​The enigma of the Independence Monument | Phnom Penh Post

The enigma of the Independence Monument


Publication date
07 November 2003 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Helen Grantross

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The outstanding Independence Monument is one of the most striking landmarks of Phnom

Penh. It seems to defy time not only in its architecture but in the way it stands

serenely, unperturbed and untouched by the chaos that Cambodia has witnessed since

it was completed.

The Independence Monument at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Boulevards in Phnom Penh.

This magnificent reinterpretation of ancient Khmer architecture was built with modern

construction techniques using reinforced concrete. It integrates the complex proportions

and decorative elements that are inherent to Khmer tradition and transcends these

sources of inspiration into a completely new creation. This is why it still speaks

out as an authentic work of art.

Even if the inspiration came from Banteay Srei, "the jewel of Khmer architecture",

this is no pastiche copy. A reinforced concrete platform supports the monument, founded

on numerous piles that anchor it into the ground. The internal reinforced concrete

structure was "clad" with the external decorative panels and nagas that

are as beautifully proportioned as the seven tiers of the monument itself.

Instead of sandstone it was finished with crushed red marble, giving it a colour

similar to Banteay Srei, though this is just about the only thing they have in common.

Grey Chinese marble was used for the steps and precinct and the "flame"

was ordered from the best French goldsmith.

When we talk of the Independence Monument we think of the stupa at the junction of

Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard, but we must not forget the beautiful naga

fountains, the lotus flower basins and the lay-out of the Boulevard itself that are

all part and parcel of the design built to commemorate the retrieval of sovereignty

without blood being drawn.

Sihanouk Boulevard was planted with trees and plants in a colourful design intended

to evoke traditional Khmer silk and the magnificent flame trees still rejoice us

with their scarlet annual blooming. The urban plan was the work of the Municipality,

under then Governor Tep Phan, who organized a national competition for the monument,

the naga fountain and the lotus ponds.

Campaign for Independence

On November 9, 1953 the official ceremony of transfer of power from France to Cambodia

took place in front of the Royal Palace, thus peacefully ending 90 years of French


However it was not until nine years later on November 9, 1962 that the very symbol

of Cambodian sovereignty, the Independence Monument, was officially inaugurated.1

In his inauguration speech, Samdech Pra Pramouk Roth (an official name for then Head

of State Norodom Sihanouk) spoke prophetic words that ring true to this day:

"My lovely people, the key for building Cambodia and protecting our independence

in the future, lies not in having a big army, but in the unity of our people."

It was unusual, for somebody who inaugurated thousands of buildings between 1953

and 1970, that he did not mention the name of the architects, the engineers or all

those who contributed to its actual construction. Nor did he offer any explanation

for the monument being inaugurated so long after Independence itself.

Why did it take nine years to build, whereas such gargantuan works as the National

Sports Complex were completed in record time in a few years? Who designed it? How

is a traditional Khmer stupa such as this built? What are the various trades involved

in the construction process?

One would think that work designing the monument of Independence began shortly after

independence itself. Vann Molyvann is widely recognized as being the architect but

he only returned to Cambodia in 1956 after completing his architecture studies in

Paris, three years after independence. Somehow it seems unlikely that the dynamo

Head of State Norodom Sihanouk waited for his return before commissioning the design

of the symbol of Cambodian freedom.

The layout of Sihanouk Boulevard in an aerial photo taken during the 1960s. The street design was the result of a national competition for the Independence Monument, the naga fountain and lotus blossom ponds.

What happened between November 1953 and November 1962? Were any other people involved

as certain rumours imply?

Seng Suntheng's name crops up as having been involved. Although not an architect,

he studied at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and already

began work on public buildings as early as 1955 when he was responsible for the International

Exhibition that took place at Wat Phnom. U Som Ol, architect of the Royal Palace,

remembers him affectionately as a good teacher, architect and kindly person. He came

to a tragic death early in the 1960s in a car accident near the railway crossing

at Kampot.

Meticulous research only thickened the mystery as blueprints drawn by Du Ngoc Anh

signed by Ing Kieth2, the first Cambodian civil engineer, were located at the National

Archives, dated March 25, 1957. A picture found in Neak Theat Niyum published in

1961 shows a completed monument in 1957 . If the drawings were only made in March

1957 it seems somewhat unlikely that such an impressive monument would have been

completed within a few months.

Cambodia Today shows the monument in scaffolds in the late 1950s.

Kong Sam Ol, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister to the Royal Palace, thinks the Independence

Monument was not inaugurated until 1962 due to engineering difficulties. The site

had been a prek, a tributary of the Bassac, and the Kaun Kat bridge was found underground

when the foundations were being built. This had created serious structural problems.

In fact, according to Lu Ban Hap, Chief Architect of the Municipality of Phnom Penh

during the 1960s, all the land between Norodom Blvd and the Four Rivers was a wetland

when the French first arrived in the mid 19th century. It had gradually been filled

in over the years and the colonial city of Phnom Penh only went as far as the southern

end of Street 19, where Wat Botum was on the water's edge.

After Independence, dredging of the Tonle Sap continued and infill was used to extend

Sothearos Blvd southwards as we know it today, joining up with Mao Tse Teung Blvd.

A monumental boulevard, Preah Norodom Sihanouk, was created on reclaimed land on

the East-West cardinal axis intersecting with Norodom Blvd.

This is where the Independence Monument was built, sited in the axis of the Phnom,

the symbolic foundation stone of Phnom Penh. But as Norodom Blvd is not on a perfect

North-South axis the monument is perceived in the perspective of the East-West axis

of Sihanouk Blvd with three sides visible at once. Maybe this was not done intentionally

but it reinforces its beauty in a similar way to the Grande Arche at the Defence

in Paris, built much later in the 1990s, which is not perfectly in alignment with

the Champs Elysées.

According to Vann Molyvann himself, the first constructions he was involved in after

returning from his studies in France, were the Preah Monivong monument on Route 1,

completed 1957-1958 and the temporary buildings to commemorate 2500 years of Buddha's

Birth (in front of the Railway Station) in 1957).

When asked about this confusion Vann Molyvann produced the blue prints of a design

dated March 1957 that seem to fit with the engineer's drawings signed by Ing Kieth.

The first time he met Prince Norodom Sihanouk was to talk about the Independence

Monument. The meeting was organized early one morning by Penn Nouth, Prime Minister.

He took him to the Royal Palace where Vann Molyvann was surprised to find the Head

of State still in his pyjamas!

Visitors at the Naga fountain in Sihanouk Boulevard in the years before the Khmer Rouge.

He said the blueprint from the National Archives was for a contractor whose contract

was cancelled. This builder came up with the idea of cross-shaped piles but he couldn't

drive them deeply enough into the ground and wasted two years as a result. Therefore

new tender documents had to be drawn up and by 1959 the structure was completed,

but not the sculpture. He cannot remember the exact date of inauguration and why

it would have taken place so much later.

So what about the rumour concerning Seng Suntheng? Vann Molyvann knew him well as

they even set up a private architectural practice together in Tuol Kork in 1957.

Unfortunately it was not successful as there was not enough private work to feed

it, but Seng Suntheng was certainly talented as is attested by his designs for the

1955 Exhibition and other works.

Kong Sam Ol says the monument was the result of the joint efforts of a team of people;

the designer, the engineer, the sculptor and the builder. In true Khmer tradition

they all played as important a role and Tan Veut, a sculptor and mason from Battambang,

made the job easy, as Vann Molyvann is the first to recognize, by creating a network

of piles on to which was anchored a platform that supported the weight of the monument

itself. Chieng Suon, another sculptor, also worked on it. He and Kong Sam Ol went

to the Floralies in Vincennes together in the early 1960s where they exhibited mouldings

of Banteay Srei. The final construction certainly appears to have been completed

under Vann Molyvann's meticulous supervision.

Other works built by Tan Veut, under the responsibility of Vann Molyvann, are the

stupas in the Royal Palace grounds dedicated to King Soramrith, Queen Kosamak and

Princess Kanthabopha.

These are the facts, as they stand, though they are not entirely satisfactory. What

happened between Independence in 1953 and 1957? Why did it take five years to complete

the drawings of Vann Molyvann from 1957 to 1962? This work is unique in Vann Molyvann's

repertoire. It is the only purely esthetically traditional Khmer-inspired construction

he ever realized. And whereas it is the most symbolically important one, it is not

the work he identifies with compared to the simple Community Centre of Anlong Romiet,

the Chaktomuk Conference Centre, the National Sports complex or the National Theatre.

It does seem as if the monument was completed a lot earlier than the date of inauguration,

but why it was postponed for so long remains a mystery. The Independence Monument

stands with its secret within, or as one witness of the times maintains, "the

enigma can only be revealed by King Sihanouk himself".

1 See inauguration speech in Kambuja Surya found at the Buddhist Institute by Ingrid

Muan, Reyum.

2 Ing Kieth achieved the highest level of engineering qualifications possible in

France, with the title "Ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées".

Today he is Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Royal Government of Cambodia to Japan.

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