Friday, August 12, 2011

Old Maps - Kampot

An extraordinary collection of 19th century Khmer maps of provincial Cambodia - the earliest known Khmer cartographic representations - is currently on exhibition at the Centre Culturel Français (CCF) in Phnom Penh. The 54 maps on display represent a rare historical resource from a sparsely documented period of Khmer history, and many of the maps are in themselves unique works of Cambodian art. The exhibition at CCF will continue through August 28.

All of the maps were hand drawn sometime between 1884-1892, probably crafted by provincial level Khmer functionaries at the behest of the French colonial authority. Most of the maps cover the area of a single province or district, and the full collection encompasses all of Cambodia's 19 provinces of the time. 

The maps on display at CCF are actually high resolution digital reproductions, which were presented to King Sihamoni in France last year. The originals still reside in Paris at the library of the Ecole Française d'Extreme Orient.

Each map is a unique creation, perhaps every one the work of a different cartographer. A wide range of artistic styles and mapping criteria were used, the final products ranging from quasi-schematic line drawings to intricately and artistically detailed illustrations.

All the maps are on a 49cm x 63cm sheet and drawn within a black border. Most employ multiple colors and some are filled with tiny illustrations of the areas represented - houses, pagodas, animals, lakes and mountains, etc. The map title is written twice, once in Khmer by the map maker and again in French (in large red cursive,) presumably marked later. The two labels are often oriented in different directions, neither necessarily with north at the top of the map. At this exhibition the maps were hung to accord with the Khmer titling.    

The maps were all exhibited at their original size with a few choice examples blown up to double-size and displayed without glass, including the map of the Kampot area, which was a nice map to stop and dwell upon for a bit.

The Kampot map is not as colorfully illustrated as some maps, but is on the other hand a comparatively accessible map. It displays several readily identifiable geographic features (e.g. the Elephant Mountains, Kampong Bay river and Kampot town,) making it easy to orient to a modern map, it is a clearly and precisely detailed map and incorporates some attentive artistic touches including finely jungled mountains and abstract patterning in the ocean.

The Kampot map covers the area from modern day Sihanoukville (formerly Kampong Som)/Gulf of Kampong Som in the west, across central Kampot to what is now the Kampong Trach district border in the east. The body of water to the south is the Gulf of Thailand. As the map was displayed, north is to the right and south to the left. The map is not to scale. The farther from Kampot, the greater the scale. In particular, the Kampong Som peninsula in the east is greatly shrunken (and distorted) by comparison to the Kampot area. Interestingly, the Kampong Som peninsula gets short shrift on the Kampong Som map (not pictured) as well. Excluding the Kampong Som area, the Kampot map covers the approximate area of modern day Kampot District (and Kampong Bay District) within Kampot province but not the entire province.

Kampot area map comparison. Modern map on bottom, 19th century Kampot map on top. The 19th century map is rotated from its display position so that north is at the top. Note the Kampong Som area is compressed and the Kampong Som peninsula distorted on the 19th century map.

Zoom on 19th century map of Kampot.  Entitled 'The Body of Kampot.' The map includes landmark geological features (mountains, ocean, rivers, streams, etc), political boundaries and settlements (villages, district and provincial boundaries, etc.) and important roads. Water, ocean, rivers, streams, etc are in blue. Roads in double line red. The coastline is very approximate. The focus is on the interior, not nautical concerns. As the map is oriented here (as it was displayed,) north is left and south is right.

A quick and unproofed translation of the Khmer on the 19th century Kampot map. Some of the place names have remained the same over the last 125 years - Kampot, Kep, Kampong Bay, Phnom Pre Nup, Veal Renh, Prek Teuk Sap and others. 
Prek = stream/river. Phnom = mountain. Phum = village. As the map is oriented here, north is left and south is right.. 

Zoom on Kampot Village/Kampong Bay area.

Zoom on Kampong Som peninsula

Red pencil titling in French and Ecole Français d'Orient Extreme stamp on Kampot map

Zoom on mountain, Kampot province. Note the trees on the mountain.

Modern map left, 19th century map right. Both maps oriented with north at the top. Area near Kampot City. 
Note the two fork river. The squared off 'Banteay Run Kampong Bay' (the 'fortress of Kampong Bay') sits conspicuously where modern Kampot City now sits. Whereas the area marked 'Kampot Village' is located on the other (east) side of the river near the left fork of the river. Also note that the 'Road to Phnom Penh' and the 'Road to Peam' sit in approximately the same places as modern day National Route #3 and Road #33, respectively.

Some other maps and bits of maps from the exhibition:

Choeung Prey Province

Khsach Kandal Province

Tiger stalking pig, Khsach Kandal province

Khsach Kandal Province

Buffalo, Choeung Prey Province

Kratie Province
Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province



'A Personal History,' Cambodia Daily Weekend Supplement, Issue 967, July 23-24, 2011

'Rare maps on display at the CCF next month,' Phnom Penh Post, July 06, 2011

'Rare Cambodian map exhibition in Phnom Penh,', August 18, 2011


  1. Damn, I knew I should have tried to see that when I was in PP. Did it seem like they had or will have a publication of the maps?

  2. Same thing occured to me. Nothing available there at the time. I asked around a bit and nobody seemed to know anything about future publication. There was mention of a possible follow-up exhibition in Siem Reap.

  3. Hey there,

    I'm an American student doing a semester-long research project about colonial urbanism - focusing particularly on Phnom Penh. Do you have any idea if these maps will be published digitally or if there was an exhibit catalog published? Or better yet, do you know where I can find any maps of Phnom Penh made before 1925?


  4. These maps have not been published that I know of.

    Pre-1925 maps of Phnom Penh:

    Phnom Penh Then and Now, by Michel Igout (Thailand: White Lotus Press)