With Phnom Penh undergoing so many rapid changes in the current period, with many improvements but sometimes what seems like a huge lack of forward planning and imagination, but then it’s a lot easier to have grand plans when the area is semi-rural.
Back in the 1920s the city was tiny in comparison to now, places like Mao Tse Tung Boulevard were swamps on the far outskirts of town. Psah Thmei had yet to be built, and west of that was still farmland or lake.
Boueng Keng Kang was still an actual lake then, rather than a name for a very plush neighborhood. You can see how it straddled what is now Monivong, just south of the now Sihanouk. The map seems to mention filling in on the east side, and much of the water appears to be actually to the west of what was later Monivong.
You can see the canal in the location of the current Hun Sen Park, and the pond in front of Wat Botum, and although both were kept in this plan, neither would be around for much longer.
The grey lines on the plan indicate existing structures, in a very basic way. The central part of town has some more definite blocks shown in black. It’s amazing to see neighborhoods so specifically zoned off by ethnicity, you can see a European quarter in the north of the city, a Chinese one just below it, then a Khmer neighborhood, and finally, just south west, an Annamite or Vietnamese quarter. There are three Annamite pagodas visible in the nearby area, one looks to be at or near the site of the current Wat Sampao Meas, another was on the site of the future Borei Keila. Just across the road from the stadium is the “Terrain d’Aviation,” perhaps the edges of the airport reached to here in 1925, now it’s about 5 km west.
The red lines show the ambitious plans for the city, most of which got no further than being plans. The sweeping curves planned for the approach roads from the west just don’t exist in the modern area, just grids. There are some huge parks marked out at the edge of Boueng Kak Lake and on the Chrouy Changva peninsula, both predictably close to the areas most populated by Europeans.
You can see a planned bridge at the end of 106/108 St linking with the peninsula, while the canal has been left far to the north where the current Chruoy Changva Bridge is. An industrial area and port was planned for the Mekong side of the peninsula. This idea was still being considered in the late 1950s, but finally the decision was made to dredge a channel for the port on the Tonle Sap that we have today, with the semi-industrial neighborhood of Russei Keo nearby.
An added bonus to this was the creation of about 100 hectares of reclaimed land for what became the Tonle Bassac neighborhood. The Phnom Penh Center, Naga Casino, National Assembly, Buddhist Institute and Australian Embassy all stand on ground that the 1925 planners couldn’t envisage.
Many of the plans seem to have become real, Monivong Boulevard does actually stretch south of Sihanouk now, and the train station is close to where they intended it to be, and a few other features seem to have come to life. It’s a shame none of the parks ever came to much, that’s one thing the city just hasn’t got. There are plenty of well maintained-large spaces between busy avenues, but they are nothing like the huge parks you can roam and forget about city life in that you find in most cities.
I’ve included a map at the same scale of the city in 1973, at the same scale just for comparison. There's a picture of a leafy lane, a road along the Bassac river in the early 1900s, and an aerial view of the city before any of the plans came about.