My second apartment on Street 178 was in 2007. I got the apartment through my mate, Kiwi Paul, who I had met earlier that year in the Riverside Bar on Sothearos Boulevard. The Riverside is a corner bar in a grand colonial building in rustic colours with white shutters, unlike many of the other colonial era buildings in Phnom Penh, which are usually shades of mustard yellow or ochre. It was then owned by a guy who said he was Austrian, so people wouldn’t think he was German, but he was in fact, Polish. I mentioned to Kiwi Paul I was looking for somewhere to live and he said the place above him had a sign for rent. It was on the top floor of a three-story shophouse above an art shop. The shop, like many other art shops on the street, sold heavy, dark wooden sculptures, stone or plaster busts of Buddha, which in Cambodia tend to resemble the great monument builder king, Jayavarman VII, and those stylised brightly coloured paintings depicting rural Cambodia life, together with landscapes featuring Angkor Wat at sunrise, sunset and just about all other times in between.
Finding accommodation in Phnom Penh as an expat can be very easy. That’s one of the great things about the place is the degree to which you are able, as an outsider, to slot in and in no time it seems like you’ve been there forever. Places for rent or for sale are often advertised by a sign hung from the balcony, so all you need to do is walk around the streets in your preferred area and keep an eye out. Word of mouth is another way, often through the expat grapevine which is monitored by the far more widespread and knowledgeable Khmer version. As an expat in Cambodia you cannot do much of anything without the locals knowing about it. There is no need for sophisticated electronic surveillance. If Cambodian authorities ever wanted to know what anyone was up to, they just need question the local tuk-tuk drivers or moto riders, together they could provide details of your comings and goings at just about any given time. For some depending on your point of view or state of mind, this may be all too pervasive but for others may bring some level of comfort; but your business to be sure, is never quite your own. As so often is the case Southeast Asia can be a great place for people who are never so bored as when they are on their own shores. Cambodia is often mysterious, can be frustrating, but is really interesting, a world utterly different from their own.
Diagonally opposite my apartment building in 2007, on the corner of Street 178 and 19, was a dilapidated old colonial villa. The roof tiles were in need of repair, some were broken, others had been partially lifted off and some were missing. The ochre-coloured walls were worn, the paint peeling off and the render laid bare. At some stage an awning of scruffy corrugated iron had been attached to the façade disfiguring the building’s profile. The front of the building had become overgrown with a mass of bougainvillea which had mushroomed out over the footpath providing shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. There were street vendors outside, including a sidewalk restaurant with plastic chairs. People were living in the property. They came and went down an alley. At night lights could sometimes been seen inside and smoke came from wood fires for cooking.
Over the years since then, the building has been renovated, the bougainvillea removed, the roof fixed, and windows and shutters replaced. It was, I recall, a Spanish tapas restaurant, then an art gallery. The street food has now gone replaced with a small stand selling leather belts, wallets and bags. Next to that is a coffee cart selling ice coffee, caffeine of choice in the tropics. Across the road directly opposite my balcony, people had travelled in from the countryside to sell watermelons displayed on a blue plastic tarpaulin. They stayed there all day, rain or shine. Some others lived on the street, generations of a family roughing it.
My landlords were a Khmer family who ran the art shop. You would often see them all in there, children playing or everyone eating or sleeping. Come to think of it I rarely saw any customers. There were two doors to the stairs leading to the apartments above; one through the shop and the other at the bottom of the stairs that could be accessed directly from the street when the shop was closed. On the first floor was an expat with his Khmer wife. I think they’d been there a while as they got their drinking water delivered on account, in large 25-litre plastic containers, usually an indication of a more permanent living arrangement. I think I only saw them once or twice the whole time I was living there.
Above them on the second floor was Kiwi Paul. His apartment was a variation on the standard one-bedroom shophouse design. There was a bedroom with an internal window and air-conditioning looking onto the living room and the kitchen next to the door to the stairs. His apartment differed from mine in that the bathroom was off the bedroom, whereas mine was off the kitchen. Apartments came largely fully-furnished, though there may be some cleaning or kitchen stuff you’d need to buy. You get an old television with cable, an assortment of living room furniture, a ceiling fan, random artwork, and a bed from a bygone era. If you were lucky, the bed was comfortable. Despite the white-tiled floors and forming the bottom parts of the walls, apartments are often dark, they being designed to keep natural light, and therefore heat, out. Mine kept the light out, the bedroom was like a cave, no bad thing, but it was unbearably hot. Even Cambodians commented on that.
The intersection of streets 178 and 19 was busy and the traffic noisy. Aside from local traffic, those living nearby, people used Street 19 to avoid the nearby main thoroughfare of Norodom Boulevard, and still do. Today the traffic is more congested as those with money have replaced their motor scooters with SUVs. With all the construction now going on in the area, concrete trucks move about spewing diesel fumes and full-size tourist buses negotiate their way to and from the riverside bars and hotels.
Opposite the old villa and taking up one-half of the block between Steret 178 and 184, down to Street 13, is the Royal University of Fine Arts. The university’s origins date to the establishment of the École des arts Cambodgiens in Phnom Penh in 1917 by George Groslier under a mandate given him by the Governor General of Indochina supposedly to counter the perceived threat to Cambodian culture from the then Siam, and by Vietnam (similar schools were also established in Pursat, and Kompong Chhnang between 1917 and 1945). The university itself was founded by Norodom Sihanouk during the so-called “Golden Era” of Cambodia in the 1960s to ‘preserve and nurture traditional arts’. Like the Riverside Bar, the buildings are a fine rustic colour. Street 13 was once named in Rue Groslier in his honour, and he lived in a house in the grounds of the university, on the corner of streets 19 and 178.
The university is small, a collection of just a few buildings and its students come these days in uniform. The university, like the rest of Cambodia, was closed during the Khmer Rouge era, but re-opened in 1980. Few of Cambodia’s visual artists including musicians like Sinn Sisamouth and his contemporary, and also girlfriend Ros Sereysothea, survived the Khmer Rouge. Those that did used the university to restart Cambodian creative activity. The university I’m told concentrates in one wing on archaeology, architecture and urbanism, and plastic arts, and the other on choreographic arts and music. It trains new artists in traditional art forms and sponsoring performances in Cambodia and beyond, globally. There is a display gallery attached to the university on Street 178. I’ve seen photographic exhibitions in there, some were stunning black and white portraits of Phnom Penh street life, and advertisements for art exhibitions, usually sponsored by overseas donors. These days the footpath outside is taken over by street vendors supplying food and drink to the construction workers on the oversized Hyatt hotel, set to dwarf the entire neighbourhood in another example of Phnom Penh’s lack of any urban planning.
Sharing the eastern half of the street block is another Phnom Penh cultural landmark, the National Museum of Cambodia. The museum faces Veah Preah Man park, Phnom Penh’s equivalent of Bangkok’s Sanam Luang square, where Norodom Sihanouk, formerly a prince and latterly a “King Father” was cremated in 2012, and the annual Royal Ploughing ceremony takes place. The museum houses the world's largest collections of Khmer artefacts in a beautiful building of red sandstone and black gables inspired by the traditional Khmer style. A much smaller museum in replica style can be found in Stung Saen, capital of Kompong Thom province.
George Groslier, of École des arts Cambodgiens fame was a man much given to Arts de Khmer, and designed the building. He seemed to be an exception to many of the French colonial officials. In the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a tale of a South Vietnamese intelligence officer who was, in fact, a double agent for the North Vietnamese communists, the half-Vietnamese, half-French main character described French colonial bureaucracies in Vietnam and by default throughout French Indochina, as staffed by mediocrities, outcasts and misfits, ‘the schoolyard bully, the chess club misfit, the natural-born accountant, and the diffident wallflower’. Colonialism, he inferred and by default Western imperialism in its various forms was, according to even a pro-Western Vietnamese military regime, the realm of the most dangerous being on the planet, that being the white man in a suit. Groslier was born in Cambodia, spoke Khmer, but grew up in Marseille. He returned to Cambodia, travelled widely in the country, and wrote the first book in any language on Cambodian dance. He was a painter, historian, both the architect and curator of the national museum, photographer, archaeologist and ethnologist, a scholar of traditional Cambodian culture. He was tortured to death in Phnom Penh by the feared Japanese military police, the Kempeitai, in June 1945.
Work on the museum began in 1917, the same year as the university next door, and was completed in time for Khmer New Year on 13 April 1920, when inauguration of the new museum was attended by King Sisowath and senior French officials. Two new wings were added in 1923, and it now consists of four wings built around a central courtyard containing magnificently manicured and maintained gardens, and water features.
The museum was largely administered and run by the French until they handed it over to the Cambodian government in 1951 just before the country’s independence in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1966 that there was a Khmer director. During the Khmer Rouge years, the building fell into neglect, and display items went missing or were damaged. The roof caved in, the gardens disappeared under layers of weeds, and the years of abandonment left the building home to the world's largest bat enclave inside a man-made structure. The museum reopened with Vietnamese assistance following the Khmer Rouge withdrawal from Phnom Penh in 1979, though it wasn’t until 1995 that restorations on the roof were finished and the building work declared completed. The last of the bats didn’t leave until 2003.
Outside the museum’s front doors, you can find the only reminders Phnom Penh once had a neo-Gothic cathedral (it was modelled on Rheims Cathedral), the two giant bells, which survived the Khmer Rouge iconoclastic ravages as they were impervious to dynamite (inside the museum courtyard is another, smaller much older bell). The Khmer Rouge demolished the Notre Dame Cathedral, and of the 73 churches in Cambodia, only three survived, not because they were anti-colonial or anti-Western, but because some say as an affront to the Vietnamese, who comprised the bulk of the congregations.
Street 178, to be continued …