005. Housing Evolution in Cambodia

In SERIES 5, we are taking a look at how tradition, important socio-political events, and cultural world views shaped the Cambodian housing market into what it is today.

Landscape image of modern shophouse facade.

Housing is often said to be a key component in the study of any civilization. Since it is the place where virtually everyone spends most of their lifetime in, it is always prone to reinterpretation due to socio-political changes. As seen throughout history, architectural trends often feed on new radical political ideas, encapsulating the geo-political shift of its time in solid physical form. As people’s lives change to the currents of their time, so too their dwellings in order to accommodate the residents’ current needs. This results in the residential trends that we often associate with different eras of history. However, this is not to say that everyone's home is the same, but homes that are located within the same geographical or cultural sphere of influence are more or less comparable.

As the housing archetype continues to adapt and refine, a civilization's historical timeline can be an adequate tool to help explain to us how the aforementioned components of tradition, socio-political events, and cultural worldviews have been shaping our interpretation of what a home should be.

Current Residential Archetypes in Cambodia

Cambodia's residential architecture encompasses a considerable range of types and styles. This rich architectural diversity results from centuries of refinement, foreign influences, and socio-political changes that defined the past eras.

Line illustration of a Khmer wooden house.

Traditional houses

One of the most common housing typologies in the country, this ancient archetype can be easily characterized by its raised floor platform and its usage of traditional materials (wood and thatch) – albeit the usage of contemporary materials was later incorporated. Although there are still remnants of its presence in many regions, this type of dwelling is mostly found in rural areas where modern construction materials are scarcely available.

Linkhouses (Medium-density housing)

Introduced to the Khmer urban fabric under the form of a Chinese shophouse, rowhouses (commonly known as shophouses) can be found all around high to medium-density urban regions where most commercial activities are found. Typically built from 2 to 5 stories in masonry, these houses are considered medium-density housing.

Line illustration of a Khmer shophouse.
Line illustration of a Khmer condominium.

High-density housing

Usually comes in the form of modern high-rise condo/apartment buildings that scatter throughout well-developed cities like Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. This type of housing is mostly catered towards upper classes as well as expats to own/rent and is considered a luxury for most locals.

Detached houses (Villa)

A common type of housing associated with the upper class; usually situated within big compounds, either in the city centers or the outskirts. Since the rise of “Borey” developments and consumerist culture, the villa also became more accessible to a greater population.

Line illustration of a Khmer villa.
Line illustration of a Khmer informal settlement.

Inner-city informal settlements

This typology mainly refers to dwellings that lack any of the following: proper structural support, access to household necessities (clean water and electricity), and most importantly, land ownership claim. Scattered through various parts of big cities, these settlements can represent the country’s wealth disparity caused by decades of internal conflicts.

Dwellings in Pre-Colonial Cambodia

Cambodian traditional houses take on a similar appearance to many other traditional houses in Southeast Asia. These dwellings can be described as stilt houses with pitched roofs, built from locally-sourced materials (timber, straw or bamboo). Although it is not known to where this vernacular originated from nor who catapulted its widespread adoption, there is a clear answer to why it was adopted: Climate Adaptability. Not only does the raised platform enable an efficient natural ventilation system to combat the extreme heat, but it also prevents interventions caused by nature such as seasonal floods and vermin.

Image of traditional Khmer stilt house.

In Cambodia, traditional houses typically follow a very common and straightforward layout. In terms of volume, each house is divided into two sections: the raised living space and the open void beneath. The open ground level is usually reserved for livestock and farming tools storage, and can also double as an idyllic living space during daytime. Upstairs, the space is further divided into 3 main parts: the front living space, the central private space (sub-divided into 2 bedrooms), and the back kitchen (which can also be pushed to the side). Dedicated bathrooms were not a concept that existed during this period. Instead, waste disposal in bushes and forests along with open bathing or from rainwater collecting jars were common hygienic practices.

Illustrative diagram naming each room of a traditional Khmer stilt house.

A variation of this traditional dwelling also existed in this era called the “Pteah Tiam”. This type of grounded dwelling is suitable for merchant families and was primarily built by the Sino and Vietnamese who had assimilated into the local population. It can be described as an adaptation of the Southern Chinese shophouse or a predecessor to the modern day shophouse.

List of architectural elements found in a traditional Khmer stilt house. Walls, flooring, roof, doors & windows, stairs, columns.

Despite having mastered stonework art, the Khmer believed that mortals, including the royals, can only reside in houses made from perishable materials. Almost all components of the house from beams/columns to doors/windows were carpentered – leaving roof tiles to be made from clay and lead. Decorative elements depicting nature scene were modestly carved onto the roofs, doors/windows and top parts of the walls.

Dwellings in French Colonial Cambodia

Modernization of Khmer architecture can be attributed to outside forces, namely the French colonists and Chinese settlers, dating back to the 18th-19th century. However, centuries before, Cambodia had also been a hotspot for foreign interventions from Siam, Vietnam, and Iberia— all however failed to leave material impacts on the heavily Indianized local culture.

Archival image of Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Source: Unknown

Mid-19th century, after exhausting attempts to keep the nation from being devoured by foreign powers, Cambodia finally succumbed to French authority— who quickly set out to modernize its new colonial territory. The first shift in Khmer architecture came with the construction of a new masonry Royal Palace. This introduction of modern materials gradually influenced residential buildings in urban settings at the end of the 19th century.

Illustrations of colonial building typologies. Colonial shophouse, colonial villa, Khmer traditional house.

Grounded masonry houses gained favor amongst city dwellers after the Great Fire of Phnom Penh (1894). After, two new residential archetypes arose: the European-style villas and the Chinese-style shophouses. The most successful of which— the shophouse, an efficient residential archetype characterized by shared walls and homogeneity. The cost and layout efficiency were likely factors that set off its dominance over Cambodia’s urban landscape. A typical colonial shophouse follows a simple layout where the shop is placed on the ground floor leaving the upper floor to residential spaces. Kitchen and bathrooms were located in a smaller back building separated from the main house by a central courtyard that brought in light and ventilation. The courtyards were sometimes opened up to create a communal space between neighbors.

Image of Indochinoir building facade.

Masonry buildings of this period largely followed 2 architectural trends: Indochinoirs and Art-Deco. Indochinoirs referred to an architectural style that infused aspects of European neo-classical design with Indochinese architecture. This façade usually combined ornate European details with local components (louvered shutters and high-pitched roofs). After the construction of Psar Thmei (an Art-Deco masterpiece) in the 1930s, dwellings started to adopt this new style, which favored clean geometric forms and lines.

Dwellings in Post-Independence Cambodia

Despite rapid development in urban infrastructure, colonial Cambodia also saw turmoil under the French rule, especially during WWII. This led to the surge of the independence movement with Prince Norodom Sihanouk credited as the head of state. In 1953 after gaining full independence, Sihanouk sought to reimagine Khmer society, one that put heavy emphasis on modernity, commonly known as “Sangkum”.

Archival aerial image of Council of Ministers Building.

One way to exemplify this approach was through architecture. Driven by the prince’s ambition and pioneered by a group of foreign-trained contemporary architects (ie. Vann Molyvann, Lu BanHap, etc.), “New Khmer Architecture” was conceived. This approach blended the modernist movement of the time with traditional Khmer elements. The 4 main characteristics of New Khmer Architecture: modern material (reinforced concrete), additional revisions of stilt homes, redesigns more suitable for the tropical climate, and incorporation of Angkorian ornaments. This new architecture quickly spread throughout the country and can be found in both public and residential buildings.

Illustration of a Khmer shophouse.


These multi-story shophouses blocks were revamped as Western-style apartments blocks completed with public staircases, lifts, walkways, leisure facilities, and most notably public courtyards.  

Stilt houses

The opening of a new national cement plant along with a growing economy helped spur demand for popular add-on features such as masonry structures below traditional stilt-houses and more hygienic bathroom systems.

Illustration of a Khmer stilt house.
Illustration of a Khmer post colonial villa.


In the quieter residential areas, the spatial programming of private villas took on a more modernized approach which went hand in hand with its stylistic shift. New Khmer Architecture made a contribution to privately owned dwellings through the use of traditional decorative elements (i.e. Bayon Temple smiling stone faces).

Public housing

A Cambodia's interpretation of Western-style social housing compartments, this house typology was introduced in 1960s as state-funded social housing blocks to offer urban living at an affordable price.

Illustration of Khmer public housing.

To address population growth and housing demands, a new public housing scheme was introduced to the masses. The conventional shophouse typology was revamped into Western-style apartment blocks with public staircases, lifts, walkways, leisure facilities, and most notably, public courtyards. The ground floors, which helped facilitated commercial trade, was retained in urban city centers. In the quieter residential areas, private villas took on a modernized approach along with a stylistic shift. The opening of a national cement plant made concrete a more accessible material in rural areas. Additional masonry structures below stilt houses and more hygienic bathrooms became popular add-ons. In the early 1960s, another house typology was introduced as state-funded public housing. These mid-rise "co-living" housing blocks essentially represented Cambodia's interpretation of Western-style social housing.

However, Sihanouk's vision of modern Cambodia only lasted for 15 years as his rule came to an abrupt end in 1970 when Cambodia was entangled with Cold War geopolitics.

Dwellings in Post-war & Modern Cambodia

Being tossed from one political power to another, millions of lives were taken while all aspects of the nation took a plunge. Until 1989 when Cambodia started seeing prospect of relative stability, a new land ownership law was enacted to replace the initial law that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Once again, people started building houses, and cities started to be repopulated after evacuation efforts by the Khmer Rouge.

Illustration of a Khmer shophouse with add-ons.

Informal add-ons

Since all prior records of ownership had been destroyed and most of the original owners had either been killed or had fled the country, properties were re-given to civilians on a first-come-first-served basis. Add-on structures started to be informally built on top of pre-existing structures to accommodate extremely overcrowded city-centers.

Slum settlements

Due to the growing population and the spike of poverty resulted from the war, slums started to grow exponentially within and around the cities. Houses in these areas are built out of necessity and not necessarily with longterm use in mind. Simple and cheap materials such as zinc sheets and recycled wood are widely used among houses of this type with very weak structural support. 

Illustration of a Khmer slum house.

With the prior ownership records destroyed and millions of people dead or displaced, properties were re-given on a first-come-first-served basis. This opened up a floodgate of people cramming into the cities as well as a rise in informal dwellings throughout the country. Many people are still living in impoverished conditions and lack social support to upkeep their given properties leftover from Sangkum.

Illustration of a Khmer borey house.


Starting from the 1990s, cluster houses or “Borey” were reintroduced to the public and have become one of the most popular housing options today. Unlike its French colonial and Sangkum counterparts which were exclusive only to certain groups, Boreys of today cater to the mass market and are being built out in mass scale.

High-rise buildings

Since the 2010s, urban centers in Cambodia have also seen a rise in modern high-rise condos and apartments catered mostly toward the luxury crowd. 

Illustration of a Khmer high-rise building.

However, as investments started to pour into Cambodia’s stabilizing economy; new housing alternatives marketed to the wealthier population were also introduced by private developers. During the 1990s, cluster houses or “Boreys” were reintroduced to the public, and have become one of the more popular housing options. Unlike boreys of the bygone eras, modern Boreys are catered to the masses, making private housing even more accessible. This, along with the boom of luxury high-rise condos/apartments of the 2010s as well as other pre-existing typologies, gives Cambodia's real estate market a much-needed facelift.

Modern dwellings tend to favor form over functionality, abandoning climate adaptive features that used to be a main focal point of the past architectural trends. Houses in the 1990s still retained aspects of New Khmer Architecture. Yet it was short-lived due to the peculiar resurgence of neoclassicism.

Image of a borey house.

The high-rise boom in the 2010s also brought along the international “contemporary” style which exudes simple and sleek characteristics. Despite this, the neo-classical style still has an appeal to certain demographics, and is only getting more excessive to exemplify perplexed grandeur.

An overview of Cambodia's urban development through the centuries

Archival image of pre-colonial houses in Phnom Penh.
Credit: Émile Gsell


As an agrarian-based society, the urban landscape of ancient Khmer civilization can be described as rural by today’s standard. The only existing housing typology was the traditional wooden/straw houses that featured open spaces, which helped communal interactions to flourish. Although houses may vary in size and material based on wealth and status, the overall archetype of Khmer dwellings in its early history remained largely unchanged – with the exception in roof design.

Archival image of colonial houses in Phnom Penh.
Source: Unknown


The start of the French Colonial period in the mid-19th century marked a turning point in Cambodia's geo-political and urban landscape. Under French administration, Phnom Penh saw various developments with public infrastructure as well as land management policies. Perhaps, the most important change was the introduction of masonry dwellings which broke the centuries-long Khmer tradition of wood-based construction.

Archival image of post-independence houses in Phnom Penh.
Archives Nationales du Cambodge


After gaining independence from France in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk initiated a massive public works campaign that helped shape much of Cambodia's urban characteristics today. As urban areas around the country grew in population, building for higher density became a priority as can be seen through ambitious projects such as 5-6 story high apartment-style shophouses and Western-style social housing units (ie. White Building, Grey Building, etc.) — which replaced the traditional 2-3 story level colonial shophouses. Concrete started to become widespread with the introduction of a new cement plant in Kampot. But further development was halted in the 1970s when Cambodia fell into decades-long brutal civil unrest.

Aerial image of modern Phnom Penh.
Credit: Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia


After several decades of infighting and genocide, Cambodia slowly started picking itself up again. The after effects of the conflict left millions of people living in poverty — the majority of which turned to informal housing as a means of accommodation. On the other hand, thanks to the newly-revived economy, the population is gradually growing wealthier, resulting in more housing options like massive cluster home projects and high-rise residential units.