The transformation of Phnom Penh

10th May 2018 | by Suzie

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, has doubled its population in the last two decades. The city has transformed: modern towers are thrusting skywards, and investment pours in from across Asia and the corporate world. The city’s astonishing growth shows no sign of slowing, so we asked the PP residents in our Cambodia office to tell us what it’s like on the ground.

Twenty years ago, Phnom Penh was home to a million people, most of whom got around by bike or motorbike, on poor roads between low old houses left tattered by the war. Electricity was patchy, and the lack of restaurants wasn’t really a problem, because most people couldn’t afford to eat out.

The cost of living was low, but so were the incomes - it’s all relative, after all. All of Cambodia’s further education was focused here, and entirely run by the government. Few people spoke English. There were hardly any Western bars or high end hotels in town, and tourists who wanted to see the city would do so by cyclo (rickshaw), or maybe motorbike taxi.

By around 2008, the population was only up to 1.3 million (matching the national average population growth), but the city was hinting at a boom. A few tall buildings had materialized, and a number of banks, private universities and modern supermarkets had opened for business. The roads were being improved, and cars were rolling out, prompting a noticeable drop in the number of cyclos. Things were getting a bit more expensive, but people were starting to build new houses, learn English, and go out to the restaurants that were appearing across town.

Fast-forward to 2018, and construction workers have just broken ground at the building site of what will be, if all goes to plan, the tallest building in Asia - and the tallest twin building in the world. 13,000 condo units are expected to be finished in this year alone, and grandiose entertainment complexes are springing up across the city - the latest, opening in November on the Mekong riverbank, boasts a number of foodcourts, a large theatre for shows, and a jetty for boats carrying patrons.

One of our guides diplomatically described the last decade of transition as ‘charming’ to ‘modern’. This type of shift takes place in many cities, but rarely so fast - and it’s nothing short of eyebrow-raising when you consider that unexploded ordnance was still being cleared from the outermost temples of Angkor in 2015.

Many of the changes are welcome. Rents for middle-income residents are actually dropping thanks to the condo-splosion, and the smorgasbord of restaurants, bars, and popular container-town style food markets means greater choice and opportunities for visitors and better-off residents to socialise.

The cyclo, decimated by the boom, has been rebranded as a ‘traditional icon of Cambodia’. The government recently introduced benefits for cyclo drivers. These subsidise vehicle rental fees and offer free medical care - quite an incentive in a country with no national health service, where an illness or accident can ruin a family.

It's not all good news, of course. The roads are congested, and there have been accusations of land-grabbing, with heavy-handed evictions in areas that are now either covered in luxury condos, or still in a speculative state, awaiting investment and development. The latest debate is over the cost of hosting the South East Asian Games in 2023 - the prestigious event is to be held in a stadium under construction on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. As with a large number of Cambodia’s construction projects, the stadium has been paid for with foreign aid. However, the prime minister suggested in a recent statement that money earmarked for hosting attendees might be better spent on national infrastructure, which rather upset the event’s organisers

The PM has been busy beyond Phnom Penh, opening the upmarket Royal Sands hotel on Koh Rong, and a university in the remote region of Kratie - a very poor area, still largely dependent on farming, where good education has been hard to come by. When I visited Cambodia last year, my (40 year old) driver was from Kratie. He told me that, when he was a kid, it took nine days to travel between Kratie and Phnom Penh, on a journey only possible by boat. Nowadays, it’s a cool five hour drive. Changing times, indeed…

If you’re interested in maps and aerial photos, here’s a good slideshow of PP’s development over the last decade.

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