The Old Police Station

Although Phnom Penh’s face and skyline have been drastically changing at a tremendous pace since the past few years, the capital city of Cambodia still retains some of the beautiful testimonies of its glorious past.

If you look around, especially in the centre of the city and area known as “the Old French Quarter”, you still can see traces of the French colonial architecture. Few French styled administrative buildings and houses built during the 19th century still remain, some either wonderfully renovated some in total disrepair. For example, the Central Market, Hotel Le Royal, beautifully restored, and some still crumbling like some old French churches or former rich Cambodian family mansions.

One of the old buildings we really like is the Old Police station, called “Le Commissariat” and dating from the French protectorate.

Located right next to the Central Post Office, this administrative building was completed in 1892 and was the former colonial police headquarters at the time. Since then, it has fallen into ruin but you can still see the French-styled shutters, the vintage checked tiles and the yellowish fading derelict walls. It has been for years and until today, the home and living quarters of several local families who are currently ‘squatting’ the place.

Don’t let fences and crumbling walls surrounding the building intimidating you, just step in and enter the building, step back in time and be ready for the experience! You will feel carried away into another period and another space, in a “behind-the-scene” hidden place. Private homes and shops are cohabiting. You can walk around and feel the magic and age of the building.

This collapsing building is exquisite and it is quite sad that no one really knows what it will become of in a few years. Some investors could just decide to tear it down to use the space and build something modern useful for the city… We deeply hope it will remain preserved. On a side note, “Le Commissariat” has been the setting stage for Matt Dillon’s movie “City of Ghosts” released back in 2002.

Take a look at the photos, they really speak for themselves, don’t they?

If you are interested in visiting the old police station, join our interactive walking adventure! Our scripted scenario will lead you not far from the building…

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What is the Royal Ploughing Ceremony ?

Yes, believe it or not, another festival is coming soon in Cambodia… It is the Royal Ploughing Ceremony! 

✅ Where does it come from?

Mid to late May marks the beginning of the rainy season and the rice planting season. At that time of the year, an ancient tradition still persists in Cambodia as a very important festival, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony (also called Festival of the holy furrow) or PithiChratt Preah Nongkâl” (textually “Pressing the Sacred Plough”). It comes from an old Hindu rite.

The date varies every year as the festival celebration follows the lunar calendar and depends on the phases of the moon of May. This year it will be celebrated on the upcoming Wednesday 22nd of May! The celebration is aimed at favouring rains and good crops in the whole Kingdom.

✅ What is going on during the celebration?

The ceremony usually takes place in the large empty “field” next to the Royal Palace aka “Veahl Preah Sraè” and in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, as well as in other provinces.

In Phnom Penh, it is the King (or His Representative) who inaugurates the season of ploughing by drawing the three first furrows around the Sacred Rice Field with His Royal Oxen.

At the end of the ploughing, the oxen are unloaded from their harnesses and directed towards seven trays containing various foods, prepared by the Brahmin priests.

Depending on what the sacred animal choose to eat or drink (soybeans, corn, rice, sesame, grass, water, grain or wine), predictions will vary from bountiful harvests to bad weather (drought, floods…) and even unrest (wine)… ! 

Don’t smile, locals take these predictions very seriously! No ploughing can take place and no tracing furrows can be done before the Royal Ploughing Ceremony has been performed by the King or His Representative.

At the end of the festival, Cambodian farmers will ceremoniously collect the seeds – spread out by Preah Neang Me Huor, the female representative of the Queen, after the very first furrows are traced – in order to mix them with their own seeds to get a bountiful harvest.

These deep superstitious beliefs related to supernatural are part of the unique Khmer culture. 🇰🇭

If you are interested in learning more about Khmer culture and in visiting Phnom Penh city in a different way, join our interactive walking adventure.

Photo Credit: various sources

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3 things to know about the Khmer New Year (បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី)

❇️ Where does it come from?

« Bonn Chaul Chnam Thmei« បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី literally means “entering the new year”. It is the name one of the two most important Cambodian holidays that celebrates the traditional lunar New Year that is officially set on April 13th.

However, this year 2019, the celebration will start on the 14th of April and will last 3 days until April 16th, depending effectively on the actual phases of the Moon.

Traditionally, that event falls at the end of the harvesting season, when the farmers can finally rest and enjoy life, marking the break between the dry season and the beginning of the “green rainy season”.

It is the opportunity for most Khmer people to return to their home villages with their families, so big cities become empty and quiet, and lots of shops are closed.

❇️ What is going on during the celebration?

The 3 first days of the year have special names (derived from Sanskrit, the language of ancient India and used in Angkor times) and have different traditions attached to each of the three days :

Moha Sangkraant ( មហាសង្រ្កាន្ត )

On the first day, Cambodians dress up to the nines and go to pagodas to light candles, burn incense sticks and pay homage to Buddha as well as to welcome the New Year’s Tevoda (Angel). They wish each other a happy new year at the end of that first day.

Vireak Vanabat (វិរៈវ័នបត)

“Vi” in “Vireak” meaning “reflecting on life and getting oneself ready for changes and new direction in life. »

On the second day, Solidarity is very important and Cambodians are dedicated to helping poor people through charity; they also go to pagodas to attend ceremonies to honour their ancestors. Children traditionally offer gifts to their parents and grandparents. In the pagodas, Khmer people erect mountains of sand symbolizing the Buddha and his disciples, decorated with multi-coloured paper flags, and ask blessing of happiness and peace from the monks for the year to come.

Veareak Loeng Sakk (វារៈឡើងស័ក) or Th’ngai Loeng Sak

“Vea” in “Veareak” meaning “climb up/going up” onto the hierarchy ».

On the third and last day, Buddhists clean the Buddha statues (the ceremony is called “Pikthee Sroang Preah”) and their elders with perfumed water. This practice symbolizes the washing away of bad actions and is believed to bring longevity, prosperity, good luck and happiness for the coming year. Children traditionally wash as well their parents and grandparents and this ritual is supposed to obtain from them the best support for the rest of the year.

❇️ What are the traditions surrounding the celebration?

It is a joyful family and friendly time of the year, when people prepare and cook special dishes. One of the most famous is the Nohm (cake) Krôlane Khmer. Originally from the rural areas, you can now find it in all the cities now and it is very popular for Khmer New Year. It is a cake made of steamed rice, shaved coconut, coconut milk, soya beans and peas. It is pressed inside a hollow bamboo stick and slow-roasted for 30 to 45mn over a fire.

During the 3-day celebrations, various traditional local games are played by young people and adults to perpetuate the traditions, as well as songs, dances and karaoke on the streets.

In Siem Reap- Angkor, traditional Trott Dance troupe will go from house to house from village to village chasing away evil spirits from individual homes and village by performing the Trott Dance.

Finally Cambodians clean up their home from top to bottom, decorate it with flowers & plants and prepare numerous offerings to put on their spirit house and also to welcome the Tevoda of the New Year.

សួស្តីឆ្នាំថ្មី (Soursdey Chnam Thmey)  Happy Khmer New Year 2563 B.E., and Year of the Pig !

If you are interested in learning more about Khmer culture and in visiting Phnom Penh city in a different way join our interactive walking adventure. Please note that we will be closing for Khmer New year celebration from Saturday 13th to Wednesday 17th April included.

 Photo Credit: various sources

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♕ Okk Chatrang (Khmer Chess) ♞

The Chess game is one of the oldest and most popular strategy board games in South East Asia.

Its origins still remain obscure but it is supposed to originally come from North India, around the year 500.

First a warrior game, it then spread to Central Asia and China, while following the road of Buddhism and gradually became a symbol of social promotion in the 18th century.

Bas-reliefs at Bayon Temple in Angkor Archaeological Park even depict chess players, showing that the game arrived in Cambodia at least during Angkorian times.

The most popular Cambodian chess game is called “Okk Chatrang”. “Okk” is believed to come from the sound made between the piece and the chessboard while the player is checking. When checking the enemy King, the player must say out loud the word “Okk” (which means “check”).

This overwhelmingly male game is still a very popular pastime widely played in Cambodia. It is very common here to see players, mostly old men concentrating over a chessboard in the streets of Phnom Penh, in the province and in the countryside, on some coffee house terraces or on the sidewalk in front of their shop or even on a chessboard drawn on the dirt soil or with a chalk.

While the western version of chess requires two players only, in Cambodia there are usually 2 teams of people playing against each other. It makes the game more stimulating and fun as a small crowd is usually gathering around.

If you are interested in knowing more about the rules of the Khmer chess, you can join our interactive walking adventure in Phnom Penh… You’ll be surprised that playing chess can sometimes help unveil a mystery …! 😃

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Latitudes Magazine « l’art de vivre in Thailand and in Cambodia » is featuring us!

Latitudes Magazine team thoroughly enjoyed our new interactive walking adventure in the heart of Phnom Penh and featured us in their last issue #13 for February & March 2019.

In summary, they highlight that « at the end of this fun and informative adventure, you have not only discovered places steeped in history but also some traditions deeply rooted in the Khmer way of life« . It is for them « perfect for a family or friends on vacation« .

>>> You can read the whole article right here, on page 64.

Thank you for your article, Laurence Labadens!

Urban Tales Phnom Penh
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