. The mystery of how Angkor Wat was lost is not so much a mystery to the locals. It was never lost. Locals in the region knew it was there, they just didn’t want the world to know, who could blame them. The architectural heritage of the entire country was at risk from wars, looters, invaders, and nature.

Cambodia has seen the rise and fall of building construction for centuries. Historical architectural styles present today in Cambodia often have roots that were developed by not only the French, but interestingly, India and China. French we can understand. They occupied the country for a long time, but how did India and China get involved?

On the whole, Cambodia was considered a poor under developed country, yet we have scattered areas of great development which brings us back to India and China. When you look at the earth, you will notice that Cambodia is in the center of a region of heavy trade by sea. For centuries Cambodia was the rest stop for all sea travelers, and in particular, India and China. Without modern technology to power these ships, the sailors had to rely on both wind and currents to get them to their destinations. Sometimes their stop could last for months and often six months or more. The influence of India and China began to show itself not only along the coast, but further inland to cities such as Phnom Penh as it spread throughout the country.

Sea travelers from neighboring islands also played a minor role in the influence of architecture. Scattered throughout the capital city of Phnom Penh you will find unusual architectural gems that have endured the great building boom of 1953 just after the independence, and later the wraith of the Khmer Rouge that tried to destroy all Cambodian history and its people. The Phnom Penh post office plaza abounds with examples from the heyday of Indochina from the Grand Hotel and villas to colonial police stations. Turn a few corners head toward the river and suddenly you’ll find a 120 year old Chinese temple tucked away just beyond lines of laundry drying in the hot sun.

{Architectural principles diagram of Cambodia}

Direct your path down along the old French Quarter, a smart colonial urban design scheme with green belts and there you have the century old National Library {see photo above} with it’s ornate carved wood panels, still in daily use today.

Then you will see the incredible Raffles Le Royal Hotel {see photo above} and various other structures from different centuries. Turn around and you will see the ‘new’ architecture from the boom of 1953 when over 1,300 structures were built in only two decades. The new Khmer Architectural style that is truly Cambodian. What we have in one city is a tapestry of all the architectural history of Cambodia, from Buddhist Temples, Chinese Temples, villas, French buildings, styles from India, the new Khmer architecture, a mix of western architecture creating a diverse blend. An architectural crossroads if you will.

Today, Cambodia is experiencing a new boom, a boom that surpasses any other in the history of the country. See John’s discussion further in this site. A new Cambodia is rising not only from the ashes of war and foreign control, but from within. Groups such as the Khmer Rouge that actually emptied the city of Phnom Penh in the late 1970’s have left scars upon the land, architecture, history and sadly the lives of a great people. Recovery will take time and just as the diverse architecture of Cambodia enriches the lives of millions, so does the people of Cambodia enrich the world and make this a better place to live.


Thanks James! Your talent and kindness far exceed anyone I've met and I appreciate all you've done to help the 30 Days of Hope.

{Big house next to little house, Battambang, Cambodia, 2005}

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