The Changing Face of Phnom Penh

Rose Condominiums Phnom PenhWithout doubt the most obvious change to Phnom Penh in the last ten years is the building boom that is literally changing the face of the city.

There is construction work going on everywhere

The most eye catching buildings are the numerous skyscrapers going up, and not all stylish (see to the left, these Rose Condominiums would fit perfectly in North Korea).

Smaller five to ten story apartment blocks are going up in virtually every street of the Cambodian capital.

Gold Tower 42: halted

On the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong Boulevards, two of the city’s main thoroughfares, construction of Gold Tower 42 started in 2008. 31 stories have been completed. However, at that height, in September 2010 the project was halted. Nobody seems to know what the problem is. Some say “the electrical system needs to be fixed”. Others claim Gold Tower 42 lacks financing as many would-be residents are said to have pulled out of the project. The units in this high rise project were selling for between $460,000 to $1.5 million. In 2008, the developers claimed 75% of the tower’s space had already been sold. Now, in 2010, they say only 60% is sold, and it’s probably much less than that!


That brings up an interesting question: who is paying for all these constructions and how? While Cambodia’s economy is growing rapidly, there is little doubt that much of the financing derives from dirty money repatriated by various Khmer interests keen to escape increased scrutiny by international banks. Real estate development is a good way of laundering money.

Another question: who is going to live in those thousands of new villa’s, townhouses and apartments. While the Cambodian middle class is definitely growing, there are not too many Cambodians who can afford housing costing 500K and up (that is in US Dollars, not Cambodian Riel…), apart from government-linked elites. Which businesses, corporations or institutions are going to occupy these tens of thousands square meters of office space? Phnom Penh is not Bangkok or Singapore…

Even the president of the National Valuers’ Association of Cambodia, Sung Bonna, says large construction projects could face difficulties because demand for office and residential space was limited.

To me it seems Cambodia is building for a market that is not there and will not evolve in the foreseeable future!

So many plans, so many on hold…

Let’s have a look at the almost endless list of projects planned, under construction, postponed, canceled and in some cases completed in Phnom Penh.

To name just a few: the above mentioned Gold Tower 42 (on hold and no website, now isn’t that a bit suspicious?), Phnom Penh Tower (while the tower nears completion, the website is still ‘under construction’…), International Finance Center (already halted in 2008), Camko City (a whole new city to the northwest of the capital, first phase finished, rest is on hold), Koh Pich or Diamond Island (another new city to the southeast of Phnom Penh’s center), Sokha Hotel on the peninsula Chroy Changvar, Plaza Cambodia just west of the Royal University (still in the ‘planning’ phase), Grand Phnom Penh International City (another satellite city, first phase finished), De Castle Condominums (first two towers finished, building of the third tower halted…, many buyers have put their apartment on the market, I wonder why?), Bakheng City (wow, another satellite city, but the maps op this planned city cannot be viewed…), Mekong View Apartments (completed, but occupancy is far below expectations), River Palace 31 (ambitious plans, but construction never started), Vatannac Bank Tower, Sun Wah International Finance Centre (postponed, or maybe even completely canceled), and so on and so forth.

Land evictions

There is a dark side to the rapid urban development in Phnom Penh. It has all too often impacted on the land rights of communities, particularly poor ones, who have been violently forced off their land without adequate compensation. Thousands of Cambodians have been evicted from their land in Phnom Penh, often with grossly excessive force by the authorities, some resulting in deaths, and thousands more are living under threat of eviction.

Architectural heritage

Another negative effect of the construction boom is the devastating impact on the city’s rich architectural heritage (see French Colonial Architecture), already under threat due to years of neglect.

French Colonial building corner Sisowath Sothearos

E.g. there was a charming French colonial villa near that big intersection of Sisowath Quay and Sothearos Blvd. (see picture), which used to house the Tourism Office. Hastily torn down during Khmer New Year in 2004 (while nobody else works during that holiday…), the site had been converted into a … parking lot. Of course, the high and mighty have to park their Lexus cars somewhere, although they usually do that right in front of their destination and most preferrably on the sidewalk, so pedestrians are forced to walk on the street. Where that car should be…

Never constructed Hotel in Phnom Penh

Anyway, plans were unveiled for a 11-story hotel (see picture) with shops on the ground floor. Nothing ever happened, and guess what: six years after the demolition of that French colonial building, the site is up for sale! Developer JSM Indochina is pulling out of the Cambodian property market. ALL their property in Cambodia is for sale… (By the way, JSM’s share price has collapsed by more than 60% in the past six months)

We want our phallus symbol!

And then, on top of all this, recently Prime Minister Hun Sen himself announced plans for a 555 metre tower to be erected on Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island. Can you imagine: one of Asia’s poorest countries to house the region’s tallest building? We might not have enough food to feed our people, but we do have the tallest building in Asia, our very own phallus symbol!

CamBuild 2010

From 21 – 23 October, 2010 the Building and Construction Industry Show – CamBuild 2010 –  will be held. Let’s see whether details of that crazy plan for the 555 meter tower will be unveiled there. After reading all of the above, what do you think of this, written on the official CamBuild 2010 website: “Spurred on by increasing foreign direct investments and local consumption, the building and construction industry will be a bright spot in the economy.”

By the way, this exhibition will be held in concurrence with CamHotel 2010 – Cambodia International Hotel, Restaurant & Catering Show, CamFood 2010 – Cambodia International Food & Drinks Industry Show, CamSecurity 2010 – Cambodia International Security, Safety & Fire Show, and CamFire 2010 – Cambodia International Fire Protection & Rescue Show.

And where are all these exhibitions taking place? At the Convention & Exhibition Center on Diamond Island. That’s this one:

Diamond Island Exhibition Center Phnom Penh

Now, isn’t that a nice, modern, futuristic and inspiring design? Ugh…