Preserving Battambang's architectural past is key to protecting its tourism future
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 17 Dec 2008 02:28:21 -0800 (PST)
Battambang's battered buildings
Written by Eleanor Ainge Roy and May Titthara
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Preserving Battambang's architectural past is key to protecting its
BATTAMBANG, Cambodia's second largest city, is home to some of the
finest French colonial-era buildings in the country.
This rich architectural heritage is a legacy of the northwestern
city's importance as a regional administrative centre and a vital link
between Phnom Penh and Thailand during the period of French rule from
1863 to 1953.
While views on the benefits or otherwise of French rule inevitably
remain mixed, few disagree that the city's nearly one million
inhabitants have done well out of France's attention to architecture
and urban design. The city's wide boulevards, grand gardens and
sweeping alleys of trees make the city an attractive place to live and
Battambang district Governor Uy Ry is well-aware of the importance of
the city's colonial French architecture to tourism in the city,
particularly the simple French shophouses that flank the edges of the
Sangke River, which flows through the centre of town.
"There are 800 good examples of French colonial architecture in
Battambang province, most of which are shophouses or flats," he said.
"It is very important that we preserve their original style both for
tourists and students who want to conduct research on this style of
The Battambang District Administration is leading the preservation
effort, dividing the city's examples of French colonial architecture
into two categories.
Almost 800 properties have been listed in the "Important" category and
are considered to be of utmost priority for conservation. Another 40
have been listed in the "Secondarily Important" category.
As part of the conservation effort, the administration has initiated a
number of regulations relating to the preservation of French colonial
architecture in the city, including a ban on owners making changes to
the exterior of protected buildings. Interior renovations are
The Battambang District Administration has also recently begun
receiving aid from Germany and the EU to help preserve and restore the
Uy Ry says conservation is of utmost priority. "Recently the owners of
these French colonial houses have started thinking about their value
and realising that, if they are willing to protect them and keep them
in good condition, they can potentially make a profit," he said.
Khoun Vanthat, whose family has long lived in a French colonial house
in the city, is among those waking up to the economic potential of her
home. "When I was a child, I didn't want to live in this house because
it was too old," she said.
One of the biggest problems is a lack of awareness about the cultural
and economic heritage value of these buildings.
"But as I grew up I came to realise the value of it. Many tourists
like to see the house, so I am now happy to live here. But it is badly
damaged, and I am worried that in five or 10 years I may lose it as I
don't have the money to repair it in the same style."
Long road ahead
Walter Koditek, who is working as an urban planning adviser to the
city for the German Development Service [DED], said the majority of
colonial-era houses in the city are in poor condition, mainly due to a
lack of regular maintenance.
"A lot of heritage buildings from the French-era are in rather poor
condition, but this does not mean they cannot be renovated, as the
buildings' substance and structures are generally very solid."
However, renovation must be done carefully. Today, economic progress
rather than neglect is the greatest threat facing the buildings, as
private owners undertake renovations and updates themselves, often
making a mess of the original structure.
"The major changes have appeared with economic development and
investment done by the owners - mostly small-scale businesses - during
the last ten years," Koditek said.
"Furthermore, some public buildings in prime locations have been sold
or swapped, and the administrative heritage buildings are under
serious threat of being demolished for new developments. Some are gone
There were two main obstacles to preservation, he said. "One of the
biggest problems is a lack of understanding and awareness about the
cultural and economic heritage value of these buildings among the
public and officials in Cambodia. Everyone is focused on the Angkor
The second challenge was the lack of a specific law for urban heritage
buildings and ensembles, he said. "The existing regulations are too
general, and they are not properly implemented."
Koditek said a draft regulation for heritage conservation was prepared
years ago by the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and
Construction but was never passed into law.
The future of the city's architectural history is now in the hands of
the Battambang District Administration, which has delegated
responsibility to its Master Plan Team, with support from the central
government, the European Union and Koditek's DED.
The team, which was originally charged with working on spatial
planning issues in Battambang, is made up of 10 to 12 officials from
district offices and some provincial departments. It began paying
attention to conserving the city's rich urban architectural heritage
just last year.
The group has already begun its work under Koditek's supervision,
surveying the buildings in the old city centre with a view to
designating the area as a conservation zone for the preservation of
A survey has also been carried out on the old provincial hall, and a
Battambang Heritage Calendar will be released in 2009 to raise public
awareness. A heritage seminar is also scheduled for next year.
Bol Chantrea, a receptionist at Moon guesthouse, said the success of
the preservation effort would be critical for the tourist industry.
"I am worried about the French colonial houses because some are
damaged and soon more will be damaged," he said. "If the authorities
do nothing, we will have a problem."
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