Phnom Penh/ Water and Khmer settlement

The presence of water can be found even in early Khmer settlements in the region of the middle to lower Mekong River.

Early on, there had been circular earthworks as settlements near the Mekong River where circular earthen mounds were found. They were sometimes more than 1km in diameter and generally consisted of 2 ramparts and 3 moats. Situated inside the inner rampart, the interior moat would serve as a water reservoir for residents of the settlement, whereas the middle moat and the outer moat (found between the 2 ramparts and outside the outer rampart respectively) were filled with water diverted from the river or waterway along which such settlements were established.

At present, residents perhaps do not need the protection of moats, but interaction with the rivers is still very common in Khmer lives.

The history of expansion of Phnom Penh is described as “hydraulic” by Van Molyvann, and this is not without a reason. Construction of dikes that extended away from the city’s colonial center on the banks of the Tonle Sap River was Phnom Penh’s means of expansion. Dikes were built in the expansion with their interiors filled, creating a series of concentric arcs on which the major boulevards (Preah Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Mao Tse Tung Boulevard etc) run today. The encircled areas within the dikes are then urbanized, and this is where the four central city districts (Chamkar Mon, Prampel Makara, Daun Penh and Toul Kork) lie today.

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Phnom Penh today with the four central “Khan” and main city boulevards

Water accumulation along the dikes are common today, and during rainy seasons they are to be discharged into a network of ponds and canals outside the city if flooding is to be avoided, but this is not always done with efficiency. In Van Molyvann’s view, the construction of ever larger concentric dikes does not deem practical as an expansion strategy to the city. This may be true as the mentioned expansion strategy would require massive and costly public work projects to make it work, but before we draw a conclusion, we would wind back in the next few posts and track the strategies and measures in the urban planning of Phnom Penh over the years that might have combated or contributed to the problem of flooding today.

Source: Modern Khmer Cities, Van Molyvann (2003)


2 Comments on “Phnom Penh/ Water and Khmer settlement

  1. How does the residents interact with the river or the water these days? Was the word “hydraulic” used due to the form of the expansion of the city or because of the way it expanded? If latter, how? Why did the infrastructure failed to hold the flood? What are the flaws of the previous system? Were there alternative measurements taken?

    • To date, residents still live next to, or even on water. Stilt houses are common, so are floating houses. People literally hop into the river for baths, disregarding the hygiene conditions. In fact, lack of household and fecal water treatment is also an issue, and in solving the latter problem solutions like floating toilets have been invented. (see for more details – it’s rather interesting.)

      As for the expansion being describe as hydraulic, it is simply because Phnom Penh has long been related to water and will still be in the future, as every step of its expansion has to deal with the interference of the existing water channels if land is to be created.

      You can find the answers to your other questions in our other posts – thanks for commenting 😀

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