All the apartments I’ve rented in Phnom Penh have been on streets with a number ending in an eight. There was Street 108 (Oknha Ing Bun Hoaw Avenue across from Freedom Park near the old colonial quarter), Street 258 (Long Nget Street), and the three apartments I’ve had on Street 178 (Samdach Preah Sokun Meanbon Street). The last apartment I lived in on Street 178 was in 2011-12 and was opposite the Nawin Guesthouse, in a five-story apartment block with a footprint just big enough for a staircase and one apartment per floor. The apartment was reached down a lane halfway between Ang Eng (Street 13) and Samdech Sothearos Boulevard (Street 3) squeezed between two hotels. Since then one of the hotels has been renovated and enlarged, and the other has changed hands at least twice.
The lane is across the road from Veal Prah Man Park, now redeveloped and no longer the open space it once was. The lane has a name. I saw it written on my lease, I just can’t recall what it was. The apartment was quite well-appointed. It had two bedrooms and two Western bathrooms, open plan living dining and a modern kitchen. It came with air-con, cable, with the rubbish collection and water charges included in the rent. It was on the top floor, which afforded the best view from the building, but required the most effort ascending five flights of stairs. The lower apartments got to look at the neighbours across the way and got more street noise. I could see the river from my balcony and had access to the small rooftop divided from the building next door by a wall and wire mesh, to protect their washing.
The lane is big enough to drive through. It’s L-shaped but with a dog-leg. If you follow it around you wind up on Sothearos Boulevard opposite the dive shop, near the U-Care pharmacy, which is on the corner of Street 3 and 178. This is the very last block on Street 178 before you see the view of what the French called Quatre Bras, the “Four Arms”, so named because it’s the intersection of the Tonle Sap, Mekong, and Bassac rivers, which form the X-shape, which in turn gave Phnom Penh the name, “The City of Four Faces”.
The Mekong is the longest waterway in Southeast Asia (at 4,350kms), the seventh longest in the world; and in the wet season, the world’s fourth largest river by volume. It makes two of the “arms” by itself. In the dry season the concrete embankment lining the riverside (Rue Grande under the French) displays about 30 steps to the waterline. In the wet season, only about 5 are visible. This on both sides of the Tonle Sap, a waterway probably about 600m wide and filled with the force of water the Mekong delivers. A natural feature of endless wonder whereby one river reverses the flow of the other for several months. A phenomenon it’s possible to witness—the moment the water changes direction. You know the river is high when you can see the river boats from the street, as you’re walking by.
I rented the apartment for USD400 per month. My first apartment on Street 178, a bedsit, had cost just USD90 per month. The second was a standard one-bedroom at USD220. The third was the most expensive, but almost brand new. I had become upwardly mobile. The previous tenant, an Australian, had apparently had his lease terminated due to his night time leisure activities—too much drinking and too many taxi girls—or so I was told. It came fully furnished including linen and had a concierge.
The concierge lived on the ground floor. To get to the stairs, you walked through his living room, squeezing between the coffee table and the couch. His TV was on all the time. Near the stairs inside there was parking for two or three motorbikes. One tenant had a mountain bike there too. I signed a lease for six months with the concierge and the landlord, and parted with two months’ rent, a fistful of dollars. Cambodia is almost entirely a cash-based society with a dollarized economy. The country’s national currency, the riel, is used mainly for small change. Despite there being an estimated 29 different trading banks from a range of countries operating in Cambodia, only about three percent of the population have any form of bank account; which makes for one bank for just 15,000 customers each. Cambodians trust in gold and dollars, not in banks and plastic cards, a legacy of war and bitter experience.
While the concierge afforded the building some security, you got no privacy. He and his family knew when you came and went, as did all the local tuk-tuk and moto riders. At night, if the steel concertina door was locked, you got your own key to tackle the padlock. This usually woke the guy up, or one of his family members asleep on the couch. Having the apartment door shut didn’t afford much privacy anyway as there was a gap in the wood panelling, wide enough to see almost everything in the living room.
When I moved in there was building work going on front and back. When I asked how long this would be going on I got a response accompanied by a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and with the inevitable elastic timeframe. It lasted the whole time I was living there and usually consisted of incessant drilling.
Street 178 being full of hotels also has tuk-tuks lined up down the street, waiting for customers. Many of the tuk-tuk drivers slept in their vehicles, usually in a hammock strung diagonally form the roof. Toilet and shower facilities were to be had in the units installed at Veal Prah Man Park, on the corner of Street 3, and another further east on the corner of Street13. Moto riders took siestas gracefully on their machines.
I had a motorcycle back then I rented by the month from Kieran, a solid Irishman married to a Khmer who had lived in Cambodia for a number of years. Back then he operated his rental business, Little Bikes, near Friends International on Street 13. Kieran was a font of knowledge on local matters, and someone I would’ve turned to for advice, especially if things ever went pear-shaped. One day I found him consoling a Khmer woman in his shop. It turned out her French husband, a junkie who was also dealing to support his habit, had just committed suicide rather than have to face the local constabulary. The boys in brown were demanding money to keep him out of jail, a fate worse than death for some, and it was for him. Another time he’d been to the police station to retrieve a bike the police had seized as ‘evidence’ from another customer caught with drugs stashed in the gasoline tank. Kieran had had to pay them USD400 to get his own vehicle back. “They wanted a grand” he told me, “for my own fucking property.”
Kieran gave me a good deal on the bike. I didn’t have to leave my passport with him, he was happy with a copy of the detail page, and the Yamaha he rented was a reliable runner, not very popular with thieves, who usually preferred varieties of Honda. His wife was a different matter, often charging me more for the month than Kieran who wandered about the place in his shorts. He was built like a prop forward and kept his head shaved. A block layer by trade he also owned a bar on Street 172, but gave that up as like most bars, it made hardly any money and he had not much to do except talk to the odd customer. All that time on his hands was maybe the reason he wound up having an affair with the barmaid which didn’t impress his wife. Sadly, Kieran passed away a couple of years ago leaving behind his young family.
The bike I parked in a secure lot down a drive next to the old villa on Street 178 opposite the University of Fine Arts. In all the years I’ve walked along Street 178 I never saw the large green metal gates to the villa open. Occasionally I’d see a car in there or sometimes people in the grounds, but I wasn’t sure anyone lived there or what the building was used for. The bike park was manned 24 hours a day. Collection was by way of a ticket. You got a ticket when you rode up, and then had to produce it again to exit with your bike. The park probably held about 500 bikes. Now the villa is surrounded by construction work. The motorbike park has gone, now part of the new 15-story Hyatt Regency, which occupies the block all the way to the buildings on the next street, Street 172, the new backpacker mecca.
In a city once acclaimed for its French provincial charm, Phnom Penh has fallen victim to an unfettered building boom that has vastly altered the cityscape. Investors from elsewhere in Asia have poured into the city. The Chinese have also saturated once sleepy Sihanoukville, much to the chagrin of the locals, who now find themselves out of work, out of pocket, and out of home. As Sylvia Lam explained in her 2011 article in the Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review (Volume XXIII, number I) Phnom Penh is viewed as the Saigon of 15 years ago, the Bangkok of 25 years ago, and the Seoul of 40 years ago. Key to the Asian investment activities in Cambodia is property speculation. Phnom Penh however, has no master plan, and despite no formal valuation of property, development proceeds apace. The result is that property per square metre in Phnom Penh is more expensive than either Saigon or Bangkok. It should be mentioned Phnom Penh thus far has avoided—except for the two Japanese-owned Aeon shopping malls, the first development on Sothearos Boulevard and the latter in Sen Sok City—that greatest American contribution to modern urban architecture, the parking lot.
To be fair at least the developers of the Hyatt have endeavoured to retain the colonial heritage on their doorstep, but elsewhere so much of it is being destroyed. A 15-story building on Street 178 is not in keeping with the rest of the buildings on the street which are, in the main, three stories high, aside from the high-rise next door to what was the Sports Bar. The building that was the Sports Bar has now gone. When I first lived in Phnom Penh the bar was owned by a taciturn South Australian named Randall. It had a nice little outdoor area complete with a TV and table service, so you didn’t have to move to watch the match, which was the idea. They showed everything the local expat population would watch: rugby, league, Aussie Rules and real football. I can still recall seeing bemused Cambodians watching rugby. Inside there was a good quality pool table, table booths and where the walls weren’t covered by televisions there were the usual sports paraphernalia you see in sports bars. He even had a large aerial phot of a stadium he challenged me to identify for a free beer. It turned out to be the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, go figure. Randall bemoaned about his Cambodian bar staff. “Cambodian women” he said, “don’t so much eat as graze.” Apparently, they were forever in the kitchen “grazing”. He served Western food, which was pretty good. He later sold the bar to anther expat before its demise.
Elsewhere on Street 178, like much of the rest of Phnom Penh, the city’s rapidly changing skyline has its disadvantages. Gone are the days of an uninterrupted view of the National Museum. In other countries you’d be unable to build high-rises behind such an architectural beauty, but off Street 19 they’ve done just that. Phnom Penh should be a UNESCO World Heritage city, but that bird has flown. Its appeal as a city was as low key and low rise. If you wanted flyovers and high rises you could go to Bangkok. Phnom Penh had style, charm and character. It had history, some of it brutal. Now the brutality has morphed into its architecture or rather, the lack of it.
Street 178 is where you can go to buy silk scarves and other souvenirs like posters and handcrafts, in tasteful shops but at tourist prices, well, for Cambodia. The same scarves can be had from Silk Island but most visitors wouldn’t know that or have the time to get there. Despite it being just up the river and a short ferry ride away, most visitors to Cambodia’s capital stay but a short time, 2-3 days tops. The street has attracted new cafes, and backpackers, the latter overspill from Street 172, which is where they all went after Beoung Kak Lake was filled in and the residents and their guesthouses flattened.
Unlike many other streets in Phnom Penh, Street 178 has retained its greenery. There are a number of mature trees left standing in a city largely devoid of such attributes. The grass of Veal Prah Man Park lends a recreational feel. It’s like an oasis as Beoung Kak was before. Saravoan Techo Pagoda, a complex rather than a single building, and located over about a third of the block between Street 19 and Norodom Boulevard is another. The grounds are quiet, a place of solitude, which gives the impression it could be anywhere in the countryside as opposed to being in the middle of cityscape.
Also on Street 178, at least with the street on one side, is the Lycee Sisowath. The school has its main entrance on the grand Norodom Boulevard and occupies the entire block to Rue Pasteur (Street 51) and bordered by Street 184 and to the north, Street 178. Lycée Sisowath is built in the classic colonial style of tiled roofs, shuttered windows and ochre-painted walls, like others still on or around Street 178. The first time I saw the school it was rather the worse for wear. Now the near bare earthed playing field has been astro turfed, the walls freshly painted, and the rooms air-conditioned. Despite politicians of all stripes proclaiming their commitment to improving education, it is still mainly the schools for the children of the elite, notably Lycée Sisowath and Lycée Descartes, which have anything approaching adequate resources and a teaching body not driven to low-level corruption in order to survive.
As first the College Sisowath, and from 1935 as Lycée, the school slowly developed an educated nucleus of people who might, rather loosely, be referred to as an intelligentsia. The fact there were so few of these by independence, combined with barely a dozen Cambodians with overseas tertiary training, highlighted the shameful neglect of public education , especially above the primary level, throughout the entire period of French rule in Cambodia.
Lycée Sisowath’s most famous alumni included Pol Pot, later Brother Number One (an unexceptional student), who met his wife, Khieu Ponnary, there (her sister married Brother Number Two). As Solath Sar he had started his education at a private Catholic school, École Miche on Street 118, and had lived not far away at his brother’s house on Street 242. His classmates were, among others: Ieng Sary, later known as Brother Number Three; Khieu Samphan, his future brother-in-law and now last surviving member of the Khmer Rouge politburo; and Lon Nol, president of the short-lived Khmer Republic, the government the Khmer Rouge overthrew.
I like Street 178 as it retains many of the other grand colonial buildings the city is well known for. From the back of the Foreign Correspondents Club (no foreign correspondents and not a club), is the old Chinese mansion, reputedly once owned by Prince Rannaridh, the current king’s half-brother, now owned by the Club’s owners and used as a performance venue. It’s still sadly dilapidated, but last time I looked had signs of renovation. Nearby is the headquarters of UNESCO, housed in another wonderful colonial villa, this one maintained in much better order, as you’d expect I suppose from a global heritage organisation with lots of funds.
On the corner of Street 178 and Street 3 is the Bright Lotus guesthouse and restaurant. It’s also a travel agent, money changer and does visas. Next door is the expat favourite, The Rising Sun. It’s usually full of Anglophiles, but a range of barangs go there. Occasionally tourists drop in looking lost, but it survives almost entirely due to its regulars. It was opened by a Brit, hence all the British-themed movie and television framed photos and posters on the walls. Over the bar is a much-faded movie poster of Apocalypse Now, the sun rising in the background behind Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. The Brit sold up to Clive, an Australian, who had served with the UN in Cambodia; he then returned and bought it, changing nothing. A long-time patron (16 years) who knew the first owner told me this was key, “too many people change what’s good about a place and lose the reason it was popular in the first place.” Clive’s Vietnamese wife and her family run the business but are now also looking to sell. Money is tight, and the monthly rental of USD1350 eats up what little they make. I hope whoever buys it also changes nothing.
Some things on Street 178 should remain the same.