Phantom Villas

CAMBODIA, Kep, 12-09-10:

While a select few are visible from along the roadsides in Kep, many of the old seaside villas are hidden from an otherwise keen eye. It is almost as if the dense mountain foliage is trying to retake these buildings in a very one-sided battle. The last stand perhaps in a series of many battles that raged throughout the region as one of the last remaining Khmer Rouge strongholds up until the late nineteen nineties. Now overgrown and dilapidated to the point where many are barely standing, all of the once pristine French Colonial Estates and others built by the Cambodian elite through the nineteen fifties and sixties are in danger of being lost forever.

Initially home to the French elite in the early twentieth century, this small seaside town became home to high-rollers and the upper echelon of Khmer society in the fifties and sixties. The presence of then Head of State, Norodom Sihanouk residing in his modest seaside palace (The Queen Mother's Residence) Producing Films along with the French-era Casino atop nearby Bokor Mountain, only added to the allure of the area for many Khmer.

Traces of grandeur remain among the small villas with features in decorative latticework, stone and wrought iron fences, broad balconies and stunning views of the coast and mountains from doorways. Cambodian and foreign architects converged on this small town in a time where Sihanouk had a vision for a new Phnom Penh and Cambodia. Architectural eccentricities emerging from the sixties including combinations of revolutionary shapes and volume were all used in a style that was entirely new.

While many of the villas suffered from years of conflict between Khmer Rouge Guerillas and Vietnamese/Cambodian Government Forces, much of the damage did in fact come from the local population as they dismantled and salvaged materials in exchange for food and money with neighbouring Vietnam. While a select few villas are occupied by squatters and staff from nearby resorts, most remain empty. The future for these rare and unique architectural gems does not bode well given the rate of development and disregard for cultural landmarks in Phnom Penh. Rapid growth and a lack of city planning will see this architecture, as an integral component in modern Khmer culture, erased from the map. The preservation and documentation of Khmer architecture throughout the Kingdom is imperative and must not be lost.