Monthly Archives: December 2010

Vann Molyvann in Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church 

I had an ulterior motive for hunting out these Vann Molyvann buildings. In a city as spread-out as Sihanoukville, and with temperatures hovering above 30°C, there’s only so long you can wander around aimlessly. Looking for these buildings allowed me to see the city with purpose. Without them, I would have apathetically meandered down the interminable tourist drags before getting out as soon as possible.

That said, the buildings were well worth seeing in their own right and not just as a reason to get away from the beaches and bars. The first building I saw, a couple of kilometres northwest of the city centre, was St. Michael’s Catholic Church (above), my favourite of the Sihanoukville Molyvanns.

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Roof Detail

The church was built in 1960 and is unusual in that it survived the Khmer Rouge years unscathed – one of only two churches in Cambodia to do so.

 Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Interior

The wall behind the alter allows in light to create an ethereal glow.

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Detail

The back of the church:

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Back 

My next stop took me from Jesus to another friend of the lonely and downtrodden – beer. The Cambrew Brewery (originally SKD Brewery), in the northeast of the city, is where Angkor beer is produced. Built in 1966, the brewery operated for almost a decade before being closed down by the Khmer Rouge. It eventually reopened in 1991.

Sihanoukville Brewery Sign

Sihanoukville Brewery

I asked the security guard if I could step inside the gate to take a better picture but was shooed away.

Sihanoukville Brewery Front

Like many of the Molyvann buildings I’ve seen, the offices are on stilts. This is a common feature of Khmer homes – if protects the house from floodwater during the rainy season and creates a cool, shady area to escape from the heat.

Sihanoukville Brewery Close

The National Bank of Cambodia was harder to find so, again, I emailed Khmer Architecture Tours, who must be getting sick of me by now, as well as The Vann Molyvann Project, an organisation that is creating blueprints of the surviving Molyvann buildings (the architect’s original plans were all lost during the Khmer Rouge years). They sent me directions.

Under colonial rule, Cambodia’s money was printed in France before being shipped over, so it was necessary to build a branch of the bank close to the ports of Sihanoukville.

Sihanoukville National Bank

I don’t know to what extent it is still in use today. There were a couple of cars outside (and a sleeping security guard) but it didn’t look very busy.

Sihanoukville National Bank Back

The design on the building’s facade:

Sihanoukville National Bank Detail

The incinerator for burning money:

Sihanoukville National Bank Incinerator

Staff accommodation:

Sihanoukville National Bank Worker's Housing 1

Sihanoukville National Bank Worker's Housing 2

To see St. Michael’s Catholic Church, head west out of the town centre along Ekareach Street. Take the second right after Canadia Bank, pass CT Clinic, and continue for about 1km. The church is on your right just before the T-junction. For more detail on the church’s history, see here.

The brewery is on road NH4 northeast of Sihanoukville.

The National Bank of Cambodia is next to Holiday Palace Casino and Hotel on Victory Beach. According to a sign on the side of the staff accommodation, they are available to rent.


Kampot & Bokor Hill Station

Kampot Sunset

I spent my final day in Phnom Penh visiting the killing fields (where you can still see bits of bone and teeth on the ground) and the high school-turned-prison-turned-museum where many of the Khmer Rouge’s victims spent their final days.

My tuk tuk driver, an employee of the hotel I stayed in, asked if I wanted to go to a shooting range after seeing the killing fields. Several former military bases around Phnom Penh have been converted so that tourists can fire live ammunition from hand guns and AK-47s and throw hand grenades. Apparently, it’s even possible to buy a live animal – a chicken or a cow – to shoot or blow-up.

The driver said that I was unusual in not wanting to go – at least 90% of British men he gives rides to go shooting. He said he took a group of three Brits a couple of days ago and they spent $900 shooting bazookas. I’m glad to belong to the 10% of people who, after seeing the site of a genocide, don’t feel compelled to fire a rocket at a farm animal.

The next day, I left Phnom Penh for Kampot, a small riverside town in the south. The sun was so bright in Kampot and Bokor that almost every picture I took looks bleached – the pictures below are the best of a bad lot.

Many buildings in the town are derelict or in varying states of disrepair. The old market looks like its days are numbered:

Kampot Derelict Market Exterior

Kampot Derelict Market Interior

A lot of the town’s French colonial buildings are in a similarly run-down condition:

Kampot Colonial Building

The old prison is in better shape than most:

Kampot Prison

From the front:

Kampot Prison Front

Remember to rubber up:

Cambodia Safe Sex Poster

I like Kampot but I’m definitely a city person. I don’t know what to do with myself in a place like this. Once I’ve walked around and taken a few pictures, what next? I’m not good at relaxing. I always feel like I should be doing something else – like I haven’t done the homework that has to be handed in tomorrow. Only I don’t know what my homework is.

Today I kept busy by going to the jungle close to Kampot. It’s not really possible to go there by yourself because you need a park ranger (armed, for some unknown reason, with a machine gun) to guide you. So I joined a day tour. When I bought my ticket, there were eight people on the tour. By the time I arrived this morning, there were 31.

Bokor Jungle

The jungle wasn’t quite what Disney had led me to believe a jungle should be – no singing bears for a start. There are bears – and leopards, elephants, cobras, pythons, etc – but it seems that they stay away when 31 tourists and three guides traipse by. I saw a worm.

It was good exercise though. At the top of the hill is a former French holiday resort with an abandoned casino-cum-hotel and a church. This is the casino:

Bokor Casino

Back of the casino:

Bokor Casino 2

The view of the south coast was hazy but quite spectacular:

Bokor View

And the church:

Bokor Church

Though its at the heart of a national park and conservation area, 140 sq km of Bokor have been sold to a well-connected developer who is in the very early stages of building a $1billion ‘tourist city’ with two golf courses, a 650 room hotel and 1000 villas. At the moment, the only real work being done is on the road leading up to the top. What will happen to the abandoned colonial buildings is unclear. There are some artist’s impressions showing the planned development here.

Well, that wasn’t one of my best posts. I’ll try to up my game next time.

Vann Molyvann Day

National Olympic Stadium

Yesterday I walked twenty kilometres around Phnom Penh searching out Vann Molyvann-designed buildings.

Let me warn you now: this post contains a lot of information from Wikipedia and various Google searches that I didn’t know two days ago. I’m now going to regurgitate it as if I know what I’m talking about. Those who dislike ‘information’ and ‘facts’ may want to ignore the text and just look at the pictures.

Vann Molyvann, the first fully-qualified architect in Cambodia, was made State Architect by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s. After independence from France, Sihanouk kicked off the New Khmer Architecture movement in his desire to create a modern, post-colonial Cambodia – Molyvann was at the forefront of this movement.

Chaktomuk Conference Hall

After visiting the National Museum, I began my day of Vann Molyvann with the Chaktomuk Conference Hall (above) and the Independence Monument (below). Only the back of the conference hall is visible from the road, and the security guard wouldn’t let me in the grounds. There is a picture of the front here.

Independence Monument

A couple of kilometres away is the National Olympic Stadium. The 50,000 capacity grounds were built in 1963-64 for the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (which never actually took place).

National Olympic Stadium Front

National Olympic Stadium Full

It’s a typical example of New Khmer Architecture, which combined Modernism with distinctly Cambodian influences from Angkor design and traditional houses. The main stadium building is surrounded by moats, as found in Angkor structures:

National Olympic Stadium Moat

These staircases are directly outside the indoor arena (which once hosted a concert by Irish pop turd, Ronan Keating).

National Olympic Stadium Stairs 

In the picture below, you can see the commentary box jutting out from the stands.

National Olympic Stadium Commentary Box

The stadium was bought by a Taiwanese company and its unclear what will happen to it in the future. Some of Molyvann’s most famous buildings have already been knocked down and replaced by cookie-cutter Chinese and Korean-designed buildings.

Few people were in the stadium while I was there, but apparently it gets busy in the evenings when people come to play sports after work.

National Olympic Stadium Seats

National Olympic Stadium Floodlight

My next stop after the stadium was the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Molyvann designed several buildings for the then Teachers Training College (the buildings are now used by the Institute of Languages, part of the university). By the time they opened in 1972, Molyvann had left Cambodia, escaping to the safety of Switzerland.

The classrooms look like frogs about to hop:

Molyvann Classrooms 1 Molyvann Classrooms 3

From the front:

Molyvann Classrooms 2

The library (now used by the French department) looks like a traditional straw hat:

Molyvann Library

This is now the university’s English department:

Molyvann Main Building

The next buildings were a little harder to find. I emailed Khmer Architecture Tours who run occasional tours of Phnom Penh (none of which coincided with my visit). They kindly sent me directions. 

Molyvann 100 Houses

The local dog community made it very clear that I wasn’t welcome.

Noisy Dogs Phnom Penh

The ‘100 Houses’ development was built to house staff of the Bank of Cambodia in 1965.  Some of the houses are still in good condition, but some have been altered almost beyond recognition, and others have fallen into disrepair.

Molyvann 100 Houses 2

Molyvann 100 Houses 3

Finally, I went back to the city centre and found the former-Capitol Cinema.

Molyvann Capitol Cinema

Sadly, the achievements of the New Khmer Architects seem to have been largely forgotten. New architecture in Phnom Penh is uniformly awful and there’s little in the way of town planning. This is the National Assembly building:

Cambodia National Assembly

And, directly opposite, is this:

Phnom Penh Peace Book Center 

It’s the kind of building that might be tolerable in an out-of-town shopping centre (where, at least, nobody sane will ever see it) but to build it opposite the National Assembly is obscene and indicative of how little care is being taken to modernise the city in a sympathetic way.

If you want to read more detailed descriptions of Molyvann’s buildings, try this site.


The Chaktomuk Conference Hall is on Sisowath Quay close to the Royal Palace. The Independence Monument, National Olympic Stadium and Royal University of Phnom Penh are all marked on maps and easy to find.

The 100 Houses can be found by following Russian Blvd west past the Royal University of Phnom Penh and continuing until you see a Toyota dealership on your right. Take the right turn just before the dealership and continue straight, past small shops and a market.

The former-Capitol Cinema is on the corner of 19th street and 148th street.

Phnom Penh is Amazing!

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Yes, you heard me right: I finally have something positive to say. Phnom Penh is a really incredible place. I haven’t been this excited about a city since Pyongyang.

Today, however, got off to a strange start. I had booked a boat to Phnom Penh through my hotel and they’d arranged for the boat company to collect me and take me to the dock. I was told I’d be collected at 7am, but by 7:30, the time when the boat was supposed to leave, there was still no transport. The hotel staff were phoning people and I got the impression that there was a problem – but they told me everything was fine and that the transport was on its way. Finally, I got picked up at 8am and was taken to the dock, where I realised that I had been forgotten about, the boat had left, and then turned back especially to pick me up. Every passenger looked at me accusingly like I was a time-wasting simpleton.

Though I was the last on the boat, I got a good window seat at the back. The boat followed close to the left riverbank, and I had a seat on the left, so I was happy.

Cambodia Customs

We got off at the Vietnam customs, and again at the Cambodia customs (above – I think it was the first time that I crossed an international non-EU border without having any kind of bag or body check). When I got back on the boat, a Malaysian girl – a pampered princess travelling with a rich-but-stupid-looking boyfriend – had stolen my seat. I’m embarrassed to say that I was incensed – raging inside as I sat in a viewless aisle seat while the princess sat with her eyes closed in my window seat. I spent the whole journey fantasising about kicking her head-first out of the window. I’m such a child.

Phnom Penh Riverfront 

When we arrived, I prepared myself for the onslaught of motorbike men – but there was no onslaught. There were just a couple of them waiting and they weren’t persistent or aggressive like in Vietnam. I walked down the riverfront (above) and was amazed by how calm and tranquil the place is.  I found a cheap, grimy hotel and went to the Royal Palace.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh Elephant

Look at that sky! It doesn’t seem real. Anyway, the Royal Palace is still in use, so only a few buildings are open to the public.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh 2

The palace has some spectacular metalwork:

Royal Palace Phnom Penh Gate

By now it was about 4pm and I hadn’t had anything to eat other than a roll for breakfast. It was baking hot and I was feeling dizzy so I went to look for something to eat and, by chance, came across a vegetarian restaurant called Evergreen that I’d read about online. This is stir-fried noodles with ‘intestines’ and a side order of ‘meat’ balls:

Phnom Penh Vegetarian Food

After supper, I found ‘Psar Thmei’ – the huge domed art-deco central market.

Psar Thmei Central Market 

It was very civilized. Nobody shouted at me or grabbed my clothing.

Psar Thmei Central Market Interior

And that’s about it for my first day in Phnom Penh. I haven’t seen much of the city yet but what I have seen has made a very good impression. I don’t want to paint a distorted picture – walking down some of the narrow backstreets made it very clear that a lot of people here are living in real poverty. I’ll try to write something a little more balanced once I’ve seen more of the place.

The Worst of Vietnam

I’ve written about my favourite Vietnamese things – now here are some of the things I disliked most about Vietnam.

Hoi An

Hoi An Brown Water

Hoi An reminded me of Lijiang in that it’s essentially a low-key but attractive ancient town that has had all the charm beaten out of it by the tourist industry.

There were so many white people on the streets that you’d think it was still a colony. The town is stuffed with tailors, bars and restaurants – in fact, just about everything in the old part of town is aimed at tourists, with barely any signs of non-tourist life.

Hoi An Tourists

I think that, as a general rule, when there are more tourists than residents on the streets, it’s not a place worth going to. It’s Disneyland.

Motorbike Men

Motorbike Man

Vietnam’s cities (particularly Hanoi) are tough to walk around. At every turn there’s a man with a motorbike who shouts and sometimes follows you. I feel sorry for them – waiting all day on street corners for someone to hire them – but they quickly sap your energy.

You cross the road, picking your way through the streams of motorbikes flowing around you and then you hear ‘AY! AY!’ shouted at full volume ‘AY! MOTORBIKE! WHERE YOU GOING?’ It’s win-win for them. Maybe you hire them. Maybe they shock you enough that you make a wrong move and get mowed down by traffic. Win-win.

And it’s not just the motorbike men who bother you. You spend every day saying ‘no’. No, I don’t need a lift. No, i don’t need a taxi. No, I don’t want to eat in your restaurant. No, I don’t want to buy a painting. No, I don’t want to give you money. No, I don’t want any marijuana. No, I don’t want a prostitute.

Vietnam is a great place to come if you like to spend your time shouting ‘no’ at poor people.


Vietnam DMZ Airstrip

I’ve been slightly spoiled by seeing the still-active Korean DMZ from both the North and the South. Compared to that, the Vietnam DMZ is nothing. It’s aggressively promoted as a top tourist spot, but there’s nothing to see, nothing to do, and not even a good-quality museum. There are plenty of captured and abandoned US military vehicles (but they are a common sight across Vietnam anyway), a bit of Agent Orange damage, and a few memorials. The former US airstrip (above) was probably the most interesting thing there. The ‘War Remnants’ museum in Saigon is a much better place to learn about the Vietnam war (despite its overly wordy displays, incomprehensible documentary and one-sided recounting of history).

North and South Korea, I salute your commitment to maintaining the Korean DMZ as a world-class tourist attraction. Long may it continue!


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The most disappointing thing about Hanoi is that it’s beautiful – with well-kept colonial buildings, attractive lakes and parks and some interesting sights like Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (above) –  but it’s so hard to enjoy. That’s mostly because of the relentless shouts from Motorbike Men, the narrow, claustrophobic streets,  and the awful, dreaded zombie hordes of…

Western Tourists

Cyclo Tourists in Hoi An

As a tourist, I can’t reasonably complain about there being too many other tourists. What did I expect – that Vietnam would close the borders to offer me exclusive access? I’m not David Beckham visiting a Gucci store. But the sheer volume of tourists, and the way that every major place-of-interest is adapted and mediated to suit their (our) needs, sucks away any sense of adventure.

I skipped a lot of the most famous places in Vietnam, like Halong Bay, Mekong Delta boat trips and Sapa, because, after Hanoi, I couldn’t face stepping onto the coach tour conveyor belt. And when I did step on, it was usually a disappointment. This is the ancient temple at My Son. It looks nice, doesn’t it?

My Son

That picture was taken during the split second between one person walking out of shot, and a tour group walking in. This is a more honest picture:

My Son Tourists

Bloody foreigners.

The Best of Vietnam

I haven’t written much about Vietnam. I was a bit of a zombie for a while, just going through the motions and following a very well trodden path down the coast. I’ll give some reasons for my apathy in the next post.

In the meantime, here are some of my favourite things about Vietnam. Actually, I’ve already written about my very favourite Vietnam experiences: the Cao Dai temples, Phat Diem Cathedral and the propaganda posters. But these are some other highlights:


Saigon Notre Dame

As in every Asian country I’ve been to (including North Korea) there were plenty of soon-to-be-married couples throughout Vietnam having their wedding photos taken in front of attractive landmarks. And Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has plenty of attractive landmarks to choose from. Notre-Dame cathedral, in the picture above, is one of the most popular.

Whereas Hanoi’s colonial architecture is largely intact, Saigon has seen a lot of its past bulldozered. Yet, the city has a better atmosphere than the capital. As a tourist, you don’t feel quite as ghettoized as in Hanoi – you can just be a person in a city rather than a tourist on a sightseeing conveyor belt.

The Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnam Presidential Palace) was one of my favourite places.

Saigon Reunification Palace

Apparently, it’s been left more-or-less untouched since the South Vietnamese government vacated the premises. In the palace library, you can see an unusual mix of books on the shelves including ‘Planning and Operating Motels and Motor Hotels’, a book by Prince Charles’ friend Laurens van der Post and, most inexplicably of all, a Christian comic book called ‘Hansi: the Girl who Loved the Swastika’ by Maria Anne Hirschmann, which is included in this list of ‘The 10 Most Bizarre Comic Books’ after ‘Amputee Love’ but before ‘Tales of The Leather Nun’. The whole book is online here.

When South Vietnam’s leaders weren’t reading comics about Nazi schoolgirls finding Jesus, they went to the private cinema or had a cocktail in this very 60s lounge:

Saigon Reunification Palace Lounge

Saigon’s other big attraction is the War Remnants Museum. It houses a photo collection illustrating war atrocities committed by the Americans. It was interesting but there are only so many pictures of babies with deformed heads, babies with deformed genitals and babies with deformed limbs that I need to see before I concede that dropping tons of Agent Orange across the country was a terrible thing to do. Obviously, the museum had nothing to say about war crimes committed by the North Vietnamese.

Saigon was scorching hot for the first couple of days I was there but, despite the heat, the city was probably my favourite in Vietnam.

Low prices

I arrived in Danang just as rain started pouring down. I was tired and had a splitting headache after a noisy bus journey. So, instead of shopping around for a cheap hotel, I just stayed in the first place I saw.

Danang Louis Hotel

OK, it’s pretty tacky – but there can’t be many places in the world where you can stay in a room like that – with cable TV, wifi, power shower and aircon –  for $18 a night.

I’ve stayed in double or twin rooms, always en suite, never too shabby, and, apart from that one night, paid between $7 and $12. Food is cheap, draft beer is as low as 5 pence a glass, transport – even by taxi – is reasonable. I guess I’m spending half as much each day as I did in China.

One thing I’d do differently if I were rich is hire a car and driver, as it’s quite difficult to get to the countryside without your own transportation (actually, you wouldn’t need to be rich to that – it would be possible even on a modest budget).

Art Deco-ish Buildings

I’m not sure that they’re truly Art Deco – they certainly aren’t opulent or ornate – but these buildings have curves, colours and corners that are at least reminiscent of Deco. The train station in Thanh Hoa reminds me of a Bakelite radio:

Thanh Hoa Train Station Bakelite Radio 

This building (a cinema?) in Quy Nhon needs a lick of paint, but I love the globe on the roof and the elongated semi-circle design under the balcony:

Quy Nhon Cinema

Even in the most deprived areas, there is always some unusual architecture to be found in Vietnam.


Hue Citadel Entrance

I wasn’t excited about going to Hue – it had ‘tourist nightmare’ written all over it – but I was very pleasantly surprised. The main attraction is the Imperial Citadel (above) which was built in the early 19th century by emperor Gia Long.

Hue Citadel Moat

Many buildings within the citadel were destroyed by bombs and massive rebuilding work and renovation is currently underway. The rebuilt parts look very unattractive – too new and too perfect. I’m glad I saw it while it’s partially in ruins, as I don’t hold out much hope for the ‘new and improved’ version.

The decoration on the buildings is made from a mosaic of smashed ceramic.

Hue Citadel

I stayed in the copyright-infringing  ‘Google Hotel’ and, when not visiting the ancient citadel, spent my time in Hue eating fake meat from the supermarket and dodging the ‘motorbike men’ who prey on you every time you leave the hotel. I’ll write some more about them in my next post.

Chau Doc’s Riverfront

Chau Doc Riverfront 

As I said in the previous post, Chau Doc is not a town I want to spend any time in. I’m just waiting for the boat to Phnom Penh tomorrow.

The most interesting thing about the place is the riverfront. When I went to have a look, I was followed by two men who wanted me to go on a boat tour. They refused to leave me alone – one of them got his two young daughters to pull at my clothing and shout ‘boat, boat’ – so I left after a few minutes. The annoying thing is that I would have quite liked to go on a boat to get a closer look at the floating shanty town. But I can’t bear being pestered and I didn’t want to reward their efforts.

Along the side of the river, there are houses on stilts:

Chau Doc Riverfront Stilts 

If I lived in a decrepit corrugated metal hut perilously hanging over a riverbank, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about pestering pampered tourists for a few dollars – so I can’t really criticise the touts too strongly. There are also floating houses on the river itself (the green things in the water are huge clumps of weeds):

Chau Doc Riverfront Floating Houses