Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chruoy Changva- A changing landscape.

Just across the Tonle Sap River from the main body of Phnom Penh city is the Chruoy Changva peninsula.  On the far side of the peninsula is the mighty Mekong river, and the tip of this peninsula is where the two huge flows meet. The Mekong has at this stage flowed for thousands of kilometers from the Himalayas on across the Tibetan plateau in China, skimming by Thailand and winding though valleys in Laos before eventually dropping down to the Cambodian plain and finally meandering all the way to the South China Sea. It is a vast body of water, and its confluence with the Tonle Sap River at this point leads to an interesting phenomenon.
The Tonle Sap River is itself a considerable force of nature, basically the overflow from the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia. While the lake is nowadays a catchment area for many rivers and tributaries that naturally flow into it, it was once a bay. Fifty or a hundred thousand years ago, much of what is now modern Cambodia and Southern Vietnam was part of the sea. A few lonely islands stood out, but south of the Dangrek escarpment lay little more than open seas. Gradually, due to the silting action of the mighty Mekong River, which flowed over this precipace and dropped its mineral bounty onto the salty waves below, sediments were dropped, mud, sand, stones and boulders, which eventually became this country.
The edge of the peninsula is where these two majestic confluences come together. It was a popular enough location during the French era for private dwellings and factories. In the early years of the protectorate it saw a boom and by 1897 it had 15,000 inhabitants, about a third of the population of Phnom Penh at that time.  The opening of the bridge linking it with the city in the early 1960s started a short-lived boom in construction and speculation.
The rivers meet here, but they don’t behave as you’d expect. Although they look to be of similar size where they meet, the Mekong has come much further, and has gained much more weight, so instead of just the usual shoving against the flow of the Tonle Sap River, before breaking off down to the Lower Mekong and leaving the Tonle Sap waters to veer west, down the Bassac channel, something different happens every year and the Mekong starts flooding the whole interior of Cambodia. This basically means that the giant Tonle Sap River changes direction at some time during the rainy season, and instead of flowing out to the sea, goes back inland and inundates vast areas with water. Millions of hectares of flooded woodland and pastures become rich breeding grounds for the freshwater fish that many locals rely upon.
During the 1970s war the bridge was destroyed and the area became a battleground. There was no development of the area until after bridge was repaired in the early 1990s, and it was very slow at first. This seems hard to believe as river-front sites in the area demand premium prices nowadays, but back then nobody wanted to live there, and it was strictly farmland.
The location itself is remarkable, in that it changes all the time. Although the central higher part generally stays the same from year to year, it’s got a point at the tip that in dry season sometimes joins up with an island with some trees on it just to the south. This island usually disappears under the waves for months now, but in the not-so-distant past this wasn’t the case. There was a pagoda built on it for many years, but it was eventually swept away in a flood. At the tip of the peninsula once stood the Phnom Penh Lighthouse, but it’s not clear what happened to this structure. The peninsula has slowly lengthened over the last century or so, and it stretches about a kilometer further south than it did in 1900. This, along with the reclamation of land on the west banks of the confluence has led to a huge amount of erosion on the facing west banks of the Mekong.   
In the early part of the millennium, there were perhaps plans to make a big public park on the tip, and a huge quay was put in with a promenade and classy lighting, but it didn’t last. There was also a huge conference center that was planned, and was half-built, but got bogged down and abandoned, blotting the opposite bank of the river to such an extent that they shielded it in green wrapping in 2007, prior to being demolished. Way before that, what had seemed like a public facility or park was already blocked off, there were ways to get there through gaps in fences and across fields but it wasn’t exactly welcoming. There was an amazing model village down there, a beautiful group of stilted wooden houses, always completely deserted, sterile and useless.
Almost the whole eastern bank facing the Mekong has now been taken up by modern villas along with other private ventures. Most of these houses have at first built a concrete and brick wall around the property, and then filled this with sand to flatten and drain the area. These seem to work fine with ideal conditions but would likely fail quickly if there was a major flood or if they were undermined by currents.
Now the tip has been sold off, and there are large constructions underway there, and a “new city” is planned for the part just north of where the bridge hits the peninsula. There is a second bridge being built just north of where the current bridge is, and the whole peninsula looks like it will be unrecognizable in just a few years.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Independence Monument

This iconic structure was designed by the eminent Van Mollyvann and built in the late 1950s, and inaugurated in 1961. Although it was built to commemorate Cambodia's 1953 independence from France, it has also serves as monument to the war dead. A decade ago it seemed forlorn and abandoned, but in recent years it has had something of a make-over, with new trees and fountains with colored lights added. Unfortunately it was at the same time closed to the public, and is only open for officials at ceremonies. The pictures from its early years show it being a gray concrete color rather than the laterite red we are now more familiar with.  The first picture showing construction is dated 1960, but may be earlier, the second 1961, the night shot is recent and the bottom one is a humorous Christmas card from a few years back. The first two pictures are from: