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Architectural tours via cyclo share city’s modernist heritage

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Phnom Penh’s Central Post Office building constructed during the French colonial period, in a 2019 photo. Hong Menea

Architectural tours via cyclo share city’s modernist heritage

Some buildings just appear to be regular old houses or offices to most of the commuters passing by, but in the eyes of architecture lovers and foreign tourists, the buildings designed and erected immediately after the French colonial era are a fascinating piece of Cambodian history. Fans of these buildings can spend hours gazing at them and listening to the descriptions of tour guides.

Khmer Architecture Tours (KA-Tours) was created in 2003 by Khmer architecture students, who worked with foreigners to promote a better understanding of the buildings that went up after 1953, when Cambodia won its independence.

With experience researching architectural sites and training on the techniques used to design and build most major buildings, KA-Tours tour guides are either architects themselves, or architecture students who can tell the story of these structures to tourists.

Clare Hawkes is a visitor who visited Phnom Penh recently. After her tour, she took to social media, saying, “I have attended two of the tours. Both had knowledgeable guides, interesting commentaries, were efficiently run, a good length, and value for money. An excellent way to spend a morning.”

Louise Walter, nother visitor from Melbourne, Australia, went on the 1960s New Khmer Architecture tours and visited three sites; the University, 100 Houses of Vann Molyvann, and the national sports complex Olympic Stadium in July 2019.

“As someone interested in architecture and gaining a deeper understanding of a city, this was a great introduction to some of the architectural highlights of Phnom Penh, and a fascinating history,” she said.

She added that the guide helped her understand the uniquely Khmer approach to the modernist architecture of Vann Molyvann with insights that could not be picked up from any guide book.

Penny T, an Australian tourist, took a tour in June. She was guided by Hun Sokagna.

“A cyclo is a great way to see the city as it is fairly slow. The delightful guide, Kagna, collected me from the hotel and we went first to look at colonial architecture including the post office. I went inside some places I would never have visited on my own,” she said.

“Sokagna was informative and engaged – it is also a good way to chat to a local. I strongly recommend it. It was really worthwhile,” she added.

Sokagna, a graduate architect from the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Royal University of Fine Arts, has been working at KA-Tours since 2016.

She works as a tourguide on the weekends, in addition to her career at Phnom Penh municipal hall.

“I like working as a tourguide as I can share what i have learned about our architectural heritage, like the French colonial buildings or the work of Vann Molyvann. I like to meet new people and discuss the buildings with them,” she told The Post.

Among the older architecturally designed buildings in Phnom Penh, she appreciates the work of renowned architect Molyvann the most – as his buildings were designed to make users feel comfortable.

“I like his building at the Institute of Foreign Languages the most because it has small pools and gardens. When we are visiting the building, it feels cool inside. Both the water and ventilation systems are really efficient in that place. It is easy to tell that Molyvann really considered every aspect before construction began,” she said.

Chip Chanthy, tour organiser at KA-Tours, has more than a decade of experience in the hotel and hospitality industry in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. She graduated from an English-speaking tour guide course in 2013 and began at KA-Tours the same year.

She told The Post: “The tour was created in 2003 for those who want to learn more about architecture, and those who love to explore old buildings. They were a group of 5 or 6 architecture students, although only one remains. The rest graduated and have full-time jobs.”

With English, French and Chinese options, KA-Tours offers cyclo transportation for single guests or a tuk tuk for three guests and a guide. Cars and minibuses can also be arranged for large groups.

“Most of the time we use cyclos to transport guests, as they are the most popular choice. We are proud to support cyclo riders and tuk tuk drivers,” she added.

All profits from KA-Tours are shared between guides and drivers.

“It’s like we are inviting guests to see the architectural work, we are not making a profit,” she said.

More than 60 per cent of their guests are foreign tourists, while most of the Khmer visitors are graduates.

Of the buildings have been selected as highlights of the tour, the Cambodia Post Office is the most attractive.

“When we arrive at the location, we let them walk into the building and we describe its history and style,” she said.

The architecture tour package was formerly divided into three parts: Central Phnom Penh by Cyclo, New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s and Four Religions in Phnom Penh.

“The four religions portion was closed in 2018, as some key buildings were demolished,” said Chanthy.

Architect and guide Sokagna said that tourists should visit and explore the old buildings today, because nobody knows how long they will last.

“If all the old buildings were converted into high-rise buildings, I would not have much to say except “sorry”. I work on a heritage project at Phnom Penh municipal hall which began in 2019,” she said.

She said not all of the older buildings would be conserved, as many were privately owned. This meant it depended on the willingness of the owners.

“That being said, thre are many which are now protected and cannot be demolished – unless they pose a risk to people,” she said.

With older buildings facing gradual loss, KA-Tours plans to expand its tours to include modern buildings.

“We are thinking of developing some new programmes and adding new locations, but it is still under consideration,” she said.

Prior to the global Covid-19 crisis, KA-Tours received 4 to 10 group bookings per month.

“There are fewer tours this year. We run just three or four tours a month. In 2020 and 2021, there were almost no tourists at all,” she said.

Despite the scarcity of visitors, KA-Tours members are still willing to continue, as they feel it contributes to the preservation and promotion of Cambodian architecture.

“The words from our guests that usually stick with me are the ones that urge us to try to keep the old buildings. We are doing our best, and continuing to offer these tours,” said Chanthy.

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