[Photos] The cyclos, street food and shophouses of 1950s Phnom Penh

This collection of archive images depicts Phnom Penh in April 1953, offering an insight into Cambodia on the brink of independence, a country yet to be touched by the heady development of the 60s or the tragedy of the 70s

September 17, 2020
[Photos] The cyclos, street food and shophouses of 1950s Phnom Penh
Central Market in April 1953.

The year is 1953 – the month April. The French Protectorate of Cambodia, still under fading colonial authority of French Indochina, is still six months from the triumphant 9 November return of King Norodom Sihanouk and the de-facto establishment of the First Kingdom of Cambodia. 

Yet to come is the ambitious and forward-thinking first administration of Sihanouk that would oversee Cambodia’s Sangkum Period (Sangkum Reastr Niyum: “popular socialist community”). Phnom Penh, still a small city home to just 333,000 people, was still a sleepy colonial outpost, yet to be transformed into a modern metropolis under the vision of future-state-architect Vann Molyvann. 

Appointed in 1956 to build a Kingdom fit for the post-colonial aspirations of the day, Molyvann, the visionary behind the regenerative Master Plan of Phnom Penh City, would radically change the landscape of the capital. Phnom Penh would transform from the low-lying Chinese-style shophouses and French colonial structures seen in these images, to one of the best examples of creative urban planning in the region. A city dominated by cutting-edge modernist structures inspired by traditional Khmer design and French architect Le Corbusier – his mentor when studying in Paris.  

Saloth Sâr was still just an unknown student of 25 at the time of these images, too. Yet to conceive of his new identity as Pol Pot (Political Potential), Sâr was a member of an elite few afforded the privilege of studying in Paris. Dropping out without completing his degree in radio electronics at the École française de radioélectricité, he would return to French Indochina in January 1953.

But while an inconsequential and fruitless sojourn from an academic perspective, it would be in the French capital in the early 1950s that the stage would be set for Cambodia’s most tragic period over two decades later, as Sâr mingled among leftist Khmer intellectual circles, frequented by the likes of Khieu Samphan and Leng Sary – the future senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge. 

Next door in Vietnam, the Anti-French Resistance War was reaching its climax at the time of these images in mid-1953, with it was fast-dawning on the colonial forces that the war with the Viet Minh, led by Hồ Chí Minh, would not easily be won. A year later, a disastrous defeat for the French at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent July 1954 Geneva Conference that separated Vietnam between North and South, would see the French relinquish any territorial claims in Indochina.

The French Colonial Empire in Southeast Asia was disbanded in its entirety, creating four nation states: The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the Kingdom of Laos. The battle, however, was far from over, with the US ramping up its involvement in Vietnam soon after in 1955, with the ripple of effect of two decades of conflict indelibly altering the politics and lives of those next door in Laos and Cambodia too.

But at this time a country with lofty ambitions on the brink of independence, few could have predicted these nation-defining events to come – still little-more than a distant and unknowable prospect to those in these tranquil scenes of bustling street food vendors and meandering pedalo rides through Phnom Penh’s empty, tree-lined streets.

The exact location of many of these images are unknown. The photos were originally taken by Harrison Forman in April 1953 and have been republished with the consent of the The American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

The United States Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Monks in front of hospital on Norodom Boulevard.

Ponha Yat stupa at Wat Phnom.

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