Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cambodian Churches

Catholicism never really took off in a big way in Cambodia, the first missionaries turned up in the late 1600s with the Portuguese explorers and freebooters who were the first Europeans in the region. They had little success, in contrast with widespread conversions in neighboring Vietnam, and among the hill tribes of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. There were small missions and chapels set up around the country, and although at one stage at least one king toyed with the idea of converting, Cambodians in the main just weren’t interested. Many a priest spent their lonely days rotting at missions in far-flung villages where they were at best humored or ignored, but never believed.
During more recent years of war and strife, many more Cambodians, especially in the border camps, became Christian. Nowadays things are a little different, and besides the Roman Catholics there are a plethora of missionaries, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other denominations that operate with varying success and often run large operations around the country. I wasn’t so much interested in these modern churches and their buildings, but more with the older church buildings in Cambodia. What I found most interesting was one thing. We constantly hear that during the Pol Pot era all traces of foreign influence, religion and culture were wiped out and smashed, yet here we have quite a few churches which survived intact, often with big crosses standing on their roofs. Democratic Kampuchea was certainly not a country where religion could be freely practiced, even though its constitution stated so, but it doesn’t seem like they were trying very hard to make it or its symbols disappear.
Kiang Khleang Church ( The Carmelite Chapel)
This was the first one I went for, mainly because I had seen it so knew it still existed, and also because on an old map it was directly opposite the next one I wanted to look for, on the other side of the huge Tonle Sap River. The road to it runs under the east pier of the Chrouy Changva Bridge, and it’s quite amazing what a difference a hundred meters makes, because it’s dusty-track and village-style all of a sudden. Then you come across what at first appears to be some sort of anomaly, a church building, with a big cross at the top. The building isn’t a church anymore, but is part of what seems like a well-kept orphanage complex. It has a second level and steps, and a few great murals painted for or by the kids there. Some of the murals have a distinctly Christian message which leads me to believe that a Christian organization still runs the place. The chapel, and a nearby tower and some other connected buildings are all in very good repair, and despite their age have obviously been well maintained. The top three pictures are of this church and the nearby tower.
The Chapel of the Sisters of Providence Hospice.
This sits down a little lane opposite the port. It is completely surrounded by a slum neighborhood, and it was difficult to get a good view of it. It’s a long time since services were held here too; the whole chapel building and all its nooks and crannies have been turned into a bunch of separate living quarters. These are all divided up with light plywood walls, and looking up from any of the living spaces you can see the beautifully plastered old church ceiling. The 4th, 5th and 6th picture are exteriors of this building, and the next one shows the interior ceiling above all the internal partitions. 
Russei Keo Church
The site is easily reached by going through a large arch with “Catholic Church” in huge lettering off the main Phnom Penh to Oudong road. On the old map it has a large cemetery behind it, and I was surprised to see that the whole grounds still existed as they had on old maps. There were a few modern buildings near the entrance, perhaps for teaching and administration, and there was an obviously very new chapel around the back. Not far behind that was a sala-style building. A sala is a type of open-sided meeting room found in most villages around Cambodia. The sala was completely normal if a little small and plain, but it had a big cross on the back wall. Next to it was a stupa, like the sort you can see around any pagoda, a big faux-Angkor Wat cement construction. The funeral urns piled up inside had a mixture of decorations varying between photos of the deceased and Icons of the Madonna or Bleeding Heart of Jesus. There is one huge old French-period building in the middle of the grounds that is currently being refurbished, and it is sure to be a wonderful looking one soon again. There was a big problem though. This was the only church in the area that I had a few really old photographic references for, and it was gone. It was a shame to see that nothing remained of the old church but it was interesting to see that the place still serves its original purpose and is run by the same organization as before. The 8th picture down shows the church as it was in the early part of the 20th century, the 9th shows the unusual Christian sala, and the 9th shows the old buildings which are being refurbished on the grounds.

North Russei Keo Church.
This was somewhere on the opposite side of the Tonle Sap from where the Kiang Khleang church still is. Although old maps show some big or important roads and intersections around this area, the only one that still matters is National route 5, the road to Oudong. Going anywhere off it entails going down a warren of lanes through wild neighborhoods leading to who knows where, and after much effort I gave up on finding this for now. 
Bokor Church
Not in Phnom Penh, but high on the Bokor plateau, this place has been mostly silent since the early seventies. It’s a solid concrete construction, and has a strange lay out where the vestry seems to take up a lot more space than the alter and pews. It was the scene of a battle back in 1979 where Khmer Rouge troops took refuge in the church while Vietnamese soldiers fired at them from the Palace Casino a little further up the hill. Back in its day the church was white, but it has by now developed an attractively rustic bright orange lichen and green moss covering. The 10th picture is one I took of Bokor church at sunset in 2005, it almost looks like somewhere in Europe.
Battambang Cathedral
This was an impressive- looking structure in its day, sitting on top of a hill, but unfortunately nothing remains  today except the hill. The last picture is of Battambang Cathedral sometime in the early 20th century.

St. Michael's Church Sihanoukville
This was built during the Sangkum Reastre era and was designed by eminent Cambodian architect Van Molyvan along with the Father Ahadobery, a Basque priest. The last picture shows this strangely modern-looking church in 1960.


Eric said...

The Sihanoukville Church is most likely St. Micheal's Church
Still exists in Sihanoukville as a catholic church


phnompenhpast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phnompenhpast said...

Thanks, looks like the same one. Its good to see it with some people next to it for scale, I couldn't figure out what size the building was before.

MM said...

Great photos. I once visited a person who lived in the old Port Church in 1997. I was new to Cambodia and it was surreal in a way that is so utterly Cambodia, in a way that I experienced almost daily. There was this old church the middle of a slum, with the slum continuing right inside the church as it was crudely partitioned into cells where people lived.

phnompenhpast said...

Thanks for your comments, it actually took me a long time to notice that church at all as it's quite well hidden. I was working nearby and never noticed it, I only found it when I was looking for the Russei Keo Church in the neighborhood.

António said...

Hello everyone :)

I was searching for the very first Christian Church built near Chroy Changvar...Do you know anything about this? Have you seen that church somewhere there? Nobody could tell me till now where it is...Could it be Kiang Khleang Church?

Warm Regards

phnompenhpast said...

The church in the first 3 pictures that I called "Kiang Khlieng Church" was originally called "The Carmelite Chapel." It's on the east bank of the Tonle Sap River on the Chrouy Changva peninsula, about a kilometer north of the bridge. There's a small road that runs along the bank.

António said...

Thank you for your info,Phnompenhpast.

I've been researching about the De Monteiro,Portuguese descendant family,I have heard that this family had been in the Khmer kingdom since the Luong vek era. They came as Chiristian missionary.The very first Christian Church was built near Chroy Changvar.Quite difficult to get information about this...

phnompenhpast said...

Hi, I know of this family, they have a long history in the country and were involved with the palace. There are only a couple of links I can find by Googling them. The book "A brief and truthful relation of events in the Kingdom of Cambodia" by Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio would be a useful read if you haven't read it already. The Portuguese Catholic area in Phnom Penh was on the west bank of the Tonle Sap, a little north of where the Chruoy Changva Bridge is now. I know that Portuguese names were common enough right up till the 1950s-60s, probably not so much now. I'll see what else I can find out for you.

António said...

Hi phnompenhpast,

Thank you very much again for the valuable information!
I didn't know about that book by Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio.
But for me the most amazing I didn't know is that there was a Portuguese Catholic area! And the Portuguese names...It would be great if you could tell me more about it and the exact location,if possible?
I was researching Tonle Sap Lake and found an interesting photo of a floating church from the Chong Knies floating village...Could it be related?

Do you also have an email or have a page in Facebook? I also have created a group in Facebook called Luso Roots (related to Portuguese culture and descendants),feel free to join if you feel interested...I guess your knowledge on the subject will be very valuable for everyone in the group! Here is the link:

Warm Regards!

Thank you again!


phnompenhpast said...

My email is, I'll have a look at that group and send anything useful I can think of. If you are in Cambodia there should be loads in the National Archives about Col de Monteiro.

phnompenhpast said...

Here's a previous post where I mentioned Portuguese, anyway email me so I can send you further information etc:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Phnompenhpast,
you did a great job of documenting the church.
I wish you take picture of the steps that lead to the Carmlite Chapel.
was it the first church in the area?
there were also a seminary school (all boy school), the teachers taught young people to go into prieshood.
and also an all girl school for Catholic Sisters.
can you note the name for each photo.
thanks again.

Marina said...

Hi...can you show the location of Kiang Khleang Church on the map?