Writer Miguel Jerónimo takes a step back in time for a historical walking tour of French colonial Phnom Penh. Photography by Enric Català.
I arrive at Van’s Restaurant in the centre of the old French quarter, a well-preserved building that was once the Indochina Bank – as the interlaced metal letters still proudly announce at the lofty gates.
At the entrance, I meet Jean-Pierre Fréneau, a softly-spoken history enthusiast who greets me with a smile and a suggestion to enter the restaurant. Inside, he brings my attention to a door that is the thick metal gate of an old safe box – making it the best introduction to Phnom Penh Heritage Tour.
The attention to details hidden in the façades of Phnom Penh, the noticeable care carried out for the research and compilation of data, the collection of anecdotes and the personal touch of someone who is well connected and versed, from the royal family to the inner life of the French protectorate that ruled Cambodia from 1863 to 1953, all make this a winning tour of the capital.
And it’s this period the tour focuses on, following the changes the colonial power made to Phnom Penh, from a fishing village to its conversion to capital in 1865 and consequent urban centre.
I start my tuk-tuk journey learning about nearby vintage hotels and an abandoned police station, neglected and covered with lush vegetation, that recently featured in a Hollywood film. The Post Office has stood majestically in the middle of the square since 1819, being the first infrastructure built by the French and setting the tone for the rest of the administrative buildings that surround it.
Some are restored and still in use, while others look forgotten and filled with stories, their stained yellow walls wrinkled by time igniting our imagination towards what once happened inside. For instance, the Grand Hotel, explained to me through the app that accompanies the tour, once welcomed famous novelist and future French minister of culture André Malraux. His stay turned into house arrest when it was discovered he had stolen stones from Angkor Wat.
All the information is given through 24 videos on a well-built app (tablet and headphones provided), available in eight languages. The most interesting feature is the hundreds of archive photos shown that transport guests to that moment in history, giving a taste of why Phnom Penh was once considered the Paris of the East.
The urban designs following the French capital, the Art Deco inspiration in the architecture, the social life of the European elite and the royal family are all chronicled. The tour is a journey through time to a hidden side of Cambodia. For instance by giving access to many private villas through indoor panoramic photos while explaining the story of the owner’s family. It’s a work of love, not only towards history but also towards the city.
“I want to promote Phnom Penh, I want people to stay at least one more night and not only go to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville,” says Fréneau. He and his wife spent two years planning the tour, digging into archives in France as most of the documents were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign.
Me and my patient tuk-tuk driver continue, crossing the old Chinese quarter, which was a primary trade area and housed many Vietnamese and Indian. It is also home to iconic Central Market, which opened in 1937. It also covers the riverside boulevard up to Chinese House, which was once owned by a wealthy Hokkien family. We also stop off at the temple next door, one of the most exquisite Taoist sites in town.
An area that is also extensively covered is Wat Phnom and its surroundings, including historical places such as Raffles Le Royale, National Library, the US Embassy which was the old country club and a destination for the infamous Khmer rock ‘n’ roll parties from the 1960s.
The journey ends in the area around Royal Palace and National Museum, the mansions on streets 178 and 240, the old elephant suites or interesting colonial houses such as the UNESCO office and The Mansion, all supported by information on the architecture and its mix in styles between the East and the West.
Started in January this year, the tour has already welcomed 600 people and is ideal for those interested in immersing themselves in the capital’s colonial history. “The first time I came here was 18 years ago,” says Fréneau. “I fell in love [with the people]. Their kindness, their smile.” More than a work of history, this tour is a declaration of love to Phnom Penh.
The tour runs daily and costs $22. To book, email email@example.com or phone 017 496 213. For more information, visit phnompenh-heritage.com.