Friday, October 30, 2009

Bon Om Tuk or Water Festival

Most holidays in Cambodia involve city people leaving towns to visit their ancestral villages, but Water Festival is different. Millions of people from the countryside flood into Phnom Penh for the three days of the festival. They watch boat races, watch concerts and have a good look around, as many don't visit the capital often. The picture shows some dragon boat racing around 50 years ago, I'm not sure where. It is the biggest festival of the year, and celebrates a long ago naval victory and the reverse of the Tonle Sap river among other things. It falls on the 1st,2nd and 3rd of November this year.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A poster from 1952.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wat Phnom

This place is in many ways the centre, or heart of Phnom Penh. The word “Wat” in general Khmer use means Pagoda, or working temple. The word “Prasat” is used for ruined temples which are no longer in use. One exception to this is Angkor Wat, which is sometimes formally referred to as “Prasat Angkor Wat’. The word “Phnom” means hill or mountain, and Wat Phnom is the only hill in the nearby vicinity. The “Pehn” part of the city's name comes from an old story about how the pagoda and city were founded. Apparently a Lady Pehn found a tree trunk containing four images of the Buddha floating in the nearby river. This seems entirely possible, superstitions or beliefs aside. I have often, in various places in Asia, seen statues that have gradually been enveloped by trees, and some of these may sometimes be cut adrift by floods and could then possibly turn up downstream. So these statues were taken to a nearby hill, and Wat Phnom was born, in 1372. I may have read somewhere that the hill was raised quite a bit by the slow addition of buckets of soil, but I’m not too sure. after the abandonment of Angkor in 1431 Phnom Penh became the capital for a brief period, then the capital moved further north to Longvek and then Oudong. Phnom Penh was the capital again for a short time from 1813 till 1834 when it was destroyed by the Thai army. The capital moved again to Oudong, but finally returned to Phnom Penh at the time of the French arrival.
The first picture shows Wat Phnom perhaps in the early 20th century, the plaque you can see was put there to commemorate the return of the western provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap after over a century of Thai control. There is now a giant clock made partly with flowers and lawn in front of the plaque. The second picture shows a rather forlorn-looking Wat Phnom in 1960.
In recent years Wat Phnom has had a huge makeover. Where there were previously some shack-style restaurants and fortune-tellers stalls, there is now a very nice playground and a paved square with a statue in the middle. The pavements around the hill have been repaired, and new drainage has been installed. However, the place still has a somewhat seedy style to it, and is often mentioned in the papers in relation to vice, thieving and other crime. It is probably best avoided after sunset.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Le Pont Des Najas or The Naga Bridge

This bridge on Norodom Boulevard spanned the old canal and led towards Wat Phnom. The canal was one of many that were built to drain the city as it expanded. It was filled in sometime around the mid 1920s and the bridge which was then redundant was demolished. The area of the canal is now mostly a thin park. In recent years a stone imitation of the bridge has been installed, which can be seen in the second picture. The building with the tower which can be seen in the top two images is barely standing now.

Psah Thmei more recently.

The first picture was taken from nearby Sorya Supermarket in 2006, and you can see how the market appeared for many years, quite scruffy looking with a mess of stalls, umbrellas and tarpaulins spread out between the wings. The other pictures were taken a few days ago and show the refurbished building with the new covered areas out front. These look very well and have been built in a similar style to the older main structure. The project was done with French funding, they apparently had some difficulties as the water table was found to be only 6 inches beneath the floor, but it was still done surprisingly quickly.

Phnom Penh Cathedral

This was built sometime in the early 1960s, and was situated on Monivong Boulevard, somewhere about mid-way between where the railway station and Phnom Penh Hotel are now. It was demolished by hand in 1975. Many overseas Khmers, intellectuals and left-wingers returned to Cambodia after the Khmer rouge victory to help the new regime. They were not trusted and were incarcerated, many in a prison that was located at Boueng Trabek High School. Some were set to demolishing the cathedral, which was very hard work as it was built from reinforced concrete. Even in modern day Cambodia this is the normal way of demolishing a building, it's a lot cheaper to get a few guys and give them sledgehammers than hire a machine. Anyway, not a trace of the cathedral remains.

Psah Thmei 1974 & 1960

These are a few pictures of the market and nearby transport. The black and white one is from 1974, at the height of the civil war.

Psah Thmei

Psah Thmei is known in English as the Central Market, although it's name actually translates as "New Market". It was built on what was previously a lake. In one of the aerial views a huge empty lot can be seen where it now stands. I would presume this picture was taken around 1935 when construction started. It was completed in 1937, and has just recently had an extensive refurbishment. It has a quite unique art-deco style, and was built in a way that makes as much use of natural ventilation as possible. In some views it looks like a spaceship.

Phnom Penh 1925, 1928 and 1993.

The first map has no date, but may be from around 1925. The second, much more detailed one has a date-1928 and the third is from 1993. I have scaled the maps and sized them so the main features are in the same places, more or less.
In the oldest map, Boueng Keng Kang shows as a huge lake, or wetland, south of where Sihanouk Boulevard runs today. In the later map, the lake is shown only on the west side of what is now Monivong Boulevard. Saloth Sar lived in this lakeside area in the late 1950s.
The Champ de Courses, or racetrack, is in exactly the same location and alignment as the current structure.
Wat Svay Pape is shown as almost on the river bank. I was aware that most of the Tonle Bassac neighborhood had been reclaimed from the river, but it’s a pretty long walk nowadays to the river from that particular pagoda.
There’s an inlet, which I presume was another drainage canal shown in the area that is now Hun Sen Park, all the way from the river to where Independence Monument now stands. More interesting, is a little lake, adjoining one end of the palace walls. Back in those days it was called Etang Sacre, perhaps it had some ceremonial function. This is where the park with the Vietnam Friendship memorial now stands, and it still has a few ponds and water features which were built around 2008 when the park last got a make-over.
The mosques on Chruoy Changva are shown in exactly the same place as they are now, somehow though the one at Boueng Kak, which was one of the oldest structures in the city at the time, is not marked as a mosque. One map shows Russei Keo church which was largely destroyed in the war. On the opposite bank you can see the Keang Khleang church, a little-known place that still stands today.
The whole west side of Monivong was obviously a lake until recently, and Boueng Kak was originally much more spread out than it later became. The better known canal that went along where the park between 106 and 108 streets turned north just before the point where the railway station now stands. The land drained along there was the later location for the Phnom Penh Cathedral, the French Embassy, and the Phnom Penh Hotel.
One of the most remarkable things when comparing the maps is how the Bassac river has changed course, leaving only a small channel where it used to flow, and carving Koh Pich off from what was part of peninsula that Chba Ampul still stands on.
Edit: From what I've read since posting this, it appears that Koh Pich was formed naturally by deposits in recent decades. It was farmed for some of the year but would be submerged in the wet season. Then more recently it stopped being submerged annually and became more permanent before it was developed.

Phnom Penh Places

This blog will be used to show Phnom Penh, and other places in Cambodia, as they were and as they are now. The city is changing rapidly and I would like others to see and read about its growth, progress and stories. Any readers submissions of pictures or comments are most welcome.