26 December 2010

The Price of Old Phnom Penh Starting Anew

"Phnom Penh", composed by Norodom Sihanouk (OP: Rebecca Pan Productions)

In 1960s, Phnom Penh the "Pearl of the Orient" became so legendary that Prince
Sihanouk (now the King Father) wrote a song to show his passion and admiration
on her. Here is a live recording of the song performed for the Prince at a Cambodian
Red Cross event in 1969, vocal by Ms Rebecca Pan, the top cabaret singer of
Hongkong at the time.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and a city widely honoured and acclaimed for her beautiful and historical architecture and attractions, celebrated her 575th birthday in 2009.

Wat Phnom Daun Penh featured on a 1983 souvenir sheet with official first day
commemorative postmark, it is to celebrate the 4th anniversary of liberation from Khmer Rouge.
S/S print run: 21,750

Phnom Penh got her name from Daun Penh, an old lady who found some Buddha statues
in the hole of a tree trunk which she pulled out from water in a flood. Daun Penh built a little
hill and a temple on top of it to enshrine what she had found, the site is now Wat Phnom
Daun Penh, the holy landmark of Phnom Penh.

The city was formally founded in 1434 by King Ponhea Yat of Angkor who built his palace near the present Wat Phnom Daun Penh. Phnom Penh remained quiet until 1870s when the French colonialists gradually built it into a modern French style city. In 1950s and 1960s Prince Sihanouk further expanded Phnom Penh under the New Khmer Architecture Movement, the city was in such full splendid that the then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew had invited Prince Sihanouk to send architects to Singapore for civil engineering advices.

It was only the series of unfortunate events from 1970s to 1990s which brought Phnom Penh to crumble.

The Chaktomuk Royal Palace, Phnom Penh.

Although the city is cultural rich, unlike counterparts such as Bangkok and Hanoi, Phnom Penh did not mark her foundation anniversary lavishly. Only a small celebration was done at Phnom Daun Penh, and no commemorative postage stamps were issued to reaffirm the national and cultural identity of the 575 years old royal capital.

A set of three stamps were issued in 1997 to celebrate
the 30th anniversary of ASEAN. Landmarks of Phnom Penh are themed:
500r Wat Ounalom, 1500r the Royal Palace, and 2000r the National Musuem. Stamp set print run: 124,350

Since peace returned in 1993 which provided a stable environment for national economic recovery, Phnom Penh has been facing a cruel fact that national and cultural identity cannot generate money directly which eventually makes heritage the least thing for the city's officials to concern. The government visions skyscrapers as symbol of prosperity and advancement, this is shown by the city's tremendous economic boom with new buildings sprout up like mushrooms, lakes and ponds filled for land, historic French colonial buildings torn down for new modern glass wall monsters.

To make room for development, original occupants of the land are forced to relocate outside the urban area, slum communities are displaced, neighbourhood is ruined, and hookers, beggars and street children are driven away or banged up.

During UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's visit, villagers of Boeung Kak Lake
protest against forced relocation with unfair compensation, October 2010.
(Photo: Cambodia Sin Chew Daily)

Land problems regularly hit news headlines in such a way that they are getting boring to news readers. The officials come up with a simple solution, a new Freedom Park for free speech. The park is in fact a designated protest site, victims of social problems as well as policy dissenters are not allowed to gather in front of the Prime Minister's house or anywhere else. Officials say it is the Hyde Park of Cambodia, but critics argue that London's Hyde Park is not a designated demonstration area, and it is not to keep problems at bay.

My self designed commemorative cover celebrating the 575th anniversary of Phnom Penh.

Just as many great cities of the world which experience rapid changes, Phnom Penh is struggling hard to secure her centuries old heritage and speedy modern developement. The city is glowing with new neon electric lights, and at the same time, walking on thin ice of losing the old natural glowing Cambodian smile.

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