Cambodia: Phnom Penh 6 years on

An image of Cambodia's future, the 39-story Vattanac Capital Tower will be the country's largest skyscraper
An image of Cambodia’s future, the 39-story Vattanac Capital Tower will be the country’s largest skyscraper

Six years have past since I last visited Phnom Penh on that sultry Halloween day in 2006, and, like myself and personal point of view, much of the city has undergone a noticeable amount of change. When I wrote about the dusty Cambodian capital last, I painted a picture of a place rife with “machine guns, marijuana and mayhem.” Yet while visitors are still touted “happy” this and that on the riverside and the “happy” shooting range is still open for those looking to shoot off some steam with AK 47, rocket launcher or anti-aircraft weapon ammunition fallout left over from the Cold War, these odd idiosyncrasies are now being overpowered by a city pushing towards a brighter economic future and falling away from its chaotic past.

Yesterday I published a feature story with Inside Investor detailing my observations of a city that has made conspicuous progress over the past six years. While there are plenty of obstacles to overcome (odious corruption, creating confidence in the local currency, poverty and deactivating minefields left over from wars past), there is a palpable sense of hope in the air of this humble nation searching, like so many else in the region, for an identity to move forward with.

Below is an excerpt from the Inside Investor piece:

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 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.

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