In with the old, in with the new
In a country steeped in historical treasures of a culture that spans across two millenia, ancient relics, temples and monasteries have been victims to looting, civil war, the wear and tear of time, and ignorance.
In the last few years, a stricter approach has been taken to preserve remaining buildings which hold a history within them, in particular houses built during the French colonial period from 1863 to 1953.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA), Thai Norak Satya, said: “Preserving historical buildings keeps alive a precious aspect of a history that could be lost in time, and upkeeping the original appearance of these heritage buildings not only reflects a cultured appreciation for the past, but also feeds tourists’ hunger for antiquity preservation.”
Each country, he added, should aim to flaunt their enlightening heritage, especially as part of a tour, like the multicultural hotpot that is the Georgetown streets in the Malaysian state of Penang, and Cambodia is certainly not lacking in traditional cultural wealth.
The responsibility of preserving such historical buildings falls upon the shoulders of the MCFA, but there is no concrete law that protects these places. Many French colonial buildings have been converted into ramshackle shophouses, while others have surrendered to total demolition by private entities.
Norak Satya said, “We are in the process of drafting up a law to conserve heritage and cultural buildings now, and it has been in the works for two years. I am unsure when the drafting will end and when the law can be implemented.”
While the state owns most of these colonial buildings, some have fallen into the hands of private individuals. Most colonial-era shophouses in Kampot are privately owned.
“So far we have observed that people have not respected the existing policy to maintain the buildings because there is no strict enforcement, but in recent years, we have upped our level of strictness on this matter,” said Norak Satya.
In the meantime, because the law has yet to be passed, he pleaded: “If you own a traditional building that embodies heritage and classical elements, please help to take care of it for the next generation.”
One such development that has retained most of its original structure and design to date is the Bokor Mountain Lodge in Kampot province. Having been established in 2003, current owner Andrew Farrell said the building had been around since 1908, and was reportedly used as a headquarters during the Khmer Rouge.
“I took over the business in 2014, because it is one of the preserved colonial buildings on the river front,” Farrell said, adding that 95 percent of the building was unchanged, save for new coats of paint.
“We still like to keep the same colonial atmosphere.”
Vong Sotheara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, stressed that the look of dilapidation of these old colonial buildings was actually the pull factor for tourists who are out to spot a “classic look”.
“If we want to further develop tourism in our country, the government should play a larger role in enforcing stricter regulations on the preservation of heritage buildings which is at the heart of a culturally rich Cambodia,” he added.