A distant incident: Phnom Penh, 1955

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Post Office Square today. Post Office on the left, old Police Commissariat at the far end of the square. La Taverne restaurant was behind the tree facing the Post Office – the building still exists and is occupied by a travel agency and a Seeing Hands massage. The Hotel de La Poste has been demolished and replaced by the neo-colonial data management centre of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the right foreground.

I want you to get a first-hand report of the incident before it gets blown up out of all proportions. Howie, Hap and I had gone to the movie at the American Ambassador’s home. Around ten o’clock we could hear gunfire, explosions and goodness knows what else coming from the direction of the big square in front of the Hotel de la Poste [the Post Office square – the writer and his friends were staying in the hotel].


Hotel de la Poste, 1955 – (No it’s not; my thanks to Steven Boswell, author of the definitive King Norodom’s Head, who points out that this is definitely not the famous hotel, but an unidentified building that may be in the same general area).

We didn’t think much of it at the time – we just thought it was fireworks. However, on arriving back at the hotel we were just in time to see two big armoured cars leaving the square and hundreds of curious people beginning to accumulate. Two of our fellows who had not gone to the show with us were standing in the doorway of the hotel and here’s exactly what happened:


Post Office, 1955 – Police Commissariat on far right

These two follows were sitting in front of the “Taverne” [Phnom Penh’s best restaurant, on Post Office square] at about ten o’clock, when suddenly everyone started running for cover. They didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing until a policeman came up and advised them to please step inside the doorway of the hotel as there was going to be a little war in square any minute. Being quite willing to oblige they retired to the doorway and waited to see what was going to happen.


Police Commissariat today. Slated for redevelopment. There’s a gate on the street on right and it can be entered, but exploration is dangerous.

Well, that was just great!! Shortly after, however, the Chief borrowed some civilian clothes from one of the room boys at the hotel and quietly left via the back door. The whole thing lasted for about an hour, till finally those big armoured cars I mentioned before moved in and put a stop to the nonsense!!! Number of casualties: not one!! The damage was not too bad either, except for some bullet holes in walls and windows of the buildings surrounding the square (the Hotel de la Poste was spared) and a few places where the pavement was chewed up by grenades and mortars.



Ourmisternixon (The author was a 19 year old Canadian filing clerk attached to the ICC, the UN mission charged with overseeing the peace agreement between the French and the communists at the end of the first Indochinese War.)

Additional photos from “A History of Phnom Penh’s Buildings” (Forbes magazine, February 2010 – story by Ron Gluckman, photos by Jerry Redfern).