A Guide to Phnom Penh

by Robert Philpotts

A rare guidebook of Phnom Penh published in 1992, when the capital city was still emerging from civil war. With a quick hop to Angkor.

Philpotts guide pp 1992cover

Type: paperback

Publisher: Blackwater Books, London

Published: August 1992

Author: Robert Philpotts

Pages: 140

ISBN: 0946623 05 8

Language : English

ADB Library Catalog ID: GUIPPPHIL

Apart from the UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) officials and some international experts who had followed King Norodom Sihanouk in his return to the country in November 1991, a few weeks after the Paris Peace Agreement signed on October 23), there was not many international visitors when the author compiled this short yet remarkably to-the-point guidebook.

In the Phnom Penh presented here, Karl Marx Quay and Lenin Boulevard had not yet been renamed Sisowath Quay and Boulevard, all the main arteries (now Monivong, Norodom, Sihanouk, Kampuchea Krom) still bore the names of illustrious anticolonial activists such as Achar Mean, Tou Samouth, Achar Heamcheay, and curfew was still sporadically enforced. Expats and international observers met at Kangaroo House, or at Café No Problem (now Park Hyatt Hotel) -- where they dined upstairs at "the excellent restaurant La Mousson" when they were not venturing into the popular "dancing restaurants."

Then, there were five banks in total, Federation of Russia Boulevard was still called USSR Boulevard, the Boeng Kak lake was still lapping its shores just behind Achar Mean (now Monivong) Bd, and walking around the historic center was quite easy. The author developed a particular fondness for Street 184, with the School of Arts (soon to become Royal University of Arts), the artist and sculptor ateliers, and the improvised English language classes right on the pavement, hence the moniker English Street.

As for Angkor, you could fly to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh on Kampuchea Airlines Antonov An-24 and be back on the same day, but the guide advised to stay longer. You had to pay a 100 USD flat fee to Angkor Tourism, plus 30 USD for the permit to enter Siem Reap, but it was then rumored that these steep rates would be lowered.

Among various notations, we'll retain:

  • The Wat Phnom Stupa "contains a holy relic of the Buddha, a gift from Sri Lanka in 1957. A new monument to house this relic is currently being built on the north slope of Wat Phnom."
  • "The Indian Tree" :

In 1954 when the Prime Minister of India Pandit Nehru visited Cambodia he said "Every blade of grass here breathes Indian Culture", a statement indicative of the special bond between the two countries. Indian armies never conquered Cambodia, instead Indian influence was disseminated by traders and settlers who intermarried with local people. Traditional Cambodian customs and manners such as eating with a spoon and fingers, carrying goods on the head and wearing a turban rather than a straw hat reflect this influence as does cattle rearing which is virtually unknown elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The tree is a symbol of fraternity between India and Cambodia and some distance beyond it, at the junction with Tou Samouth Boulevard, is a bust of Mahatma Gandhi. [Statue and tree are still there, corner Street 106 and Norodom.]

Phnom Penh Indian community members gathering at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, 2023 (Internet)
  •  Le Royal Hotel: 

In the tourist heydays of the late 50s there were some 60 hotels in Phnom Penh and of these the Le Royal was the best known. The changes of name since that time have closely mirrored the shifting political scene in Cambodia. After Prince Sihanouk was overthrown the Lon Nol government had the name changed to the Hotel Phnom. Following the interregnum of the Khmer Rouge the new PRK government prompted a suitably political name i.e. 'Samaki' which means solidarity. The return of Sihanouk brought the original name back again. In the period between the First and Second World Wars when the Le Royal was owned by the Societe des Grand Hotels Indochinois (a company that also owned several first class hotels in Vietnam) it was a natural stop for those well heeled tourists who were motoring up to Angkor or transfering from rail to road on their way from Bangkok to Saigon.

  • Cafe No Problem:

This recently opened bar is really rather exceptional. Housed in a newly renovated house that was once used by members of the Royal Family it will, it is hoped, develop stage by stage into a hotel and restaurant with tennis courts and a swimming pool. It probably possesses the most unusual feature of any hotel in Indochina for at the rear of the building is a backyard iron furnace of the type much favoured in China during the time of Chairman Mao. It dates from the time of Pol Pot. The first proprietor of Cafe No Problem, who was once the concierge of the Hotel Crillon in Paris, had a mind to turn this furnace into a multi-coloured mini George Pompidou centre!

[The mansion had been before the civil war the residence of HRH Samdech Sisowath Pindara, daughter of HM King Sisowath and half-sister of HM King Monivong.]

  • Fine Arts School 184 Street campus:

In the early 20th century in an attempt to revive the art and craftsmanship of Cambodia the French encouraged the building of a School of Fine Art. This remains in its original building. Here students are trained in painting, sculpture and other plastic arts and there are also departments of archaeology and architecture. A shop on 184 Street sells work that has been made by students.

[The guide also mentions the campus dedicated to music and dance studies, then located Street 70.]

  • "English Street":

Along this street are many places where tutors, working on a free-lance basis, give lessons to Khmer students who come to learn English. The going rate is not high, about 100 riels an hour so no-one is making a fortune. Students are always keen to talk to native English speakers: as you walk about Phnom Penh you may often be approached by earnest young men anxious to gain a little language practice. Travelling along 184 Street you may see signs advertising the 'Bangkok Post'. This is one of Bangkok's two English language dailies which is often used by tutors to help their pupils. Because of the colonial past it is not uncommon for older people to speak French and the French certainly have made strong efforts to maintain the position of their language. The 'Alliance Francais' has large premises in 184 Street and offers tuition, up-to-date newspapers, a video room, and television.

  • About the 'Iron Pavilion' at the Royal Palace:

There are a number of reminders of Napoleon the Third in Phnom Penh. Close by the wall that separates the grounds of the Royal Palace from the access road that leads to the north entrance of the Silver Pagoda courtyard is a building quite out of keeping with those which stand nearby. This was a gift of the Emperor (and his wife Eugenie) during the time of his rule. It was shipped out to Cambodia soon after the French acquisition of real power in the country.

[We discussed that assumption in our entry on this Puzzling Pavilion.]

A keen observer of urban fabric and architecture, the author drew himself these views and maps, and photographed the stamps then used at the Cambodian Post Office:

Gates on Lenin Boulevard (now Sisowath Quay). ©Robert Philpotts
Prasat Tonle Bati. The author recommended it as a daily excursion from Phnom Penh, noting that the temple had been "partly desecrated by the Khmer Rouge." ©Robert Philpotts
Stamps at the Post Office in 1992. ©Robert Philpotts
Maps of Phnom Penh in 1992. ©Robert Philpotts

Cover drawing: Le Manolis Hotel from Karl Marx Quay, 1992 ©Robert Philpotts.

Tags: Phnom Penh, guidebooks, Phnom Penh Royal Palace, School of Arts, 1990s, tourism

About the Author

Philpotts guide pp 1992cover

Robert Philpotts

Robert Philpotts (b. 1947) is a British author and illustrator who visited Cambodia in the early 1990s.


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The Tower of London to Tobacco Dock: Through St Katharine's Dock and Old Wapping, London, Blackwater Press, 1990, 16 p., ISBN 13: 9780946623020

A Guide to Phnom Penh, London, Blackwater Press, 1992, 140 p., ISBN 13: 9780946623051

On Foot in the East End: v. 1 (London, Blackwater Press, 1995,  ISBN 13: 9780946623099), v. 2 (London, Blackwater Press, 1995, ISBN 13: 9780946623143)

Reporting Angkor : Chou Ta-kuan in Cambodia, 1296-1297, London, Blackwater Books, 1996, 90 p., ISBN 13: 9780946623969

The coast of Cambodia, London, Blackwater Books, 2002, 214 p., ISBN 13: 9780946623242

South of the Heart: Dry Seasons Journeys between Phnom Penh and Pailin, London, Blackwater Books, 2010, 198 p., ISBN-13: 978-0946623075

Escaping Charcaol (and other stories of Phnom Penh), Kindle Edition, 2012.

Edinburgh to Angkor: John Thomson and 'the Antiquities of Cambodia', London, Blackwater Books, 2017, 176 p., ISBN-13: 978-0946623082