Urban Heritage: A Beautiful Future Is Built on a Beautiful Past

UNESCO headquarter building in Phnom Penh. Photo provided.

Who remembers the lovely Tourism services house that was located across the street from Wat Unalum, at the intersection of Sothearos Boulevard and Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh?  This French-colonial style building was razed nearly 20 years ago and where it was located now stands a nondescript building with cafes and restaurants that are part of big international chains. A gem replaced by something nondescript.

Had it been replaced by a beautiful architectural work, we could have taken comfort in this. But no. Just a run-of-the-mill building that in no way deserves to be there, at one of the most outstanding locations in Cambodia and also in the world: the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, known in Khmer as Chaktomuk, or the four faces, and in French as “les quatre bras,” or the four arms.        

We have here a perfect example of damage having been done to the heritage of the capital. We will not turn back the clock—although in this field, nothing is impossible—but let’s hope that Prime Minister Hun Sen recently signing a circular to protect urban public and private heritage buildings including religious buildings, residential ones as well as old homes, will prevent such aberrations from happening again.   

What is at stakes is not only the architectural heritage. This is not about keeping traces of the past: It’s about outlining tomorrow’s urban landscape by ensuring that it will retain its Cambodian uniqueness. Could we imagine having all Cambodian cuisine’s typical dishes disappearing, leaving us with only the “grub” produced by international industrial chains to feed ourselves. Of course not.      

This also applies to the urban environment. As the authorities and tourism professionals are working together so that international visitors will not only visit Angkor Park during their trip, it is essential for every city in the country to have something to show that is nice, characteristic and unique.  Everyone reading this will have in mind at least two or three urban sites where he or she would like to bring friends and tell them with pride: “Look how beautiful Cambodia is.”

One can understand that some people are wondering why keeping those old buildings that are expensive to maintain and upgrade to modern standards. Let’s reply ironically: “You’re talking about Angkor’s temples, I guess.”    

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