Friday, May 21, 2010
Tonle Bassac Commune
After achieving independence in late 1953, Cambodia was faced with some serious problems in terms of transportation, the lack of a practical port that could handle large vessels.
In the period prior to the French protectorate, King Ang Duong had a very good and straight road built between the-then capital, Oudong, and Kampot which is on a river adjacent to the south coast and the sea. In more ancient times a route had existed between the Mekong delta and the various capitals which came in to being further inland in the Khmer Empire. Obviously this route still exists, but even when ostensibly under Khmer control in the 17th century, Portuguese missionaries noted that it was far from safe, and the mouth of the river was apparently controlled by a treacherous Indian pirate. With control of the delta area shifting to the ever south-spreading Vietnamese in the late 18th century, things became more difficult so the port at Kampot was developed.
During the near-century of the French protectorate, and colonization of adjacent Vietnam and Laos, most trade went through Saigon, Cambodia remained a backwater during the period and saw relatively little progress in terms of development compared to its eastern neighbor.
After independence, which it has to be said was a very gentle transition in contrast to events in nearby Vietnam, Cambodia managed to remain on good terms with the French. As the route from the delta to the Phnom Penh port went through an often volatile South Vietnam, and relations were not always as good as often reported, the new government needed a new route for exports and imports that was not so dependent on external events. The idea of using the Phnom Penh to Bangkok railway, which did actually run a straight-through route for a couple of brief periods, was entertained, but this didn’t get away from the problem of dependence on other countries.
The solution that was eventually put into place was the port at Sihanoukville, built with French aid, and the Khmer-American Friendship highway which linked this once-remote area with Phnom Penh. A railway was later built with Chinese aid, but that’s another story. In the meantime, before the new port and links to the capital were finished, something else needed to be done.
The port on the river in Phnom Penh had only been able to handle relatively small ships, so an Office of Dredging was set up. Their mission was to constantly dredge the Tonle Sap River, both at the port and the area down-river. One of the perhaps unplanned results of this was the creation of 700 hectares of land around Phnom Penh, some previously swampy or flood-prone land, but much of it where there was once a river. Sothearous Boulevard used to run along the river front, if you look at it now its hundreds of meters from any large body of water. All the land to the east of Sothearous Boulevard was actually river up until the late 1950s.
If you study the old maps it also appears that Koh Pich or Diamond Island, was not originally an island at all. It is also land reclaimed from the Bassac River. What happened was that as the Bassac River was filled in to create the land where the parks, casino and new National assembly and Australian embassy now stand, a channel was left between this reclaimed land and the other part. The main course of the Bassac River was changed and cut through the top of the peninsula where Chhba Ampul, across the Monivong Bridge is now. At the northern part of this peninsula you can see evidence of this where roads which were once much longer now suddenly stop and drop into the river.
Part of what was prime, flat, reclaimed land with an unbroken view and breeze coming off the nearby rivers was developed in the early 1960s. It was built around the same time as Olympic Stadium, and designed by the same architect, Van Molyvann. At first it was planned as housing for visiting athletes for the 1966 Ganefo Games, a short-lived Asian alternative to the Olympics,
but ended up more as affordable housing for civil servants. There were two parallel long blocks of five-story apartments. They looked very smart and had nice open spaces with trees around them. Nowadays it is hard to imagine what they originally looked like.
Most current residents would recognize the scruffy-looking White Building, or Boudeng as it’s often called by locals. What many people don’t realize is that the nearby, modern-looking Phnom Penh Center was once its sister Gray Building. Ironically the white building is now gray through neglect, while the gray one is now painted white. Quite different in its original construction, the Gray Building was rebuilt in the early 1990s into the more regular square-shaped office block shape we know today. Pictures from that time show the area having still having many open spaces. By the end of that 1990s this was not the case, and a giant shanty-town had spread out between all around the buildings and adjacent areas. No-one really cared about this land for a long time, it was a dirty lawless slum and continued to be till fairly recently. The area was staunchly pro-ruling party, in a city that wasn’t always reliable in that regard. Any sign of trouble and the Tonle Bassac crew could be relied on to lend a hand. This became less important over the years though, and as investment mushroomed in Cambodia, land became hugely valuable. At the same time I’d imagine that there were decisions made to get rid of many of the slums around town, perhaps because besides being eyesores they were lawless places which a lot of crime in the city emanated from.
The triangular patch of slum between Boudeng and Sothearous Boulevard went up in flames sometime in 2003, in rather suspicious circumstances. Not in any way related was the statement later in the year by the city governor that arson was no longer an acceptable way to deal with disputes over property. The slums around there weren’t actually as bad as they often initially appeared. They had streets, barbers, grocery shops, cafes and all sorts of other businesses going on, and were very vibrant rather than in any way threatening during the day. I only ever went there at night with friends who lived there and wouldn’t have ever wandered in there alone. No big deal, the most obvious difference was the amount of kids sniffing glue around the alleyways; I guess they’d spent all day out strolling in the traffic in town.
It’s all completely gone now, the inhabitants have been moved to districts on the edge of the city, sometimes given plots of land and/or compensation, other times not, especially for those who tried to hang in too long and push for too much compensation, or those who couldn’t for one reason or another prove they had any right to live there. There were promises made to the occupants of this area and other places around the country concerning ownership or rights to stay in homes they had occupied for more than a certain number of years, but these promises later turned out to be empty.
The development of the area has been slow. The adjoining Koh Pich has seen a lot of construction, but other than the new Australian Embassy, not much other than a few new roads have been built on where all those slums once were. Little other than green metal-fences can be seen, with attendant security guards.
The picture of the village militia training in 1993 is by Roland Neveu.
The Cambodian Living Arts picture, one of my favorite pictures ever, is by Isabelle Lesser.