Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Borei Keila

Not many people stop to wonder about the meaning of place names, some are easy enough to figure out, like Tuol Svay Prey, hill of the mango forest. I never even thought about the name Borei Keila until recently. Nearby is Bak Touk high school, Bak Touk was one of the few original Khmer villages that were in the vicinity of the capital as it first developed. Borei Keila became the local name for a whole run-down neighborhood of dilapidated 60s era apartment blocks, not unlike the Tonle Bassac buildings to the south.
Keila means sports in Khmer, and Borei has various meanings, city, town, urban, populated or center, in this instance center is probably most appropriate, so Borei Keila means Sports Center. From an older, 1920s map we can see that there had been a Pagode Annamite, or Vietnamese Temple at the same location.
The apartment complex was built as a sort of Olympic village, with an athletic track on the grounds at the same time as the nearby stadium was developed on old sports grounds. Because the Asian sports event the stadium was originally built for was cancelled the complex never got used for its planned purpose. I don’t know what happened to it in the period after that, I’d imagine that like the Tonle Bassac buildings it was rented out to badly-paid civil servants. In the 1980s the area became important as the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Health, Prime Minister’s Office, Council of Ministers Building and various other government facilities were located nearby. One of the blocks within the estate became the State Secretariat for Women’s Affairs building for a time.
Many of the blocks were used to house police, soldiers and other officials on the lower end of the pay scales. Decoration wasn’t always a high priority, especially while most residents were struggling and probably trying their best not to stand out. The blocks ended up looking pretty rough, with crazy amateur brickwork extensions, wires and pipes poking out all over the place and a nice tropical coating of moss and plants. It has to be said that it was one of the less attractive areas around town a few years back.
It’s pretty much all changed now, but it’s been slow. Many of the residents of the old decaying blocks signed up to a deal where they got an apartment in one of the new blocks being erected. The new buildings are very much the standard Chinese shop-house style, if a bit higher than usual. This type of building usually has individual entrances rather than the long balconies and hallways common in some older developments, so security is generally better. There was some controversy around the redevelopment of the area and some of the less-fortunate residents ended up relocated to extremely bad conditions on the far outskirts of the city. Apparently their conditions have improved somewhat since an NGO got involved in the situation.
Nowadays, as well as the new residential units there is a new Ministry of Tourism headquarters on the site, along with a new university campus and many other commercial premises. There is a new huge Council of Ministers building nearby, along with the equally grand new Prime minister’s office. Between these new buildings and the recently refurbished Ministry of Defense still lie a few of the decrepit old blocks that used to be common in the area, I wouldn’t imagine they’ll be around for too much longer.

The first picture shows some of the remaining buildings from the old development, the next is a map from 1928 and the last a map from the early 1970s.

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