Phnom Penh native Danith Vuth studied Architecture and Urbanism at the Royal University of Arts in Cambodia, and has since started to work as a volunteer tour guide, leading architecture tours to raise awareness about the many infrastructure, housing and heritage problems that face the city.
What are some surprising things that travelers don’t realize about Phnom Penh?
Hmm…. I think most tourists really miss the real life, and the local history. A lot of people come and go — they take a photo of the Royal Palace and then go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and that’s the only thing they really know about our country. Sometimes they don’t see the underbelly of what’s happening, or realize there is a lot going on under the surface. For example, they might see the old colonial heritage buildings and not realize that a lot of them are being knocked down.
Tell me about the heritage buildings in Cambodia, and why you are working to preserve them?
These buildings are Cambodia’s history. If we don’t preserve them, then the young people and the next generation won’t understand what happened here. Not only is it a part of our history but these old colonial buildings show a unique side of Cambodia. They show a side of the city that changes from year to year, and it’s evidence that everything in the history books is true. Otherwise, you won’t really know what happened in Phnom Penh during the French colonial time and before the Khmer Rouge.
What’s the current situation with the heritage preservation?
Well that’s hard to say in one word. If you look around at our neighbors, our situation is much worse. A lot of buildings are being destroyed now, every day — both from the France colonial days and the 1960s period. A lot of people from the younger generation has stepped up to try to protect the history and the buildings, though. It is hard but we try to save as much as we can.
What’s your all-time favorite building in Phnom Penh?
Well, there are lots, haha. It’s hard to choose. I guess I’d say the Olympic Stadium. Once you go there, you will never forget it. I love all the 1960s-style buildings and the French-colonial Chinese House. There are too many to count — the Institute Of Foreign Language is another one. Each of these buildings has its own unique style and characteristics. You will know them by first glance, and you feel superb every time you enter the building.
I think architecture can talk to you. It gives you a feeling of the building and tells you about its history without a word. Does this make me sound crazy, haha? But I think most architects will understand that feeling!
What could travelers do to help appreciate these buildings?
In my opinion, taking the time to visit more than just the Royal Palace and to share the information with the world. Getting to know Cambodian history and where these buildings come from. But honestly most people in Cambodia don’t really understand architecture, or know much about it. Or maybe they simply forget the history. There are more and more young people getting interested though, so I think this will help with preservation.
What about the random address system? Seems to be no rhyme or reason…
Again, this goes back to no planning. During 1980-1993, it was first-come, first-served in the city. So if you returned to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge you could pick a place to live and call it your own. That’s why people made lots of makeshift homes in abandoned buildings and churches. It’s a good location to live and most of them are from the province, plus the land price in Cambodia is crazily high.
What are some of the other issues facing the city’s infrastructure?
Have you seen the crazy wires and cords hanging across the streets? It’s very complicated. From what I understand, it started after the Khmer Rouge in 1979. There was no master planning for the city, and now I think it could be too late to rearrange it. It’s actually really dangerous! Then of course there’s plumbing, electricity, traffic jams, the education system. So many things. I hope in the future the city will improve in every aspect.