Street 178 in Phnom Penh runs in a straight line west to east from one of the city’s main boulevards, Monivong, and finishing at another, Sisowath, at the Tonle Sap near the junction with the Mekong River. It is bisected by another of the city’s main thoroughfares, Norodom Boulevard – Street 41, which runs from Wat Phnom, from which the city gets its name, to the magnificent Vann Molyvann-designed Independence Monument, and beyond to the main road to Vietnam in Kandal Province. Also called Samdach Preah Sokun Meanbon Street (according to some references but Preah Ang Makhak Vann Street according to the street sign), in keeping with the renaming of the city’s street names in recent times, Street 178 is located in the Doun Penh District or Khan Daun Penh “Old Lady Penh” district of Phnom Penh.
The city’s numeric street patterns date back to 1993 and the United Nations mission in Cambodia (UNTAC), at the time the largest UN mission ever launched. In the older parts of the city even street numbers run east to west while odd numbers run north to south. House and building numbers are less straightforward, the house numbers on Street 178 increase as you head west away from the river, and then commence again from number one on the other side of Norodom Boulevard. During the 1890s, the French constructed a large number of buildings in Phnom Penh, including some of those on or around Street 178, and was when much of the pre-independence street patterns were laid out. The French also divided Phnom Penh along ethnic lines, a measure one scholar described as “designed to accentuate the material difference and social distance between European and native’ and ‘aimed to buttress racial identities through the built environment.’ Divide and conquer and placing race, while maintaining an air of European superiority.
Street 178 was part of what once was the Chinese “quarter” squeezed between the Cambodia quarter to the south of the royal palace beyond Street 240, and to the north above Street 92 which was the heart of the former French colonial administration, described as a “little bit of France transplanted to Southeast Asia”. The Vietnamese then lived separately in Russey Keo district north of Wat Phnom and on Changvar Pensinsula, at least they did until the civil war began in 1970 when they were massacred in their thousands.
Street 178 is lined with three-to-four story shop houses, temples, bars, restaurants, guest houses and some of the city’s best known cultural landmarks and most famous establishments. The street has special significance for me as I have lived in three different apartments on Street 178 going back to my first time living and working in Cambodia in 2006. Each apartment was an improvement on the last and each was in a different part of the street—top, middle and bottom—at a different time each affording an observation of this rapidly changing Asian wonder.
Phnom Penh and Cambodia have changed much in that time; not just in terms of what has changed but also the phenomenal rate of change. Some of Phnom Penh I hope never changes, but I am left wondering where all the development will stop and how much of the city’s already disappearing charm will survive. Every time I return there I find another architectural wonder has vanished. I thought long ago the city should have been made a UNESCO World Heritage site with all those wonderful art deco and colonial heritage buildings to show off, however, rampant development without foresight and the wrecker’s ball threatens all.
The Street 178 I first moved to belonged largely to the Phnom Penh of a different, earlier age. Most of the buildings would have remained the same from the pre-Khmer Rouge years, from the 1960s – the so-called Golden Age for Cambodia and its capital city, referred to as “Sihanouk Time” – and the earlier French colonial period, an altogether distinct time. In the 1960s accounts of Phnom Penh were of Southeast Asia’s most attractive city from the 1950s through to 1975.
Cambodia’s is developing quickly in a region with the highest economic growth rates in the world. There is an argument about who is benefiting from all this development and what the societal costs are but it’s clear that much of the new money is being poured literally into the concrete foundations of the tower blocks emerging in a city once named the “Pearl of the Orient”. A city where its very charm was derived from it being low-key, laid-back, and low-rise. All the buildings used to be just a few stories high with flat roofs, which meant if you climbed upstairs you had an unobstructed view in all directions, how many capital cities can you do that.
The first apartment I lived in was a bedsit studio down an alley in the block between Monivong Boulevard and Street 63. The second was a traditional one-bedroom in a shop house in the block between Street 19 and 13 and the last, a two-bedroom place with a view of the river, was between Street 13 and Street 3, also known as Sothearos Boulevard. All three had one feature in common, they were all on the top floor, which gave the best views but were also incredibly hot, especially the first two being under a tin roof, and the last was just plain hard work as it was on the fifth floor accessed only via the stairwell which generated sauna-like heat.
I have spent much of my time on or around Street 178. It’s somewhat of a focal point for meeting and eating, living and socialising, even for those who do not live there. I have walked up and down it many times. You get to walk on the road as, in much of Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, the footpath is used for things other than pedestrians; usually restaurants and car parking, sometimes sleeping, or for motorbikes but usually motor scooters. Often the foot paths are uneven or sloped and can make for difficult walking, so you take your chances on the road. Parts of Street 178 are one-way traffic but, being Cambodia, few people pay such things any mind.
The first place I lived in on Street 178, and in Cambodia, was a small studio apartment on the top floor of a three-level building owned by Mr Lim, a Chinese Khmer. Mr Lim appeared not to work and lived on the middle floor above the print shop downstairs. I had the front room facing the street with the balcony. At the back of the top level was another room occupied part time by an American expat, who split his time between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Between the two rooms was a shared open-air kitchen area, though I never used it, instead preferring to eat out.
Up the street on the corner of Monivong Boulevard was the Big A supermarket, one of the new, hideous characterless concrete blocks already emerging in Phnom Penh back in the early 2000s. At the very other end of Street 178 was the Foreign Correspondents Club, arguably the most famous “establishment” bar in town, in the colonial era style complete with ochre-coloured walls. Around the corner from my flat on Street 63 was a 24/7 store, the capital’s first, glass and aluminium, and already been and gone. At US$90 per month my flat was cheap, fully furnished including a fridge, a blessing in the tropical climate and came with satellite TV, somewhat of a mixed blessing. There was also hot water, which cost me US$1.50 for the month. The electricity I thought was fantastically expensive and cost me $34 for my first month and comparable to the amount I would pay back in my own country at the time. My neighbour told me he thought Mr. Lim was “tapping” into the electricity, so we were paying for his usage too. I never used the air-conditioner preferring instead the ceiling fan, which terrifyingly broke a plastic blade one evening sending the detached piece across the room like an Exocet missile.
I had got the flat through word of mouth, via my employer, also an American, who knew my American neighbour; and through the Australian manager of the infamous Walkabout Bar, now demolished. Access was down a narrow dark alley at the end of which lived several Cambodian families. This part of 178 Street is full of electrical shops repairing fans, drills and various small electrical appliances, many of which hang from the awnings or are stacked on metal work shelves all over the footpath. So close are the workshops the sounds of the drills were clearly audible and the smell of burning metal from the use of grinders a pungent reminder of the work below.
The shops were often open by six in the morning, even on holidays. Opening is preceded by one or two of the many street sweepers in the capital, green-coated and bearing the insignia of Cintri, the private firm charged with literally sweeping the streets. Armed with long-handled brushes the “brush” made of bound twigs, the noise of these dragged across the road rasps the early morning and following on from the rubbish trucks and their crews means I’m well awake by before breakfast, as the daily cycle is repeated.
Mr Lim was learning English. He wrote his latest vocabulary on the walls above the stairs, the white tiles covered with words and phrases like “accusation”, “delicious” and “hunky dory” with the characters also written in a Chinese language and Khmer. The building had two half-floors, one below the first floor and one above. They remind me of the office setting in the film Being John Malkovich where the characters walk about stooped least they bang their heads on the door frames or the roof.
Access to my apartment on the top level was up the most lethal set of metal stairs I have ever seen. I was constantly fearful of losing my footing heading out to work one day, the angle of descent so severe as to be almost vertical. Sleep was difficult in my room. As the windows had to be open always to help reduce the tropical temperature, the sounds of the street flooded in. In the early hours of the morning Wat Koh, the large Buddhist temple behind the building often turned on loudspeakers usually during public holidays or religious festivals, of which Cambodia has many. For Pchum Bec, the Festival of the Dead, held over several days in late September, there was a street party held outside my building with loudspeakers for two whole days.
Before the street sweepers and the shops opened, the rubbish truck came about 3am every morning accompanied by loud chimes on the vehicle to announce its arrival, much like the call setting on a mobile phone, only much louder. The conversations of the many workers with the vehicle floated up to my flat. Before 6am the numerous businesses on the street level were open. The sun then came up. By 7am on any day it felt like midday.
The rubbish collection is interesting. When I first lived in Phnom Penh I was surprised there was one. There were no bins. Rubbish was and still is piled for collection at various points along the street in small plastic bags. One such collection point is outside my building. During the night the rubbish is picked over by various people who walk the streets searching for anything remotely recyclable they can sell. When the truck arrives what’s left is shoveled by the workers into the truck, the sound of the shovels scraping on the road even more of a wake-up call. At the city rubbish dump, the rubbish is picked over again by the dump’s permanent residents. Poverty driving an informal process of recycling.
The rubbish truck was usually followed by the neighbourhood cats engaging in a screeching dispute ritual, which coming after all the other audible disturbances was the last straw. After that everyone shows up for work, seven days a week, as people here scarcely have time off to call their own.
Being Cambodia, step-through motor scooter riders, “moto riders”, occupy nearly every corner in town in the endless wait for business. The riders on the corner of 178 and 63 Streets, which I could see from my balcony, were there from sun up to way past sundown. There were cyclo riders, the “Whispering Ghosts” used then for genuine transport purposes as opposed to being organised into convoys for curious tourists like now. Bicycles were still seen on the streets and there were far fewer vehicles especially the hideous SUV, the vehicle of choice seemingly for any Cambodian with money. All the traffic moved unfettered by traffic laws or controls, there being few traffic lights to speak of and those that existed were largely items of curiosity for road users. People still drove on both sides of the road and some vehicles, which had been donated by Japan were right-hand drive, while most of the rest, were left-hand drive.
Later during my stay there was the karaoke from the Navy Beer Garden bar which sprang up across the street, so-called because the Cambodian owners grew up in San Diego, California, a major navy town. They fired up the sound system about 6pm and finished whenever it suited, there being no such thing as noise restrictions in this town. I lived so close and the music was so loud, I can hear every excruciating tone-deaf note of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”, in drunken Khmer.
I was one of the few “barangs” living in the area at the time. I got my laundry done by a family across the street. It was hand washed in a basin and rinsed in a bucket. One day I watched the lady of the house do my ironing, with a heavy cast iron heated on an open coke fire. Washing machines were then unheard of and electrical appliances largely unavailable. Cambodians, complete strangers, would smile at me in the street. I used to wonder what was wrong, but they were just being friendly. Children would run out of houses to say hello, the novelty of a European-looking person walking down the street was yet to wear off. Living in Cambodia then was like taking part in an adventure; the sights, the sounds, and the smells. The mundane was fascinating and the ordinary photogenic and you could see it all on street 178.
To be continued …