A morning in Addis

Posted By Tim Kelsall / November, 8, 2013 / 0 comments

I had a few days’ work in Addis Ababa earlier this week, and on the final day I was able to get out and take a few photos. Addis, of course, is one of the oldest cities in Africa, and the capital of the former Ethiopian empire. However, in recent years it has experienced double digit growth, and clearly has aspirations to be a modern African metropolis.


6th November was a religious festival in Ethiopia, and we started off at a modern church in the Bole neighbourhood. In the Ethiopian orthodox system, the church is considered sacred, and worshippers typically offer prayers and kiss the walls and steps before entering. Inside, the faithful prostrate themselves on the carpet of the aisle, palms upturned, before moving to their seats. As I said, this was a modern church, however, and I was very impressed to see the man kneeling next to me take a mobile phone call from his prostrate position.


At the front of the church, officials intone a liturgy to which the congregation responds. Many of the worshippers are wrapped in white shawls or cloaks, and many of the men lean on wooden staffs, which, I was told, represent Christ, as well as being something to lean on during the long service.


Next stop was the Piazza neighbourhood, an old district filled with jewellery shops. Although most had yet to open, the coloured hoardings made a picturesque backdrop for street photos. From there it was on to the vegetable market, and thence to the Merkato, Addis’s biggest market, selling spices, livestock, recyclables, and traditional foodstuffs among other things.


This was a pretty challenging environment in which to photograph. It’s very crowded, and you are constantly having to dodge donkey trains, porters carrying heavy loads,and people generally accosting you.


When I shoot street my rule of thumb is the following: if the street is the subject, just shoot; but if an individual is the subject, get permission for the shot either by asking or using eye-contact.


I’d say about 90% of people in the Merkato didn’t want to be photographed. My guide for the day explained that they were tired of tourists, or else they thought we were going to sell the photos on the internet (if only!), and were therefore like beggars, taking something for nothing. Even when we offered gratuities, most people refused. And very often, a person would agree to be photographed and then onlookers would crowd around and convince them against it. At one point, a woman absolutely screamed at me as I raised my camera to photograph her little teacups. Fortunately, my guide looked after me, and most of our exchanges with people were good humoured. Also, quite a few people did agree to be photographed, and I think I got some quite nice shots.


My advice for anyone visiting the Merkato and trying to take photographs there is to slow down. Take some time to build a rapport with a person before even taking your camera out, then see if they are willing to be photographed. To be honest, that was my plan all along, but somehow in the chaos of the environment I ended up taking a more hurried, and probably less effective, approach.


Our final stop was a traditional coffee house, thick with the smoke of roasting coals and incense, which also made for some good shots, even if playing havoc with my auto white balance!


My guide for the day was Nurelegn Weldemariam. He prepared a good itinerary, looked after me in some tricky situations, and was pleasant and knowledgeable throughout. If you would like to work with him, he can be contacted at minte112@gmail.com


All the photos were shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1 and 18-55mm zoom lens. Click on any photo in the gallery to view in a larger format or slideshow.



Protest in Phnom Penh

Posted By Tim Kelsall / October, 25, 2013 / 0 comments


Today was a day of protests in Phnom Penh, as opposition party supporters took to the streets to deliver a petition to foreign missions, urging them to press for an investigation into irregularities in the general election held in July. That election returned the ruling CPP party to power with a much-reduced majority, and the opposition claims that in the absence of foul play, it would have won.


The stand-off has now been ongoing for weeks. The ruling party has refused to accede to demands for an ‘independent’ review of the election, and has formed a new government. The opposition meanwhile has boycotted the National Assembly and organized a series of demonstrations. Barricades, razor wire, soldiers, and riot police have become a regular part of Phnom Penh life. The demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, although in September a man was tragically killed on his way home from work, when an angry crowd trying to break through barricades was fired upon. Both security forces and demonstrators have shown more restraint since then.


The demonstrations this week have seen opposition supporters carrying not just their party flag and the flag of Cambodia, but also the flags of the various signatories to the Paris Accords, which inaugurated an era of democracy in Cambodia following the cataclysm of the Khmer Rouge and the single-party People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Cambodia has seen remarkable economic growth and quite impressive levels of poverty reduction since then, however, its development model has a dark side, with thousands of people losing their land or homes to development schemes, high levels of corruption, and weak or non-existent rule of law. With an increasingly youthful population too young to remember the ruling party’s role in defeating the Khmer Rouge, there is increasing pressure for change.


Personally, I think that were the opposition to win, it would find it very difficult to deliver on its promises, and in any case the CPP shows no signs of conceding defeat. It would probably be best for the country if the CNRP were to take its seats in parliament and apply constructive pressure on the government to implement its reform agenda.


However, when you’re in amongst the demonstrators, who are exuberant, good-humoured, and from all walks of life, it’s hard not to get carried away.


The photos below were shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1 and 18-55 mm lens. On some of the shots I was trying out a panning technique, and looking at them, I think it needs some work. With no sign of the standoff ending, I should have plenty of opportunities to practice.


If you would like to contact me about these images, please use tim.kelsall@gmail.com




Posted By Tim Kelsall / October, 2, 2013 / 0 comments




Earlier this year, my friend Rupert Abbott asked me if I wanted to mount an exhibition of my photos at Baitong, his restaurant and meeting space in Phnom Penh. I was a bit hesitant at first, because although I quite like my own photos, I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to like them, let alone buy them. However, he put me in touch with Matt Cuenca, an artist who runs the exhibition space at Baitong, and he inspired me to show some of my Phnom Penh street photography.


But which shots should I show? I suggested to Matt that I send him a collection of my favourites and that he make a selection around a particular theme. The theme he came back with was ‘A day in the life of Phnom Penh’, one photo for every hour, dawn to dusk.


‘I like the idea’ I said, ‘the only problem is almost all my photos are taken between 7 and 9 am, or 5 and 7pm’.


I decided there was nothing for it but to reshoot, to the idea of the theme, over the course of a single day.


No sooner had I agreed to this than I realized it was an assignment that no sensible photographer would choose, since during the middle of the day the light tends to be unfavourable, especially in a place like Phnom Penh which can be very glary from about 8.30 am.


Nevertheless, I decided to persevere, and thought about an itinerary that would allow me to capture different, iconic aspects of the city’s street life in reasonable light at different times of the day. For me, that means street hawkers, trash recyclers, the Royal Palace, market sellers, monks collecting alms, cyclos, tuk-tuks, motos, Khmer modernist architecture, outdoor aerobics, street barbers, construction sites, auto mechanics and breakers’ yards. Basically, I opted for outdoors at the beginning and end of the day, and for markets and workshops in the middle of the day.


The shoot itself was quite a challenge: I had to try and get a good shot within the allotted timeframe before jumping in a tuktuk and crossing the city to my next location. I also had to fit in a farewell lunch for some friends who were leaving for Canada the next day, and find a pharmacy that was open after a bee stung me inside my ear! Two of the shots were made with only a few seconds left on the clock.


In the end, however, I was reasonably pleased with the results. Although it was dull in the afternoon, and the markets a bit quieter than usual, I got great light in the morning. I must also say a big ‘thank you’ to Chhoeun Vichika, who was my assistant for the day.


Not being a professional photographer, I didn’t need to make money from the exhibition, so with Matt’s help I decided to hold a silent auction for Friends International, an NGO that works with street kids. Last I heard, ten of the pictures had sold, though I’m not sure how much we raised.


The photos were shot with a Fuji X-Pro 1 and Olympus EM5. I wonder if any of you can tell which is which? Sorry about the watermarks – it’s to protect the exhibits, which are certified limited edition prints.


























By the way, if you want to contact me about anything on this site, please use tim.kelsall@gmail.com

Street Photography in Phnom Penh

Posted By Tim Kelsall / May, 24, 2013 / 0 comments


Most weeks I try to find a couple of hours to get out of the house and shoot. In Phnom Penh, I’m fortunate to find great subject-matter right on my doorstep. The city has a rich and abundant street life, which easily lends itself to my photography.


What is street photography?


As a genre, street photography defies a single definition. For some, it’s simply photography ‘that takes place in the street’, while for others, it’s about capturing ‘candid situations’, whether or not an actual street is their setting. These two definitions are somewhat in tension, but in practice there’s a large overlap in the work of most recognized street photographers. What exactly ‘candid’ means is not entirely straightforward, however. For some, it means taking a photo in which the subjects do not realize they’re being photographed; for others it means sticking a camera right in the face of their subject in order to provoke a reaction.


As far as I can see, the most celebrated examples of street photography fall into four types: surprising juxtapositions or visual puns, as often seen, for example, in the work of Elliott Erwitt; people glowering into the camera, as typified by many of Bruce Gilden’s shots; particularly pleasing combinations or correspondences of light, colour, and shade, as is the stock-in-trade of much work featured on Flickr’s, Hardcore Street Photography; or penetrating observations on class or social mores, as found in some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s best work.


I find many of these photos fantastic, and recognize the special talent and extended time that must go into them. However, I’m not going to dedicate my life, or even the majority of my photography to this type of work. I’m as interested in photographing the everyday, the commonplace, as I am in capturing the extraordinary scenes that occasionally arise in a quotidian context.


For me, street photography is primarily an exercise in social documentary.


I find the streets of Phnom Penh beautiful, fascinating, and occasionally unsettling. To some extent taking photographs allows me to capture that experience, both for myself, and so that I can share it with others. I don’t claim that my photographs provide a very deep knowledge of contemporary Phnom Penh. I do hope, however, that by exposing people to how life appears in this beguiling city, I increase their stock of visual knowledge and enrich, in a very small way, their appreciation of the world.


Children outside the Teochiu Temple


Why is Phnom Penh a good place to shoot street?


One of the first things that strikes you about Phnom Penh is how much of its life is lived on the street, and how much is visible. The roads are filled with people riding bicycles, cyclos, tuktuks, making them much more interesting than a typical Western road.


Tuk-tuk, St. 19


The pavements are crowded with street hawkers, barbers, mobile foodstalls, and semi-permanent restaurants; shops are usually open-fronted; and often people’s houses are also open, meaning that you can see right into their living rooms.




At first glance the streets are chaotic, but you soon come to appreciate the effort that people put into providing some order to this environment – the way they stack the goods on their stalls, the shrines they keep in their little shops, the way they arrange pavement tables and chairs. Capturing the order within this chaos, I believe, is one of the challenges and joys of street photography in Phnom Penh.


Boeung Keng Kang Market


It is also a city of many textures. Although it has a unique modernist architecture, Phnom Penh remains a conflict-recovering city in a tropical climate, meaning that walls, sidewalks and buildings are often in a state of considerable decay and decrepitude. While economically and socially regrettable, this provides a visually interesting backdrop to the human activity that unfolds.




Phnom Penh also has good light. Not in the middle of the day, when it tends to be glary and strong; but in the early morning and late afternoon, when it is wonderfully golden and soft, creating interesting patterns of luminance and shade.


Light and shade, St. 19


Light and shade


Finally, most people in Phnom Penh react well to being photographed, which for reasons that I discuss next, is very important to me.


Moto driver, nr Uni of Fine Arts

The ethics of street photography


I’m not a great street photographer, and probably never will be. One of the difficulties of shooting street is that even if you see a potentially great shot, you have to overcome your inhibitions to shoot it. This implies either making yourself invisible to those being photographed, or risking upsetting them.


Is it right to take someone’s photo if they don’t know about it? Personally, I think that as long as they’re in a public place, and as long you’re not going to use the photo for anything commercial or unseemly, it’s ok.


Around Street 13




People don’t have a right to privacy when they’re on the street. That doesn’t mean that we should just photograph them regardless of their feelings, a point I come to later. But if a person doesn’t know they’re being photographed, then they can’t have any feelings about it (except perhaps subjunctively, a possibility best left to philosophers to explore).


Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of my favourite street photographers, and he always claimed that he was invisible to his subjects. One observer described his MO as unobtrusively identifying his subject, walking up to them, raising his camera in one fluid movement, click click click, and then quickly going on his way.


Was Cartier-Bresson really invisible to his subjects? My guess is he didn’t stick around long enough to find out. Another street photographer who employs a similar technique is Thomas Leuthard. You can see videos of it here. I personally found this quite unsettling. Even if his subjects are not certain that they’ve been photographed, they know that something has just happened to them, and they’re obviously disconcerted by it.


Really being invisible as a street photographer is difficult, then. I try to take stealth shots when I can, but it’s risky. There’s always the possibility that if you take a photograph without someone’s permission, and they notice it, then you’ll upset them. In the shot below, I saw this lady giving alms outside her shop, quickly darted inside and took a couple of shots form the hip. However, she twigged what was happening and you can tell that neither she, nor the monks, are too happy about it. I didn’t feel particularly proud about interrupting an act of prayer either.




Leuthard argues that you need ‘big balls’ to be a street photographer, and the closer you get, the bigger they must be. Personally, I don’t see it like this. In a place like Cambodia, at least, I’m not at all worried about being beaten up for taking someone’s photo, or even being shouted at. I just don’t want to offend anyone. Taking a photo without someone’s permission and then scurrying off is a bit like shouting loudly in their face then picking their pocket before disappearing; it’s just not a very cool thing to do, whatever the potential visual rewards.


This means that if I take a stealth shot, I make sure I stick around to smooth things over if I get caught (as happened with the lady above). Alternatively, I shoot quite openly, but if someone looks as though they don’t want to be photographed, I ask permission. And if they look relaxed as I lift up my camera, I always give them a smile or a wave after I’ve taken my shot. Sometimes I have a little chat and give them my calling card which has my e-mail, phone number and web address, and which promises them a free photo. I dare say this makes my street photography not entirely authentic, but to me that’s preferable to invading someone’s space and pissing them off. There’s still a risk, of course, that I will photograph someone in this way and they won’t be placated, and that risk does inhibit me slightly, and causes me to miss some shots. But as I say, it’s not my ambition to be a truly great street photographer.


Then there’s the ethics of what you do with a photo after you’ve taken it. I put my best photos on the web, often without explicit permission from my subjects. I also think this is ok. I tend not to take photographs of people in compromising positions, so I think rather few people would object to my photos online. But one has to be careful about this. One of my favourite photos is of a striking-looking Vietnamese woman I shot walking through Kandal market, with tears in her eyes. I posted this on Flickr and received some appreciative comments, but I’ve since taken it down. I don’t know whether she’d recently been bereaved, or just had a bad day at work; but on reflection, I thought it was insensitive of me to portray a moment of private grief merely for the purposes of ‘art’ or social documentary. If I could link this private moment to a political or social issue I felt it important to publicise, that would be a different story.




Of course a few people might object to having their photo on the web merely for reasons of vanity. I suspect that many folks who don’t want to be photographed are simply worried that they’re having a bad hair day, or they’re not in their best clothes. I remember once when I was doing a piece of academic research on the life histories of peasants in a part of Tanzania I know well. As part of the exercise I would photograph my interviewees and then make a booklet to give them which contained their story. To my surprise, I found that when it came to taking the photos, people got very shy, would retreat into their mud and thatch houses, then reappear wearing their spotless Sunday best, when I had preferred to capture them recently returned from the fields, in their tattered t-shirts and overalls. I could go into a long digression now about the ‘presentation of self’ and how I think that some of street photography’s claims to capturing people’s ‘essence’ are bogus, but I’ll save that for another day. The real point is that if anyone were to see their photo on the web and request me, for whatever reason, to take it down, I would certainly honour that request.


I have one final point I want to make about privacy. I’ve said before that people don’t have a right to privacy in a public place, but what happens when the boundary between public and private is blurred? This is often the case in Phnom Penh where, as I’ve mentioned, people’s houses are often open to the world. Here I’m unsure of the right thing to do, but I generally err on the side of caution, and only photograph interiors if they are collateral to the image, or when the occupants are actively inviting. A photographer who takes a different approach, and to good effect, is Vandy Rattana in his series, Looking In. As a native Cambodian, I guess that Vandy has a better sense of where the permissible boundary lies than I do.


Good streets in which to shoot


Phnom Penh has many rewarding streets and areas in which to photograph and I will mention here just a few. Anyone paying a visit with the intention of taking photos would do well to get hold of Jean-Michel Fillipi’s small book Strolling Around Phnom Penh, which contains several interesting walks and is packed with local history and characters.


Street 13


Street 13


This street used to be known as the Champs Elysees of Phnom Penh and runs through what used to be the city’s Chinese quarter. It takes in two markets, Psar Chas and Psar Kandal, the Chinese Teochew temple, Wat Ounalom (the city’s oldest pagoda), and the National Museum.


Psar Chas


At the Teochew Temple


Street 107 and 182


Another street that starts in the Chinese quarter, and branches off into side-streets where you will find shops selling Chinese herbs, old sewing machines, and restaurants serving secret recipe soups.


Schoolgirl, Street 107




Turn right into St. 182 and you will hit Orussey Market, with its abundance of rice sacks, beans, dried fish, seafood, and local sausages. Continue about 1km down 182 and you will hit a district full of dealers in used motor parts, including warehouses filled with oily old truck and tractor engines.


Selling sausages, O'Russey Mkt


Motor parts dealership, St. 182


Sisowath Quay


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This broad promenade runs from the Royal Palace to the night market, and is busy with tourists and locals alike, relaxing and exercising. It also includes the small Dorngkeur temple, in which you will almost always find people lighting incense, making offerings, and releasing prayer birds.




Street 51


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This street, also known as Louis Pasteur, runs from Boeung Kang market at one end, through the expat and embassy world of BKK1, up to Wat Phnom, taking in Wat Langka as well as some of the city’s seedier bars. There are always monks to be seen around Wat Langka, dodgy blokes and girls around the top end.


Olympic Stadium




Many Khmer come to Olympic stadium in the early morning and late afternoon to swim, watch sport, eat street food, or participate in open-air aerobics. The stadium has a relaxed atmosphere, and is architecturally interesting in its own right.




Wat Botum Park


This city centre park is close to Wat Botum, one of Cambodia’s most important pagodas. In the late afternoon you will generally see monks walking to and from from the pagoda and people enjoying recreation of various forms. The park has a fountain that is sometimes illuminated at night and makes for some interesting shots.


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Street Photography Resources


There are scores of street photography websites out there, and hundreds of books. I’ve only scratched the surface, but two sites I keep going back to are Ming Thein Photographer and Eric Kim Street Photography, both of which have thoughtful articles on the nature of street photography, helpful tips on how to shoot, and, of course, great street photos.




I’m currently using a Fuji X-Pro 1 and an Olympus OMD-EM5. Before that I had a couple of Lumix cameras. All have been better than good, though I am still searching for the perfect camera.




If you liked these photos please check out the galleries via the links on the left hand sidebar of this page. You can also subscribe:




The Pearl of Asia?

Posted By Tim Kelsall / May, 16, 2013 / 0 comments


I loved Phnom Penh almost from the first day I arrived. Although my initial impressions were of a city oppressively hot, difficult to walk around in, and with chaotic traffic, I soon came to appreciate its many charms. With its wide boulevards and preponderance of tuk-tuks and motorcycles, it is an exceptionally easy place to navigate; while its innumerable restaurants, bars, and spas offer many opportunities for indulgence and relaxation. From a photographic point of view—and this is a photographic website—it has a rich architectural heritage, spanning pre-colonial pagodas, Francophone colonial buildings, and the fantastic Khmer modernism of architect Vann Molyvann. Moreover, it has a vibrant and eclectic street life.



As American travel writer Robert J. Casey remarked in 1929, it has a vast and pictureful array of markets and wide, well-shaded streets, through which at twilight, Buddhist monks, ‘trail the flame of their yellow robes’. In such a city, photographic excursions rarely disappoint.


Saturday morning in PP-020.jpg


Of course, my perspective is skewed. A middle class Western income allows me to live very comfortably in Phnom Penh; but most people are not so lucky. Economic growth is gradually improving income levels for the majority, but many still work long hours for little pay, living in cramped accommodation with services and amenities that leave much to be desired.

A quick read of the Phnom Penh Post’s daily ‘Police Blotter’ confirms that the atmosphere of security that pervades the main expat areas does not encompass the entire city. Even more worryingly, the same growth that is transforming the city’s skyline and greatly enriching a small minority is simultaneously dispossessing hundreds if not thousands of families, often inadequately compensated, and whose attempts at protest are roughly suppressed. The economy may be booming, but it is not clear that sufficient investments are being made in the kinds of education that will continue to propel it forward and provide jobs for young people.

Yet if we compare Phnom Penh to capital cities at similar stages of development in other parts of the world, I wager that on almost every social or economic indicator, it does rather well. And we must also remember that Phnom Penh has a remarkable and terrible history. In 1975, hours after Khmer Rouge guerillas marched into town, almost the entire population was forcibly evacuated to the countryside, where over a million people perished. When in 1979 many of the survivors flooded back, it was to a shattered city bereft of commerce or services. Progress since then has evidently been great, and it is for these reasons that I continue to love Phnom Penh, and find it hard not to be optimistic about its future.

So how has the city arrived at its present condition? The following paragraphs provide a potted history. Although I do not provide references, my account is much indebted to Milton Osborne’s, Phnom Penh: A cultural and literary history.


Early history


Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded in the 14th century by an old lady known as Penh, who one day discovered four golden Buddhas while searching for firewood by the banks of the Tonle Sap. She proceeded to build a hill, or phnom, on which she constructed a pagoda and a stupa for the statues.





Today the pagoda, Wat Phnom, remains the city’s principal landmark, even if the story surrounding its provenance has been questioned. What we know for sure is that Phnom Penh became the seat of Cambodian royalty some time in the fifteenth century, following the collapse of the empire at Angkor. For the next few centuries kings alternated the capital between Phnom Penh and Udong, and it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the city became a permanent royal home.

That it did so had much to do with geography, and with French influence in Cambodia. Interested in dominating commerce on the upper Mekong, and in forestalling the possibility of increased British influence in the area, the French persuaded King Norodom to move his capital permanently from Udong in 1865, for Phnom Penh stands at the confluence of three mighty rivers: the Mekong, the Tonle Sap, and the Bassac, making it an ideal location for trade.


20130516-Colonial map-2.jpg


On the eve of colonial rule, Henri Mouhot, the “rediscoverer of Angkor”, described Phnom Penh as Cambodia’s “great bazaar”, a town of some 10,000 people (mostly Chinese) living on land, and twice that number of Cambodians and Vietnamese living on boats on the river. 

The colonial era


In 1863, the French established a protectorate over Cambodia, and some economic development followed. In particular, the 1890s saw a major programme of city planning and construction, fixing in place much of Phnom Penh’s contemporary street pattern, renovating the phnom, as well as constructing several key colonial buildings, including the treasury, the central prison, and central police station.




The city of this period was ethnically diverse and demarcated into ‘quartiers’. The ‘European Quarter’, described as, ‘a little bit of France transplanted to Southeast Asia’ ran from the Post Office square to a convent on the northern extremity of Sisowath Quay. The ‘Chinese Quarter’ occupied the space between Sisowath Quay and Norodom Boulevard. It had a bustling commercial life, with long trains of produce-bearing elephants and buffalo wagons discharging their goods, while women in picturesque costumes drove elegant buffalo traps covered in jingling bells.

The Cambodian area was situated behind the Royal Palace. According to Milton Osborne, ‘A large proportion of Phnom Penh’s Cambodians would either have lived in the Royal Palace or worked directly for the monarch while living outside it. The Palace compound was, in effect, a town itself, populated by the royal family and the king’s female establishment, high court officials and those who occupied roles as hereditary servants, or bondsmen’. An artist’s impression of the time depicts King Norodom entertaining visiting explorers with traditional dancers and an orchestra, while his servants crawled along the floor. To the Cambodian population the King was more than a mere man—his status was ‘semi-divine’. He was said to possess a flotilla of steamboats, more than 250 elephants and a harem of over 400 women. As time wore on, however, and especially as the throne passed from Norodom to Sisowath and then to his son Monivong, the monarch’s earthly powers began to wane, superceded by those of the French administration.

Notwithstanding some minor disturbances in 1916, Phnom Penh was largely peaceful under colonial rule. Neither was it much affected by post-war Depression; indeed, this period saw the addition of several more notable buildings to the city landscape, including the railway station, town hall, post-office, National Museum and National Library. Sisowath Quay, meanwhile, was described by Somerset Maugham as, ‘neatly planted with trees like the quay in a French riverside town’. Most impressive of all, however, was 1937’s Psar Thmei or Grand Market, a reinforced concrete dome in art deco style, painted yellow and rising to a 150 feet in height.



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In 1941 the French engineered the accession of young Prince Norodom Sihanouk to the throne. Sihanouk never expected to become king, and was instead gearing up for a life of horse riding, cinema, and ‘amorous adventures’. During the war years, when he paid allegiance to France’s Vichy regime, he was not much interested in affairs of state. After Japan’s coup de force in 1945, however, Sihanouk became head of an independent country, and it was during this time, perhaps, that he acquired a taste for power; but six months later the French were back in charge. With Independence on the horizon, they attempted to create a genuine parliamentary democracy in Cambodia, but Sihanouk was equally determined to seize the political initiative. After achieving independence in 1953, he abdicated the throne in 1955, emerging as the head of a mass movement named, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community). He was to dominate the political landscape for the next fifteen years.



A young King Sihanouk. Credit Christophe Loviny Collection



Sihanouk time


The post-war years in which Norodom Sihanouk ruled Cambodia are often remembered as Phnom Penh’s ‘golden years’, and as the display of public emotion that accompanied his recent death demonstrates, Sihanouk the man has been much idealized. Doubtless, the late 1950s and early 1960s were a period of considerable achievements, especially architecturally. Employing the talents of French-trained architect Vann Molyvann, Sihanouk transformed the city centre, building modern apartment blocks, shop-houses, villas, and several prestige projects in a unique Khmer-modernist style, including the Olympic Stadium, Chaktomuk Theatre, and Royal University campus, as well as Independence Monument. No other city in Southeast Asia has such a heritage.






But politically these were not particularly happy times. Sihanouk was impatient with parliamentary democracy, intolerant of any opposition to his rule. As the war in neighbouring Vietnam gathered pace, a small insurgency started in Cambodia. Sihanouk dealt ruthlessly with those involved, but unrest was not quelled. The economy entered a downturn, especially after ties with America were renounced in 1963, and soon members of the middle classes, previously his staunch supporters, began to wonder whether he was losing his touch. In the final years of his rule, Sihanouk relaxed his grip on political affairs, concentrating instead on directing a series of execrable feature films. Designed to elevate Cambodia’s image around the world, they focused on the Khmer elite and their decadent lifestyle, providing excellent propaganda for Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan’s Communist Party of Kampuchea, soon to be known as the Khmer Rouge.

In 1970 a number of Sihanouk’s right-wing colleagues, led by General Lon Nol, overthrew Sihanouk in a coup. For the next five years, the General’s army fought an unsuccessful war against the advancing Khmer Rouge. By April 1975, the Khmer Rouge had completely encircled the city, now swollen with refugees, who were in constant fear of rocket and mortar attacks. The atmosphere during these last hours of resistance is well-captured by John Swain in his memoir River of Time,

By early evening, the scenes of chaos and horror were mounting. Attempts to confine refugees to the outskirts ceased and they were converging on the centre from all sides, pushing, shoving, jostling, desperate to escape the fighting. The trim walkways and flower-scented parks were submerged under a heaving mass of homeless families; weeping, lost children; pigs; ducks; chickens; all increasingly afraid.



Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge

On the morning of 17 April Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh.


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A convoy of trucks and armoured personnel carriers commandeered by the victorious Khmer Rouge drives through the city centre, while crowds celebrate the end of the war (c) Roland Neveu. More of Roland Neveu’s remarkable photographs from that period can be found in two books, The Fall of Phnom Penh, and Cambodia: The Years of Turmoil, both available here http://tinyurl.com/kggr7ll

One of their first actions was to round up remaining members of the former regime and execute them. Shortly thereafter, an order was given to evacuate the city. Citizens were herded out of their shops and homes, even the sick were herded out of hospitals, and marched out of the capital to the countryside where they were to be re-educated and forced to work on communal rice farms. Francois Ponchaud, a French priest, described the scenes thus:

Thousands of the wounded and sick were leaving the city, the less seriously ill painfully dragging themselves along, others were carried by friends, while still others were being pushed along on their hospital beds by their families with their plasma and IV drips bumping alongside. I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet writing along the ground like a cut worm. Or a weeping father carrying his ten-year-old daughter in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling. Or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing more than skin.

Many thousands died along the way, and many hundreds of thousands over the next four years. Remaining Khmer Rouge cadres, drawn from the most marginalized sections of society, ransacked the capital’s homes and buildings in an orgy of violence against what they regarded as symbols of exploitation and oppression. Meanwhile foreigners who had remained in the city had congregated at the French Embassy, memorably described in Francois Bizot’s memoir, The Gate. On a number of occasions Bizot was able to venture out into the city:

I set off again and after the Phnom passed the large ochre building of the National bank of Cambodia. Tens of thousands of 500-riel notes lay strewn over the road and the pavements, which were cluttered with sandbags and barbed wire. What even yesterday had represented a huge fortune fluttered about in front of me, ephemeral banknotes that in a few hours had lost all their value. I was coming to look upon this destroyed world and these desolate avenues as a spectacle, and to laugh at it all […] There was not a single child, not one living creature. This sudden suspension of life in the heart of what had been the great commercial centre of the Mekong Delta – this city famed for its many and varied activities, its colourful population, its cosmopolitan lifestyle – struck me as so incredible and so straightforward that I imagined myself in a dead world, deserted in the wake of some cataclysm, where I, without knowing it, was the only survivor.

Once the leadership entered the city it restored order, and with the help of advisers from Communist China, established an administration. In this they were assisted by around fifty thousand Cambodians, mainly those with technical skills, detained in the capital in barrack-style accommodation. One of the important tasks they were given was to demolish the existing Catholic cathedral, although for some unknown reason they spared most of Phnom Penh’s other historic buildings. Among these was the Royal Palace, in which Prince Sihanouk, who had sided with the Khmer Rouge against his usurper Lon Nol, was held under house arrest.


With its disastrous economic policies and deep paranoia the regime proceeded to consume itself in famine and purges. The endgame began when it foolishly launched attacks across the border in Vietnam, prompting a vigorous response from the Vietnamese, who promptly invaded the country, defeated the Khmer Rouge, and installed a new regime.


From Vietnamese occupation to UNTAC


When Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979, they found a deserted city littered with washing-machines, refrigerators and car wrecks, the few remaining inhabitants holed up inside their barracks. They also made the shocking discovery of S-21, an extermination centre housed in a former school, better known as Tuol Sleng. Here, some seventeen thousand victims of Khmer Rouge purges and other supposed traitors had been brought to be tortured and confess to often imaginary crimes, before being ‘smashed’, executed, in the killing fields on the outskirts of the city. When the Vietnamese arrived, its last prisoners were still chained to the walls, blood from their lacerated throats not yet dry.



As peace was established, hundreds of thousands of people streamed back to the city, and often took up residence in any building they could find, creating a huge squatter problem. Water and electricity were not quick to be restored, and Phnom Penh’s population lived in terrible hardship for years to come. As late as 1987, Henry Kamm described how:

The pigs, poultry, and occasional cattle that had been driven to the popular quarters were now comfortably roaming the city…The litter of years lay ungathered everywhere, breeding rats, flies, and sickness…Medical relief workers told me that no more than one per cent of the people had access to safe drinking water’

The new regime, run by former Khmer Rouge defectors with Vietnamese support, and calling itself the Kampuchea Revolutionary People’s Council, was Stalinist in orientation—but little by little the impossibilities of running a command economy in such a situation became clear, and a degree of private commerce returned. The regime was still fighting a counterinsurgency against Khmer Rouge forces in the West of the country, and, aside from the Eastern bloc countries and Vietnam, was bereft of international support. It was not until the leadership changes in China and the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that a solution to the ‘Cambodia problem’ was found.

That solution involved the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in 1989, a peace accord signed in Paris 1991, and a United Nations transitional authority that stage-managed multi-party elections in 1993. These pitted Hun Sen’s renamed ruling Cambodian People’s Party against the FUNCINPEC of Norodom Ranariddh, Sihanouk’s son. FUNCINPEC subsequently won the popular vote, but the CPP refused to relinquish power, and a power-sharing agreement between Hun and Norodom ensued. The agreement was not durable however, and tensions erupted in open warfare on the streets of Phnom Penh over two days in July 1997. Hun Sen’s forces emerged victorious from this struggle, placing the CPP in a position of dominance that it has enjoyed to this day. With the CPP clearly ascendant, the last vestiges of Khmer Rouge opposition were snuffed out, forming a foundation for political stability and a sustained period of economic growth.

Contemporary Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh today is a bustling commercial metropolis with a level of prosperity and security far in advance of the 1970-1997 period. As Milton Osborne observes, ‘Visitors encounter a smiling people who appear to have triumphed over a recent past and to have achieved a phoenix-like rebirth from the figurative ashes of the period when Pol Pot ruled’. The main drivers of this prosperity are the garment industry, with hundreds of factories located in Phnom Penh and its surrounds; government (and its associated corruption); construction; finance; and foreign aid. These industries in turn support shop-owners, petty traders, NGO workers, food vendors, hoteliers, educators, artists, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, opticians, restaurateurs, masseurs, domestic servants, tuk-tuk drivers, motodop drivers, travel agents, garbage collectors, recyclers, pushers, prostitutes, and racketeers, to name but a few.

The city’s skyline is once again being transformed. It has its first skyscraper in the shape of the 22-storey Canadia Tower, and the even taller Vattanac Tower is soon to be completed. Several other projects, including Gold Tower 42 and De Castle are in various stages of planning or completion. On Ko Pich island there is a project under discussion to build Asia’s tallest building!  There are also several ‘satellite cities’, gated communities for Phnom Penh’s elite, either finished or in the planning stages. Although these projects are without much architectural merit, they symbolize the vitality of an economy in which growth has been among the world’s fastest in recent years.




Yet Professor Osborne’s comment insinuates that all is not as it seems. Indeed, later in the book he claims that only a ‘supremely unperceptive optimist’ would not recognize the tragedy of Cambodian history expressing itself in the life of the city each day. Granted, the Pol Pot years have left behind a legacy of missed economic growth, without which Cambodia might conceivably have a per capita income more akin to that of Thailand. Moreover, recent urban development has often been associated with the ruthless clearance of existing communities, partly facilitated, no doubt, by the fact that most of the latter owe their origins to the post-Khmer Rouge period, when people returned to the city and took up residence wherever they could, often without secure title. Those affected have rarely been adequately compensated, and many have launched lengthy protest campaigns, in particular the Borei Keila and Boeung Kak Lake struggles. Barely a week goes by without some new demonstration or development in these cases, or some new delegation from the countryside begging the Prime Minister for his assistance in struggles over land.

Phnom Penh’s relations with the countryside generally are a cause for concern, since the high-end lifestyles enjoyed by its elite are often financed by under-the-table business deals that are dispossessing rural communities. This process arguably has precursors in developments of the early independence period, which helped create a disaffected rural populace some of whom would later join the Khmer Rouge; it would be interesting to know the extent to which urban development under Sihanouk also created large numbers of dispossessed. In any case, anyone interested in contemporary land struggles would do well to study the photographs of Magnum photographer John Vink, and the award-winning Cambodian Vandy Rattanna.

On a psychic level, we are also told that many Khmer Rouge survivors experience mental illness, while an even higher number must carry within themselves memories of piercing sadness. A number of memoirs of that period, including Theary Seng’s Daughter of the Killing Fields, drive that point home. A recent book by Zelie Pollon and Alan M. Thornton for the NGO IWitness, featuring powerful photographic portraits and testimonies by civil party witnesses at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, does the same. According to Dr. Chhim Sotheara, executive director of transcultural psychological organization, TPO Cambodia:

Cambodians are still affected by the Khmer Rouge and its legacy. Many think Cambodians are ok and not traumatized because they can smile. But it’s not true. The pain is under the surface. The problem doesn’t go away. It comes back with a trigger, like during the Tribunal…Here it’s a concept called ‘baskbat’, broken courage…Here, we should measure broken courage.

The Khmer Rouge tribunal, currently sitting in Phnom Penh, was designed in part with the aim of healing these wounds. Sadly, owing to its many deficiencies, it has probably done more to inflame them.

But is Professor Osborne, in spite of this, too pessimistic? For most people in Phnom Penh the situation is not so dire. Current economic growth is benefiting the majority, and although people in work hard, most have time and money to relax as well. One of the things that struck me first when I arrived was the public enjoyment of leisure time. The city has no large green spaces, but it has the wide promenade on the Sisowath Quay, the lawns in front of the Royal Palace, and the open spaces of Hun Sen and Wat Botum Park, not to mention the Olympic Stadium. Here, every evening, one finds hundreds of Phnom Penhese taking a stroll, eating street food, playing badminton, fusball, hacky sack, participating in group aerobic sessions, or playing with their children at purpose built playgrounds.







On special occasions the buildings of the Royal Palace are illuminated, and families gather on the front lawn with picnics. The Quayside during these periods is clogged with Tuktuks and motorcycles, often in snarling jams that take considerable periods to unfurl. Notwithstanding the tragic events at the 2010 Water Festival, the mood almost always remains festive, a testament to the patience and forbearance of ordinary Khmer.



It is difficult not to perceive in Phnom Penh, then, evidence of the resilience of the human spirit, expressed in the ability of conflict survivors to raise a new generation, with new aspirations, whose lives are not overburdened by feelings of victimhood or desires for revenge. Phnom Penh has its problems, and at some point it will have to navigate a tricky transition from authoritarian rule—but to me, the future seems reasonably bright.


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