History man: Royal Train Square to put rail station back at heart of city

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Managing director of Royal Train Square Scott Bolls stands beneath chandeliers in the main hall of the newly refurbished Phnom Penh Train Station. Joe Curtin

In the second of our four-part series on the redevelopment of Phnom Penh Train Station, The Post looks at how the soon to open Royal Train Square has artfully blended the old and new to embrace the future.

Royal Train Square is set to return one of Phnom Penh’s most striking historic buildings to its place at the heart of the capital as its “new meeting place”.

Phnom Penh Train Station was built in 1932 under the reign of King Sisowath Monivong in an Art Deco design, and it survives as one of the few remaining examples of the style in the city.

And the history of the project is paramount to Scott Bolls, the managing director of Royal Train Square, who is looking for like-minded pioneer clients to join him on this historic journey.

“History to me is a blueprint; a precedent set that we can build upon. History shapes our today and prepares us for the future as we learn from our past.

“As a foreigner, I have so much respect for the history and culture of Cambodia and am keen to protect it.

“My first goal when taking over the train station was always to keep the historic building and not replace it with a soulless office block,” he said.

Phnom Penh Train Station is to again become a place for the city’s residents to get together as in times past, when people would meet and congregate around the market stalls, even if they weren’t catching a train.

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The now demolished Pont de Verneville. Photo supplied

“Royal Train Square is transforming the station from a former central trading hub to a ‘new capital meeting place’, a sanctuary away from the busy ‘high tech’ development of Phnom Penh.

“We wanted to breathe life back into the building and make Royal Train Square the meeting place for Phnom Penh,” Bolls said.

The American said Royal Train Square is the ideal location for discerning tenants seeking a long-term home in the centre of Phnom Penh.

“Where else in the world can companies have the opportunity to have their home in such a historic and iconic building in the capital of a country – and in such a prestigious location in the heart of the city?

“We have an annexe space a client can have built to their specifications – within the parameters of it respecting the original building, of course. The annexe is something we can build for someone with a vision for the future.

“There is 800sqm of space available on the second floor – which would be ideal either for restaurants or as offices for a leading bank or insurance company, for example – which has retained the beautiful original tiled floors and other features.

“And as well as the historical importance, it again meets the needs of the modern Phnom Penh with ample parking available, which is a premium in such a central location,” Bolls said.

‘Belle of the ball’

Detailing and the use of reinforced concrete suggest Phnom Penh Train Station was possibly designed by French architect Louis Victor Chaucon, who co-designed Phsar Thmey, or Central Market, which was completed in 1937.

The station and Central Market made up a trinity of Art Deco buildings in the capital along with the Cathedral of Phnom Penh.

Completed in 1927, the capital’s primary church was the first building to be destroyed by the Khmer Rouge when they took the city in 1975.

Built almost 90 years ago as the Phnom Penh terminus for the Kingdom’s line to Poipet to boost trade with neighbouring Thailand, the train station has borne witness to dramatic changes over the decades.

The building now looks over the park situated between the Vattanac Capital and the Canadia towers, which was originally the “Grand Canal” – one arm of which flowed into the Tonle Sap under the Pont de Verneville, near where the Chroy Changvar bridges stand today.

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How times change: The park opposite the station is now flanked by the Vattanac Capital and Canadia towers. Photo supplied

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Built in 1894, the canal stretched from the Tonle Sap river to the railway station, with the goods shipped in then loaded onto trains.

“The train station has witnessed much of Phnom Penh’s modern history over its 90 years. It has always played an integral and important role in Cambodia as it was the centre for shipping as the canal went right to its front door, with goods loaded onto the trains for transportation throughout Southeast Asia,” Bolls explained.

And as railways superseded canals, so the train station again stands ready to embrace a new future.

“Royal Train Square respects and acknowledges the historical royal monarchy that helped build the nation into what it is today, and it is important to me to keep this history at the forefront.

“It is a prestigious honour for me to be a catalyst in bringing the site back to life in this way after it had been inactive for so long. Maurice, a financier and developer from the Netherlands, is also one of the pioneers who deserves mention for this historic development.

“By so sensitively remodelling this beautiful building in this way, we are dressing up the old lady in her finery and getting her ready to be the belle of the ball once again.

“She can now take what she has learned and apply it to the new Cambodian economy. She is now poised, renewed and restored to bring a new face to Phnom Penh for all to enjoy.

“But most important, she keeps the historic face that we want to maintain for future generations to see and experience,” Bolls said.