‘The City has changed’, she said, with a mixture of astonishment and sadness in her voice.
Phnom Penh is the fastest growing city of Cambodia. Today the capital houses nearly 2 million inhabitants. Like a phoenix the city has risen out of the ashes that the Khmer Rouge left a couple of decades ago.
Back under the French colonisation Phnom Penh was widely known in Asia for its architectural splendour. A mixture of French-Cambodian architects had created a marvellous city in the centre of Cambodia.
However, times changed and when the Khmer Rouge won the war, they not only expelled the French, the Vietnamese and the Americans, but the citizens of Phnom Penh as well. The Camrades of Pol Pot considered the city dwellers as poisonous. Immediately after the war came to an end, the Khmer Rouge emptied the city of Phnom Penh. ‘To protect against American bombing’ was their excuse, ‘to protect against the poisonous city life mentality, the westernised, consumerist and non-communist lifestyle’ was their real motivation.
Phnom Penh became a host town, of which its citizens became refugees in their own country. Expelled to the country side a tremendous tough life waited on them for the next couple of years, if they even survived. Since the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the murder on 3 million Cambodians. 1 to 4 Cambodians would not survive the 4 years of tremendous atrocity.
Especially people of Phnom Penh were vulnerable. If the Khmer Rouge discovered one’s urban past, that only could be sufficient for imprisonment, torture and even death. Together with the city, its citizens became ghosts of what they once were.
After the Khmer Rouge collapsed on January 7, 1979, when Vietnamese troups managed to capture Phnom Penh back and expel the Khmer Rouge to Thailand, the citizens and the city life could return. Although I can imagine it cannot be entirely the same as before.
Since during its occupancy of the capital, the Khmer Rouge had emptied the houses, and reorganised the belongings in preparation of the next phase of the revolution – as in a redistribution of possessions. Some buildings were rededicated during that time as well as party offices or sleeping dormitories for the cadre. And on top of that, and maybe the most intrusive change must have been the shocking fact that many of them would never return at all.
Rising out of its Ashes
But the last 10 years Phnom Penh is rising out of its ashes and growing on a unseen fast pace. Phnom Penh is not only the fastest growing city of Cambodia, but one of the fastest growing ones of South-East-Asia.
The fast urbanisation rate of Phnom Penh can be a good and a bad thing, since urbanisation might create opportunities for economic growth at the one hand. At the other hand, un-planned urbanisation – as is the case for Phnom Penh – might induce many social and ecological risks.
The Chinese are coming
The lack of official zoning or building code requirements leads the entire urbanisation market to the private sector, hence taking social and ecological risks. As is happening in Sihanoukville for instance, the city at the coast, which is largely bought by Chinese investors. They not only force local people to leave their houses so they can construct large buildings and casinos, but they cause real-estate prices to increase, hence forcing those who were left behind to leave as well, and those who were expelled to not only leave their home but their hometown entirely.
Further on, they increase the prices of living, such as food and commodities, making life not only exaggerated expensive for the local inhabitants but as well for the local tourists. Many Cambodians I met on the road tell to avoid Sihanoukville because they can no longer afford going and being there, and the aggressive presence of the Chinese.
Hence, a once liveable city becomes unliveable due to unplanned urbanisation in hands of private companies.
Unfortunately, this dynamic of the Chinese investors is not a unique case for Sihanoukville, but is widely spread in Cambodia, and in many other Asian, Latin American and African countries and cities.
Back to Phnom Penh
The city has changed, she said, I do no longer recognise it. She had been here in 2012, when there were no big skyscrapers yet, now they are. Phnom Penh is considered is one of Asia’s fastest growing cities, only the Laos’ capital grows faster considering urban spatial expansion (according to the World Bank).
Yet, this fast growth rate had its bad mark on the city as well. For instance, the grandeur of Phnom Penh back in the times was marked by its typical French colonial houses, however, many of them do not survive the fast construction pace of the new investors. Moreover, most of this investment are mega construction projects, injected by foreign investors, such as a $200 million Japanese-built mall, the Diamond Island luxury high-rise condos, or Cambodia’s first skyscraper, the Vattanac Capital Tower (finished in 2014) designed in the shape of a Chinese dragon. Yet, 20% of the Cambodians live on $1.25 a day, so it might be obvious that these buildings are not for all of them, rather for foreigners or for the middle and upper class of Cambodia.