The Rise and Fall of Phnom Pen Part 2

The arrival of Khymer Rouge arrive in Pnom Pen in April 1975. This photo appeared in the international news services all over the world – afterwards, nothing was reported. Cambodia was cut off from the rest of the world for 4 years during which a paranoid, maniacal regime turned an entire nation into one big killing field. 


One afternoon during one of my regular visits to Phnom Pen between the years 2004 – 2009, I sat in a cafe and watched film clips of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Pen. These were shot by French photographers who were still in Phnom Pen at the time and got out shortly afterwards. They had more luck than an Australian journalist who was captured and tortured to death.  

In the city built by Sihanouk and Van Molyvann, I watched long lines of dour boy soldiers clad in the traditional black pyjamas worn by the peasants, marching through the streets carrying rocket launchers and automatic rifles…..

When I first became interested in Phnom Pen’s apartment blocks, they had a of faded elegance about them. But when I saw them in the French clips, it struck me just how fresh and new they looked back then. And what a perverse, grotesque scene it was: Van Molyvann’s distinctive layer-stack apartment blocks providing the backdrop for the triumphant arrival of the barbarians. 

Within hours of appearing, the Khmer Rouge forced everyone at gun point to leave the city and walk into the countryside where they were to begin working in massive slave camps. In the blueprint for an ideal society, there was no place for cities. In searing heat, two and a half million people were forced to march out of Phnom Pen. No one was spared, neither the elderly, nor the sick. The hospitals were emptied of their staff and patients. Everyone was forced out at a moment’s notice.

Long lines of people filed out of Phnom Pen. Thousands died on the way.


Pol Pot was determined to push Cambodia back into a simpler, unmaterialistic, ‘spiritual’, past. Money, radios, TV’s, motor cars, cassette players, cameras, and so on were prohibited. Those found in possession of such things were summarily executed. The Khmer Rouge attempted to implement an agrarian-based self-sufficient society, forcing Cambodians to work in the rice paddies. In the ensuing months and years, brutalised, brainwashed, illiterate village boys and girls, led by fanatical ideologues, set to work weeding out the enemies of the revolution – which included anyone who had an education and could be deemed to be an ‘intellectual’. Evidence of being an ‘intellectual’ included owning a pair of glasses, speaking with an educated accent, daring to question orders or seeming somehow different. These intellectuals were promptly taken to a killing field and dispatched with a hoe or a pick.

In the almost four years the Khmer Rouge was in power, an entire generation of educated and professionally trained citizens was methodically annihilated. The country’s basic infrastructure — systems of transportation, communication, education, health, economics, and government — was destroyed.

Phnom Pen was left as an empty, silent, ghost town.


How was it possible that a psychopath like Saloth Sar alias Pol Pot ever get the chance to realise his psychotic vision for Cambodia?

In short: because of the American war in Vietnam.

In their struggle against the U.S., the Vietnamese communists began using the jungles of eastern Cambodia as a sanctuary. Cambodia, a small country with a small population was in no position to force the communists to leave.

In 1970, two Machiavellian figures in the form of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger unleashed a bombing campaign on eastern Cambodia without the knowledge or approval of Congress. It went on for years and between a half a million and a million rural peasants died. At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger organised a coup against Sihanouk and had him replaced by a corrupt and unpopular army general who was compliant to the U.S. Sihanouk resided in China. Van Molyvann left and later began working for the U.N.

From the ranks of the young people in Eastern Cambodia who had endured years of total destruction of their way of life, came the recruits for Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge – who in turn were armed and trained by the Vietnamese.


In late 1978, after repeated Khymer Rouge over the border attacks on Vietnamese villages, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese who had installed the Khymer Rouge now decided to remove them. 

Phnom Pen’s apartments were used to billet tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers. It became a garrison for the next 20 years, whilst the Khymer Rouge retreated to the jungles and waged a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were backed by the Russians and the Khymer Rouge by China – and the U.S.


It took me a few years and several visits to Phnom Pen, wandering around quiet backstreets and traffic clocked roads and taking photos of its distinctive apartments, to really understand what this city had endured.

Born as a symbol of independence and cultural renaissance, Van Molyvann’s apartments had acquired layers of meaning along with the stains of innumerable monsoon rains; they were a symbol of possibilities, of promises, come and gone; they were gravestone to the millions of people who were driven out of their homes and butchered, to the years of endless civil war, to the cynical machinations of big power politics.

And now the final denouement.  

A UN brokered peace deal in the early 2000’s followed by elections had ushered in a new era. Yet peace and stability, so long in the offing, did not bring independence. The form of foreign domimnation changed and it was hardly coincidental that in this new era, Phnom Pen’s distinctive apartment blocks faced their greatest threat ever.

Hung Sen, a former member of the Khymer Rouge, was elected Prime Minister and used the opportunity to entrench himself and his family in power.

Under his corrupt and dictatorial rule, Cambodia has become a colony of China.


Many of Van Molyvann’s apartments have been demolished to make way for sterile office blocks of cement and tinted glass. The once low level urban skyline of Phnom Pen is being increasingly invaded by skyscrapers. Vision, planning, ideals, have no place in the new order. Elections are a sham and Cambodian  ‘democracy’ is meaningless. 

In the late 1990’s, an elderly Vann Molyvann returned to Cambodia.

For a while Vann Molyvann was put in charge of overseeing the famous Angkor Wat ruins. He didn’t last long. His opposition to the encroachment on the ruins by developers saw him being eased out of his job by the government. He was dismayed at the way in which developers were allowed to run rampant in Phnom Pen.

Well into his eighties, Vann Molyvann then spent his days campaigning for financial support for the performing arts. These were based in the Tonle Bassac Theatre, a Vann Molyvann designed structure built in 1966.

Before Pol Pot, at least 300 artists were professionally engaged at the Tonle Bassac theatre to give regular performances of classical and folk dance, opera, spoken theatre, acrobatics and live music. Most of them perished during the Khmer Rouge years.

In old age, Van Molyvann remained very much the French educated intellectual who loved to talk about all sorts of subjects – including jazz, literature and architecture.

There was one subject however which he refused to talk about: the golden age, the years when Phnom Pen metamorphosed from the midst of a sleepy provincial river side town and grew into a pearl, an Asian pearl.  


‘I can’t talk about this’ he said, ‘I get too emotional’.




The brilliant young architect spotted by Sihanouk and immediately put in charge of all construction work in Phnom Pen. 


‘I get too emotional’.


A fitting obituary to a great man:

See also: A Simple Twist of Fate


Thank you for looking at my site, cheers, Peter