The gentrified sangkat of Chaktomuk and the areas around Wat Phnom are where the first villas from French colonial times appeared in Phnom Penh.

A short history of grand villas in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was previously known as Krong Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol (‘City of the Brahma’s Faces’).

Loosely translated as “the place of four rivers giving happiness and success to the Khmer Kingdom, the highest leader as well as unconquerable city of the God Indra of the great kingdom”.

It was later shortened to Krong Chaktomuk (City of Four Faces), then Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh was an important hub for French colonialists.

Its wide roads, beautiful gardens and grand villas and colonial mansions earned it the undisputed title ‘Pearl of Asia’ in the 1920s. From this time, the city expanded rapidly.

Chaktomuk is located in Daun Penh; an area under transformation with countless new developments and infrastructure upgrades.

It is a culturally significant area with its landmarks like Wat Botum Park, Botumvatey Pagoda and Independence Monument.

It is also very popular for its many restaurants, cafes, embassies, NGO offices, and boutique hotels.

French Indochina

France gained significant control over mainland South East Asia in the 1860s. It included Cochin-china (southern Vietnam), Cambodia, the remainder of Vietnam and Laos.

In 1887, these areas became a federation of protectorates called French Indochina.

Cambodia entered the French protectorate in 1863 when King Norodom sought assistance to fend off Siam and Vietnam. He signed an agreement in August that year.

The government seat officially moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866 and, from then on, Phnom Penh expanded.

The first modern stone structure built was the Royal Palace, in 1870 and soon afterwards, stone ‘Chinese shop house style’ buildings appeared along the river front.

This style adorns much of SE Asia, characterized by rows of buildings 15 – 30 metres deep. The ground floors used for business and upstairs as residences.

In the 1880s, colonial buildings clustered near Wat Phnom and much of the city was in swamps full of wooden and bamboo buildings.

However, in late 19th century, fires swept through the city, the most famous being the Great Fire of May 1894. After this, brick and cement became the new materials of choice.

With a growing population, development sped up. This involved draining of wetlands, Sisowath Quay expansion, canal, bridge, Post Office and Treasury building construction.

The 20th Century… 

France retained control of Cambodia for much of the first half of the 20th century and many colonial buildings were constructed then, including the Police Station, Hotel Le Royal and many large villas near the Palace.

By the 1930s, the canals were filled and converted to garden boulevards, such as Sihanouk Blvd and Street 108.

In 1935 the Boeung Deco lake disappeared. In its place, the domed, art deco ‘Central Market’ (Phsar Thmey) now stands, opened for business in 1937. This was Phnom Penh’s heyday and many reported Phnom Penh as the most beautiful Asian city.

Even today, in Boeung Reang, Chaktomuk, BKK 1 and Wat Phnom, you can see glimpses of the majestic beauty.

… and now

A villa is typically a large, luxury free standing house in its own grounds (gardens). In Roman times, villas were large estates consisting of buildings around a courtyard.

This definition has largely changed over time and now, ‘villa’ can refer to a large home with a garden (of varying size).

Today, many developers try to reconstruct the grandeur of the former times. They offer a variety of borey villa options starting at $100,000 with some grand villas upwards of $10 million.

Boreys (gated communities) have many types for every budget, with a range of options – flat houses, shop front and villa style. Some offer club houses, swimming pools, on site retail and children’s play areas.

Most have on site staff for garbage collection, security and common area maintenance. Phnom Penh has the most, but others are appearing across the country.

Although the villa has changed over time, they bring back the halcyon days of the French era.

They give the average Khmer family a taste of what Phnom Penh would have been like.

Abode Real Estate’s guide to Phnom Penh