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Magazine Latitudes | Place de la Poste: dare for the square

CAMBODIA 

Place de la Poste:

dare for the square

With MAADS # LivingCambodia

3 January 2017

Phnom Penh Post Office Square has been both emblematic and neglected during decades. Within the rather hectic development of Cambodia´s capital city, this deliciously quaint area is now striving to find its own identity and character.

Once upon a time, the Place de la Poste was the nerve center of colonial Phnom Penh, directly connected to the residential and administrative areas westward, and to the Tonle River just 300 yards to the East. The director of the Grand Hotel was awaiting in front of his really grand façade (now erased by Kentucky Fried Chicken vulgarity) one of the 34 ships flaunting the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine house flag (its Cambodian headquarters was recently converted into the trendy Khéma La Poste Deli Restaurant) to disembark passengers from Saigon, Battambang or Luang Prabang, some prime gigots (leg of lamb) tucked in between ice blocks and, it was rumored, the best smuggled opium around Asia.

Founded by Jules Rueff, an Alsatian Jew who started his astonishing career an obscure corporal in the French Navy Infantry and ended up Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur, the Messageries were granted in 1893 exclusive postal service from and to Bangkok, hence servicing the newly built Phnom Penh Post Office and the Indochina Bank nearby, a gorgeous edifice purchased in 1960 by a Cambodian wealthy family, the Vans, who escaped the Khmer Rouge atrocities and came back to convert their mansion into the classy Van’s Restaurant & Garden Café, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month under the wise supervision of its director, Porleng Van…

But if one can more or less retrace the capricious history of this deliciously quaint area, with its Austrian, French or neo-classic architectural gems and the ebullient Khmer determination to leave scars of the past behind, it is much more tricky to figure out how the Post Office Square can find its slot in an ever-changing capital city where “public spaces seem to be left aside in favor of private developers’ requirements”, to quote Sokagna Hun, a recent graduate from the Royal University of Fine Arts who took part in last year “Envisioning the future of the Post Office Square”, an Asia Foundation urban design contest involving five Phnom Penh faculties of architecture.

Here lies one of the major challenges the city is facing now. Almost all of the projects submitted by the budding Khmer architects and urbanists were leaning toward a pedestrian area, more easily accessed from the fluvial passenger port and riverside. One of them suggested a stunning awning covering a big part of the square, called “The Flying Envelope”. You’ve got mail…

“Eight years ago, we submitted the idea of closing the square to traffic at least for the weekends”, explains Porleng Van, “but the municipality has to deal with a huge surge of vehicles around the capital, with virtually no consistent parking spaces available so far”. Meanwhile, the urban design agency ReEdge has developed a completely revamped vision for the riverbank, connected to the square. Wait and see…

Creating some sort of plaza attractive for visitors and Phnom Penh denizens do require the will power of the municipal authorities, certainly. For the time being, the beautiful Post Office building is disfigured by a row of gaudy ATMs and flashy commercial signs. The Cam Pub Café inside seems designed more as a cafetería for the employees than as a place where visitors could relax while taking in the history of the area. And on the right-hand side, the 120-year-old Police Station has been abandoned to squatters and ghosts, the owner of the premises still undecided whether it should be converted into a luxury hotel.

Meanwhile, modest families have rented parts of the venerable edifices. Small commerces are surviving, Julie 99 at the southern entrance, where ducks are roasted outside, or Apple Travel, a travel agency and souvenir store ran by a living memory of the area, Mr Su Do, who remembers the days after the civil war when he was working with Air France.

While Khéma La Poste keeps its delicacies strictly indoors, the rejuvenated Seven Bright Chinese-Khmer restaurant (known for its… lamb stew!) now boasts an airy corner terrace. And in the outskirts of the square, new trendy spots have developed, like the chic bar Chez Rina or Raqia Republic, a nightclub decorated in a fabulous mix of Croatian and Khmer kitsch, where hip local DJs such as Ah Pink alternate with live music bands.

“Gentrification” would not be the solution for this socially composite district so close to the popular Night Market. Even the elegant twostorey Artisans d’Angkor boutique proudly claims its social commitment. “Behind the silk blouses or the carved wood”, remarks Sokuntha Eam, its manager, “there is our network aimed at preserving and promoting Cambodian craftsmanship, the 48 workshops operating in 12 villages around Siem Reap province, the 800 artisans working with us and whose association holds a 20-percent share in the company”.

A revamped Post Office Square should reflect the social diversity of Cambodia’s capital city, far from the gigantic shopping malls devoted to the cult of consumerism.

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