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The evolution of Phnom Penh, as seen through maps

Phnom Penh’s frenetic growth has changed the face of the city again and again. But while the city has been remade in the past decade, it’s never remained static for long.

This series of historic maps starts in 1864 with one of the first produced by colonial cartographers, charting the territory after King Norodom granted French protectorate status over Cambodia a year earlier. The maps that follow depict what became Cambodia’s capital in 1865 at various points in its history, spanning from simple sketches drawn in spindly black ink on yellowed parchment, to modern colour-coded iterations from the mid-20th century.

Through the progression of maps, a reader can trace the gradual development of the capital and expansion away from a riverside settlement into a modern city. In 1864, the French cartographer barely depicted anything but a sparsely settled landform, tracing the banks of the Mekong, Tonle and Bassac rivers, as well as the peninsula of Chroy Changvar.

These forms would change considerably over the decades, moulded under the constant pressure of river tides. 

In early maps, the mouth of the Bassac was closer to the Cambodian Royal Palace than it is today. Interestingly enough, an island called Koh Norea (labelled Ca Norea) appears at the mouth even in the oldest map of the collection. At that time, it was a natural island being lost to erosion. Today, Koh Norea is a controversial land reclamation megaproject built downstream of its original location by Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC), Cambodia’s biggest development firm, using sand dredged from the surrounding rivers.

By 1885, cartographers began depicting the city as a growing urban centre, with a web of roads branching to the south to encompass the Royal Palace. The city hadn’t yet expanded westward to Boeng Kang Keng, then still a natural lake. It wasn’t until 1921 until the first map appearance of Boeng Kak, the city’s northern lake filled in for development around 2010. Though the infill displaced thousands of residents in a protracted and embattled process, the lake appeared in light blue ink for years as a major feature of each subsequent map.

Though filling bodies of water is a key feature in modern Phnom Penh, it was practiced extensively by French administrators who built up the city on such former lakes of Boeung Raing, Boeung Keng Kang and the human-made Boeung Decho.

That 1921 map was also distinct for depicting the urban settlements of Chroy Changvar, which before had been drawn as a featureless mass. Most of the maps were drawn by cartographers during the French protectorate period and many reflect colonial features, including quarters labelled as inhabited by residents of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, and a grid system for city streets.

Today, almost seven decades removed from French oversight of the capital, the development of Cambodia has taken its own style, guided by international investment and a booming construction sector. 

The remaining lakes and wetlands have been filled at a voracious pace to make room for residential and commercial properties. Koh Pich, the original extension of the city into reclaimed land, sprouted from a marshy island of silt beginning in 2006 under development from OCIC. 

Other reclamation projects are changing even further the natural landforms along the rivers – only this time, that transformation is being done by human hands.

Click maps to enlarge and zoom

An 1864 French map of Phnom Penh, perhaps the first of the new protectorate era: ‘Plan particulier des quatre bras de Phnom Penh, Cambodge’
Plan de Phnom Penh from 1867
1876 Plan des Quatre Bras de Phnom Penh. ‘Ca Norea’ is marked on the map
1885 map by the Cambodia Cadastre and Topography Service.
A map from 1903 shows the first signs of a planned city evolving as gridded streets emerge.
The 1921 ‘Plan de Pnom-Penh’ with a newly built sports stadium in the southwest
A 1925 map by the Service du Cadastre.
A 1928 map showing the new city taking shape.
A 1928-29 map of Phnom Penh showing areas still under construction.
A 1937 map depicting the extension plan of Phnom-Penh. Expansion plans are marked in red. ‘Le trace rouge indique les transformations proposees’.

By 1930, a Phnom Penh closer to the one we know today is beginning to grow.
A map of the Wat Phnom area in 1931, showing the old canal that used to run through the area, today paved over.

A 1942 Plan de Phnom Penh shows the city expanding far southward into modern-day Tuol Tumpung
The first post-colonial map of the collection shows the modernist, expansive Phnom Penh we know today. This is the first map in which the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, built in 1963 connecting Chroy Changvar to Phnom Penh, can be seen
A 1987 map produced by the Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic/Topographic Center in Bethesda, Maryland, United States
Phnom Penh today. Google Earth satellite image from February 2021.
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