Postcard of progress from Phnom Penh

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Vattanac Capital Tower’s architecture was inspired by the naga, a mytical serpent

Today the pulse of Cambodia’s dusty capital follows the erratic rhythm of construction mallets and whirring traffic. Once no more than a sprawling village with a patchy electricity supply, tangible evidence of future offices, homes and shopping spaces being erected across the city’s skyline suggests a genuine appeal for progress by a humble country hoping to detach itself from a gruesome past.

Six years have elapsed since I last visited Phnom Penh, when the largest building was a seven-story hotel, no Western brands were present and brown outs were as common as traffic jams with oxen. Now Phnom Penh is in the midst of a building boom: 200 new buildings over 10 floors were approved for construction last year, including the 39-story Vattanac Capital Tower, said to be complete by the end of year, making it the largest building in Cambodia. KFC outlets dot the city, the first Western fast food franchise to open up in Cambodia (not surprising seeing its astronomical success elsewhere in Asia), and Dairy Queen is available at the new Phnom Penh International Airport, as well on the riverside.

Although the primary tourist hotspot of the city, the riverside was little more than a sleepy crawl-away space for forlorn backpackers and local hustlers. While neither of these two residents have disappeared, their presence is now muffled by the tourists, expats and locals who throng new fine dining options, such as sushi, elegantly designed fusion-food restaurants and remodeled wine bars with “modern” interiors. Along the streets that zip up between the riverside and the city, signage advertising Cambodia Beer and Angkor Beer jut out over the road vying for attention.

While poverty is still perceivably present, it is not as desperate as it once was. The average daily wage in Cambodia is still about one dollar a day, but in the big city, residents earn over three times as much, or about $100 a month, according to the National Institute of Statistics’ Cambodia’s Socio-Economic Survey for 2010. World Bank studies have concluded that while nearly 30 per cent of Cambodians subsist below the international poverty line, less than 1 per cent of Phnom Penh’s 1.5 million residents fall into this category.

Poverty is still visible throughout Phnom Penh

Yet these averages can belie reality, because much of the increased wealth across the capital has been cloistered in the upper echelons of power. As such, Phnom Penh has become a capital pronounced by contrast: Lexus-brand luxury vehicles and ramshackle motorbikes stand side-by-side in evening traffic, the former often appearing parked several hours later in front of one of the new clandestine clubs that materialise across the city.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Cambodia is ranked the second most corrupt country in Southeast Asia just after Myanmar and before Laos. Despite the conspicuous surge of skyscrapers, the average citizen has not yet benefited from any trickledown in new wealth.

When stopping to take a few photos of the Vattanac Capital Tower, my English-literate tuk tuk driver asked me what was going to be inside that. I explained that it was going to have office spaces for companies, serviced apartments and a luxury mall. “What is that?” he inquired.

The largest mall in the country is currently the Sorya Shopping Center, but receives few visitors for its 40,000-square-metre size, as most Cambodians prefer to frequent cheaper local markets. The concept of large air-conditioned retail shopping spaces is still largely foreign to Cambodians.

Less than a decade ago, Phnom Penh mirrored the stage of development Yangon is at today. Like Yangon, Cambodia was a cash-dominated society that didn’t have operating ATMs until 2004. Now clear over 500 are in use across the capital, and over 35 different banks operate in the country, with the majority having branches only in the capital. And like Yangon, Phnom Penh was once over-dependent on generators due to lack of access to electricity.

Political reforms willing to capitalise one liberalised trade policies have also made indelible marks in both countries’ histories.

In power since Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Hun Sen has presided as leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has governed Cambodia since the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Though plagued by Southeast Asian-brand transparency issues, his coalition enacted rapid capitalist reforms that are largely credited with Cambodia’s quickening economic growth and China-style building boom.

Although fears of becoming too reliant on the rising tide Chinese investment, which came in to the tune of $8.8 billion in 2011, Phnom Penh’s new skyline is being driven by local wealth. Both the OCIC Building and Vattanac Capital Tower are funded by local investors. Vattanac Bank invested around $100 million into the project and is now starting to market it via various prestigious international property firms, and Vattanac Properties, the projects developer, hopes that the new symbol of the city with spur similar developments in Bangkok, Singapore, and Ho Chi Minh City.

Whether it’s the new wood-interior cafes, working traffic lights or growing skyline, residents of Phnom Penh can now empirically define the progress of their too often pitied capital and look forward to what changes may come over the next six years.

 

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Vattanac Capital Tower’s architecture was inspired by the naga, a mytical serpent

Today the pulse of Cambodia’s dusty capital follows the erratic rhythm of construction mallets and whirring traffic. Once no more than a sprawling village with a patchy electricity supply, tangible evidence of future offices, homes and shopping spaces being erected across the city’s skyline suggests a genuine appeal for progress by a humble country hoping to detach itself from a gruesome past.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Vattanac Capital Tower’s architecture was inspired by the naga, a mytical serpent

Today the pulse of Cambodia’s dusty capital follows the erratic rhythm of construction mallets and whirring traffic. Once no more than a sprawling village with a patchy electricity supply, tangible evidence of future offices, homes and shopping spaces being erected across the city’s skyline suggests a genuine appeal for progress by a humble country hoping to detach itself from a gruesome past.

Six years have elapsed since I last visited Phnom Penh, when the largest building was a seven-story hotel, no Western brands were present and brown outs were as common as traffic jams with oxen. Now Phnom Penh is in the midst of a building boom: 200 new buildings over 10 floors were approved for construction last year, including the 39-story Vattanac Capital Tower, said to be complete by the end of year, making it the largest building in Cambodia. KFC outlets dot the city, the first Western fast food franchise to open up in Cambodia (not surprising seeing its astronomical success elsewhere in Asia), and Dairy Queen is available at the new Phnom Penh International Airport, as well on the riverside.

Although the primary tourist hotspot of the city, the riverside was little more than a sleepy crawl-away space for forlorn backpackers and local hustlers. While neither of these two residents have disappeared, their presence is now muffled by the tourists, expats and locals who throng new fine dining options, such as sushi, elegantly designed fusion-food restaurants and remodeled wine bars with “modern” interiors. Along the streets that zip up between the riverside and the city, signage advertising Cambodia Beer and Angkor Beer jut out over the road vying for attention.

While poverty is still perceivably present, it is not as desperate as it once was. The average daily wage in Cambodia is still about one dollar a day, but in the big city, residents earn over three times as much, or about $100 a month, according to the National Institute of Statistics’ Cambodia’s Socio-Economic Survey for 2010. World Bank studies have concluded that while nearly 30 per cent of Cambodians subsist below the international poverty line, less than 1 per cent of Phnom Penh’s 1.5 million residents fall into this category.

Poverty is still visible throughout Phnom Penh

Yet these averages can belie reality, because much of the increased wealth across the capital has been cloistered in the upper echelons of power. As such, Phnom Penh has become a capital pronounced by contrast: Lexus-brand luxury vehicles and ramshackle motorbikes stand side-by-side in evening traffic, the former often appearing parked several hours later in front of one of the new clandestine clubs that materialise across the city.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Cambodia is ranked the second most corrupt country in Southeast Asia just after Myanmar and before Laos. Despite the conspicuous surge of skyscrapers, the average citizen has not yet benefited from any trickledown in new wealth.

When stopping to take a few photos of the Vattanac Capital Tower, my English-literate tuk tuk driver asked me what was going to be inside that. I explained that it was going to have office spaces for companies, serviced apartments and a luxury mall. “What is that?” he inquired.

The largest mall in the country is currently the Sorya Shopping Center, but receives few visitors for its 40,000-square-metre size, as most Cambodians prefer to frequent cheaper local markets. The concept of large air-conditioned retail shopping spaces is still largely foreign to Cambodians.

Less than a decade ago, Phnom Penh mirrored the stage of development Yangon is at today. Like Yangon, Cambodia was a cash-dominated society that didn’t have operating ATMs until 2004. Now clear over 500 are in use across the capital, and over 35 different banks operate in the country, with the majority having branches only in the capital. And like Yangon, Phnom Penh was once over-dependent on generators due to lack of access to electricity.

Political reforms willing to capitalise one liberalised trade policies have also made indelible marks in both countries’ histories.

In power since Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Hun Sen has presided as leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has governed Cambodia since the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Though plagued by Southeast Asian-brand transparency issues, his coalition enacted rapid capitalist reforms that are largely credited with Cambodia’s quickening economic growth and China-style building boom.

Although fears of becoming too reliant on the rising tide Chinese investment, which came in to the tune of $8.8 billion in 2011, Phnom Penh’s new skyline is being driven by local wealth. Both the OCIC Building and Vattanac Capital Tower are funded by local investors. Vattanac Bank invested around $100 million into the project and is now starting to market it via various prestigious international property firms, and Vattanac Properties, the projects developer, hopes that the new symbol of the city with spur similar developments in Bangkok, Singapore, and Ho Chi Minh City.

Whether it’s the new wood-interior cafes, working traffic lights or growing skyline, residents of Phnom Penh can now empirically define the progress of their too often pitied capital and look forward to what changes may come over the next six years.

 

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