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Phnom Penh’s Colonial Heritage

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Phnom Penh’s colonial history is written in its buildings. We explore some of the best examples of colonial architecture the city has to offer.

Cambodia was under French rule for nearly a century, from 1864 to 1953, and when the ruins of Angkor were discovered during World War II, it was the French who restored the temples. It’s independent now, but the country’s colonial past is evident in the architecture of its capital city, Phnom Penh. Sweeping boulevards are reminiscent of Paris, while some of Phnom Penh’s buildings are a curious mix of French and native Cambodian features. The biggest concentration of these colonial buildings can be found in the centre of the city, near the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Post Office Square and Norodom Boulevard. They’re not all in the best state of repair, but their state of neglect only adds to the romance and speaks of a bygone era. Here are some of the best examples of colonial buildings to look out for when you’re in Phnom Penh.

The streets of Phnom Penh where French-colonial, modern Cambodian and Khmer architecture collide

The General Post Office

Dating from 1890, Phnom Penh’s original post office is still in use today, though it’s been renovated several times since then. It dominates a small square that featured in the film City of Ghosts, and it’s in great shape having been fully restored in 2004.

The French-colonial central Post Office (bureau de poste) in Phnom Penh

The Commissariat (Old Police Station)

This crumbling building is in somewhat worse repair than the post office, though it’s not far away and it was constructed at around the same time, in 1892. It was once a police station, though it’s sadly now a shadow of its former glory having lain largely derelict for decades. Its exterior terraces were added for the benefit of French troops, who needed a place to seek shelter from the city’s sweltering heat.

(The Old Police Station – The Commissariat) (Credit: Pigalle on Flickr under Creative Commons)

The National Museum

This architecture of this fascinating museum looks native on first glance, but it was actually built by the French between 1917 and 1920. They opted for the traditional Khmer style, but if you look closely you’ll spot French influences; it was designed by the French museologist-historian, George Groslier.

Phnom Penh’s National Museum, Khmer is look but built by the French museologist George Groslier

The FCC Hotel, Sothearos Boulevard

An old Rococco-style palace can be found on Sothearos Boulevard. Dating to the 1920s, it was built by the French and combines neo-classical architecture (such as its Corinthian columns) with other styles. Though it stood in a state of disrepair for many years, it’s now owned by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia, who’ve restored it into a luxury hotel.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia

Hotel Le Royal

The Raffles-operated Hotel Le Royal was established in 1929, and enjoyed a heyday as a destination for writers and other rich and famous folk. Charlie Chaplin, Jackie O and W. Somerset Maugham are among those to have stayed in this impressive example of colonial-era architecture. Scenes from the film The Killing Fields were shot here.

One of Asia’s finest and oldest hotels. Scene’s from The Killing Fields were shot here

Phnom Penh Railway Station

Originally opened in 1932 Phnom Penh's train station is a fine example of French-colonial architecture. The station is used sporadically and was restored in 2010 and refurbished in 2012. For more images of the station and some of the rolling stock then take a look at Pigalle's fantastic collection over on Flickr.

Although not yet publicly accessible, the old Railway Station and carriages are a marvel. Take a look at more photos of Phnom Penh station by Pigalle over on Flickr

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