Phnom Penh History

Phnom Penh was built at the intersection of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Basac rivers at the end of the 14thcentury with its first structures erected on the bulge of the riverside. The city then developed by re-claiming wetlands, surrounding new perimeters by dikes, and land-filling these reclaimed compartments. Today, the major avenues are still built on these dikes and recall the growth stages of the city. Its location at the junction of two rivers that represent major exchange routes is vital for Phnom Penh.

The Mekong is a main artery of transportation and commerce in Southeast Asia, which links China, Myanmar, Lao, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea, and the Tonle Sap River irrigates Lake Tonle Sap, the largest reservoir of fresh water in Southeast Asia.

The transformation of Phnom Penh from a bustling small port of wooden houses into a modern city started in 1865 when it became the new royal capital. It accelerated by 1890, as the French administration introduced new concepts to customary land laws: streets as public spaces that could not be encroached, and land as an individual private property, officially registered in a cadastre. 

The 1970s witnessed the abandonment of Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge régime that emptied cities of their inhabitants and did not maintain their infrastructures. During the subsequent occupation by Vietnamese authorities from 1978 to 1989, and then until 1998, the continuing civil conflicts, political instability, and relative wealth of Phnom Penh compared to the rest of the country.

Modern Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh (ភ្នំ ពេញ): the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. The glimmering spires of the Royal Palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong – this is the Asia many daydream about from afar.

Cambodia’s capital can be an assault on the senses. Motorbikes whiz through laneways without a thought for pedestrians; markets exude pungent scents; and all the while the sounds of life – of commerce, of survival – reverberate through the streets. But this is all part of the attraction.

Once the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh’s shine was tarnished by the impact of war and revolution. But the city has since risen from the ashes to take its place among the hip capitals of the region, with an alluring cafe culture, bustling bars and a world-class food scene. read more

Motorcyclists ride along Preah Sisowath Quay—and the Tonlé Sap River—in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. (Photograph by Eric Reed, Corbis)

Motorcyclists ride along Preah Sisowath Quay—and the Tonlé Sap River—in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. (Photograph by Eric Reed, Corbis)

For a very quick traveller’s overview of Phnom Penh, click the image to read Hannah’s city review:

The Poor In Phnom Penh

The UN report on understanding slums gives a full outline of the reason for so many poor communities in Phnom Penh. By the end of the 2012, 105,771 people lived in informal settlements. These locations — defined by the government as informal settlements erected on state public land — increased to 511. 

In total, just over 25,100 families reside in Phnom Penh’s informal settlements.

Until 2000, the Municipality of Phnom Penh categorized these areas as either “squatter” and “urban poor” settlements. Squatters illegally occupied public or private land, while urban poor were low-income families with a recognized occupancy status that gave them some security of tenure, but no ownership rights.

The irony of such a definition is that there is no clear distinction between legal and illegal occupancy in Phnom Penh, since all private ownership of land was abolished in 1974, and no clear ownership system has been implemented until recently.

Types of Slums in Phnom Penh

Types of Slums in Phnom Penh

Most people in Phnom Penh hold more contempt than sympathy for the urban poor. Because of a stereotype of anarchy, the middle and upper classes often consider dwellers of these communities more as culprits of social evils than victims of exclusion, and are mostly afraid of them. Yet, this feeling is often based on no more than irrational fears. Most poor settlements are in fact quite discreet or even invisible to many city dwellers, as they are located away from main roads or above the city on its rooftops. Because of this, few people actually know the living conditions, and the actual situations their inhabitants face.

Read more about the needs of the urban poor, as voiced by themselves.