001. The Shophouse

An in-depth analysis of the Khmer shophouses’ evolution since its introduction to Cambodia.

Landscape image of Khmer shophouses.

Where it all began

In the late 19th century, the city was divided into 3 different ethnic districts. Most of the commercial trading activities occurred along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. It was reported in 1859 that a growing part of the city’s population was Chinese, mainly due to the Mekong river and South China Sea connection, which helped facilitate trade between China and Southeast Asia.

In 1865, 2 years after Cambodia was colonised by France, Phnom Penh was designated as the new capital and major developments quickly took off from there. The new Royal Palace was built using masonry structure and King Norodom hired a French contractor to build an additional 300 Chinese shophouses to accommodate for the city’s rapid population growth. This was when the shophouse concept was introduced to Cambodia.

In 1889, the city was divided into different districts based accordingly to ethnicity and profession. The French District was comprised of administrative offices, the Chinese District consisted of commercial shops, and the Khmer District was the local administrative area.

By this time, most of the present day road layouts were fixed and canals were newly constructed. To this day, some of the surviving buildings can still be found, sometimes abandoned and unpreserved.

Early Map

Illustrated here is a map of early Phnom Penh in the late 19th century with the division of the three districts in the city. The French with its unique Art Deco architecture occupied the northern part of the city. The newly built Chinese shophouses arose in between the French and Khmers, solidifying it as the heart of the city. The Khmers remained in the south around where the Royal Palace is located.

Three different types of architecture. From left to right: French, Chinese, Khmer

Did you know?

A great fire swept through Phnom Penh in 1894 and took with it almost all of the traditional Khmer wooden structures in the city. This prompted King Norodom and the Municipality to order that all new construction must be built of fireproof masonry. This would become the catalyst for the shophouse boom in Phnom Penh.

Image of Phnom Penh prior to the fire of 1894. Credit: Émile Gsell

Evolution of the Shophouse


The earliest form of the shophouse typology in Cambodia is typically 2 stories high with simple facade designs. Over the years, building technology improved which led to taller buildings & more decorative ornamentations. Elements of this architectural style can be found throughout Southeast Asia, with which it shares similar influences from early Chinese immigrants and European colonialists.


The new urban planning strategy to expand Phnom Penh westward led by French Architect Ernest Hébrard and the emergence of the "Art Deco” style led to a shift in the Phnom Penh architectural landscape. The introduction of reinforced concrete allowed for corner buildings to have true rounded curves.


Following independence from France in 1953, a sudden surge in population prompted city planners to expand on the existing shophouse typology by scaling them up multiple floors and dividing them into multiple units — turning them into apartment blocks with public shared courtyards. Led by the Modernist movement of that era, emphasis on pure geometry and minimalism was embraced along with the “New Khmer architecture” style that was pioneered by the late great Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann.


The fragile state of the post-war nation was reflected in the early alterations to the shophouse typology where fences, metal bars and barbed wires were commonly added for security purposes. As Cambodia was recovering, wealthier individuals started to re-integrate elements of “neo-classical” architectural style into their shophouses, and ground floors started to slowly transition into exclusively residential living spaces.


The economic boom of the past decade and emergence of the growing middle class paved the way for the era of “boreys” or gated communities in the suburbs. Although some characteristics of the urban shophouse typology were adopted, borey shophouses failed to incorporate certain key elements such as commercial/residential mixed-use, natural lightwells, and passive air ventilation. Design-wise, various experimentations have led to a co-existence of styles ranging from the cost-efficient “shoebox” forms to the overly excessive “neo-classical” designs.

Earlier Shophouses (Privatized Courtyard):

This archetype is usually found in earlier shophouses where they were divided into three main parts: the main house, the courtyard & the annex. The main house was further divided into 2 spaces: the commercial ground floor and the living spaces on the upper floors. The courtyard, located behind the main house and walled up from the neighbours, only acts as a lightwell and a ventilation passage. The back part of the house is where the annex is, comprising of the kitchen/storage and toilet. The detachment of the kitchen from the main house separates the living area from unwanted smoke and smell. Unlike other shophouse typologies found in Malaysia and Vietnam where there are several annexes and lightwells, Cambodia's early shophouses are much simpler in terms of their spatial organization.

Mid-Century Shophouses (Communal Courtyard):

The spatial layout of the shophouses remained relatively the same following the post-independence era. However, in many cases, the front main house and the back annex were further sub-divided into separate units with different households occupying different floors. With the annex transformed into its own separate apartment block, the courtyard areas became a shared communal space spanning multiple bays. Newly constructed exterior staircases allowed for easier access to the upper floors. These courtyards retained some lighting/ventilation purposes for the buildings and in some cases, provided space for integration of small vendors and public restrooms.

Early Shophouse Design (Privatized Courtyard)
Illustration of a isometric cross section of a modernized Khmer shophouse.
Mid-Century Shophouse Design (Communal Courtyard)

Usage of the courtyard space

Light & Ventilation

Due to the narrow nature of the shophouse typology, the introduction of a central courtyard feature was an ideal solution for bringing light and cross ventilation into a high-density area. Natural light, wind, and air circulation are essential elements of clean and comfortable living. Purpose-built ventilating mechanisms like windows, louvres, etc. help regulate a building’s climate and facilitates healthy airflow in/out, all the while conserving energy usage that otherwise would be spent on air con and artificial lighting.

Communal Access

In a public courtyard layout, the enclosed open space, surrounded by buildings or walls, serves as an intermediary space by connecting the public and private space. It also functions as a necessary space for parking and an entrance area for residents in the community. Within the shophouse courtyard setting, there are usually multiple shared outdoor staircase that connects the residents of the upper floor units to the communal ground floor.


As an outdoor shared space within a residential development, the centralized courtyard provides a focal point for social interaction and family/community activities. Children can have a safe area to run around and play together. Adults can do laundry, cook with outdoor grills, or converse among themselves while conducting various leisure activities.

The Spatial Analysis of Shophouses

The shophouse was previously adopted by Phnom Penh urban planners as the primary building typology to efficiently resolve the city’s population growth while maximizing function/form within a limited urban footprint. This compact design cleverly encompasses both the residential and commercial aspects of living — all into one singlular urban block. This proved not only to be efficient in terms of avoiding urban sprawl but also helped reduced daily commute as most daily essentials can already be found within each neighborhood.


The placement of the commercial aspects on the ground floor, directly in front of the street, was a clever way to invite pedestrians in with easy access to the shops. Since there were no zoning restrictions, development was dictated by neighborhood necessities and associated businesses. Thus, you can find all sorts of businesses ranging from restaurants, gas shops, or mini banks — all in a singular block. These daily hustles and bustles breathed life into the city streets — giving the city scape a sense of character and uniqueness.


Being situated on the upper floors, the residential area receives much-needed privacy/separation from the busy streets below. Residents also receive better air circulation, leading to a cooler/pleasant living environment. Naturally, the co-habitation of a densely packed area, forces residents to interact very closely to their neighbors, fostering a communal spirit within each block. The communal access of the alley/courtyard further encourages these social interactions on a daily basis.

Adaptation & Addition

The shophouse block has a very specific configuration: residential units placed side by side, vertically oriented, street facing, and laid out in a uniformed pattern. However, in Phnom Penh, the facades of most shophouse have been modified to match residents’ own preferences/needs. This came in the form of additional shading devices, balcony greenery, or signages — eliminating the monotonous look of the block. As demand for urban housing increased, extra units/floors were built on top of the existing blocks to accommodate for more housing needs.

Current shophouse problems

The shophouse typology of the past was never designed for the modern lifestyle. Due to the shophouses’ short frontage, car owners of today had to adjust and make additions to their homes to accommodate for private car/motorbike parking. It's also common to find people parking their cars directly in the front living area of their home (taking away leisure space) — or pushing their front door closer to the street to build a makeshift garage and consequently disrupting the public sidewalk.

The removal of the traditional courtyard in a shophouse also resulted in a lack of outdoor-indoor living space. General leisure areas became non-existent once the interior spaces became fully utilized for household needs. This led to children resorting to playing outside on the small sidewalks and sometimes even on the dangerous congested streets as outdoor private space became more and more limited.

Lack of parking space for vehicles.
Lack of shared communal space in the city.

In recent decades, the push to maximize liveable space in modern buildings all but eliminated the central/indoor courtyard feature of traditional shophouses. Thus, the benefits of natural lighting and healthy air circulation throughout the house was also eliminated. Modern shophouses became more dependent on artificial lighting and other energy consuming appliances (such as fans and air conditioners). These solutions are not only costly, but can also be detrimental to the natural environment. Additionally, Phnom Penh is no stranger to frequent power outages — thus solely depending on these devices means that residents are subject to occasional discomfort and inconveniences. Businesses can sometimes be disrupted and normal residential activities can be suspended until the electricity returns.

Remnants of the fear and mistrust that people have towards each other following the decades of war can still be found through Phnom Penh’s buildings/architecture. Metal bars and fences adorned with barb wires and glass shards can be seen attached to shophouses found throughout the city. Only cracks and small openings allow for some light and air circulation to pass through. To foreigners/westerners, this setup can be viewed as excessive and can sometimes feel depressing (given the cage/jail like appearance). Sadly, this depiction vividly reflects the modern view on sense of security being achieved only through the means of metal barriers rather than the common community spirit that were once used to safeguard the neighbourhood from external threats.

Lack of ventilation in shophouses.
Lack of natural lighting in shophouses.