Phnom Penh turns from ghost town to boom town

PHNOM PENH • As glitzy malls, high-rise flats and five-star hotels sprout across Phnom Penh, a luxury building boom is transforming the capital from a ghost town into one of Asia's fastest-growing cities.

Inside the recently opened Aeon Mall, Cambodia's first mega shopping centre, shoppers flock to see the latest fashion at Levi's and Giordano, snapping selfies in front of a giant Christmas tree.

Such scenes are common across much of South-east Asia but, in Cambodia, around 20 per cent of its people still live on less than US$1.25 (around S$1.80) a day.

Poverty remains entrenched, but a rapidly growing middle class and elite are increasingly looking for ways to spend their cash locally.

"I'm glad we have such a modern mall. It shows the city is growing," says 20-year-old Bopha, a university student who said her family made more than US$1 million in a recent land sale. She said she used to go to Thailand and Singapore to shop, but that is now changing.

The US$200 million Japanese-built mall is just one of dozens of new projects springing up in Phnom Penh as Cambodia rides a wave of strong economic growth.

According to the World Bank, its economy is expected to grow at 6.9 per cent this year. It also saw US$1.75 billion in construction investment during the first nine months of the year, up 13.7 per cent from a year earlier, said the government.

Many of the new entrants in the property market are developers from Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore.

But some worry about what this construction frenzy will do to a city once called the Pearl of Asia. In French colonial times, it was regarded as one of the region's loveliest cities, thanks to its wide European-style avenues, manicured gardens and stately homes.

"Phnom Penh's architectural heritage is world-renowned... Yet the rate of destruction of these buildings of significant cultural heritage is alarming," said Mr Silas Everett of the Asia Foundation, mourning in particular the loss of buildings designed by famed Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.

While wealthy Cambodians are lining up for a chance to live at the coveted new addresses, the urban poor are increasingly being relegated to the edges of the capital, having been evicted to make way for commercial developments.

Strongman premier Hun Sen, who has ruled with an iron fist, is unapologetic about the capital's rapid transformation.

Phnom Penh, he said during a speech last month, would have been a "coconut plantation" had the Khmer Rouge remained. Instead, he added, "an already dead city survived through the bare hands of our people".

Not all of them will get to enjoy the new developments. Strolling through Aeon Mall, Ms Seng Seat, 60, says most of the products are outside her budget.

"I had a look at the price and left immediately," she said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline Phnom Penh turns from ghost town to boom town. Subscribe