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Having emerged from decades of tragedy, Phnom Penh, Asia’s newest boomtown, looks to a bright future.

Face orward By robert kiener

Things have changed, haven’t they?” my Cambodian friend Moeung Hong asks me as he greets me at the Phnom Penh airport. He smiles as he points out the airport’s recently opened Burger King, Costa Coffee, The Pizza Company and other Western franchises. “Fast food in Phnom Penh?” I ask him. “What’s the rush?” He laughs and explains. “Everything is moving faster here now. Wait until you see downtown.”

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P hoto: © Basi l Childers

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The country’s youth are driving change; two out of three Cambodians are under 25.


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city’s newest landmark, the 39-story, $100 million Vattanac Capital Tower that’s shaped like a dragon and hovers over the city. But, as I learn, even it may be dwarfed soon by a 1,820foot [555-meter] colossus, the Diamond Tower, whose more than 100 floors would make it the second tallest building in the world.

The Royal Palace is framed by the fastchanging skyline; (below) TK Avenue, a popular shopping area. (Ed’s note: TK is the correct name)

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hat’s behind Phnom Penh’s transformation, I wonder as I dodge traffic on one of the city’s main drags. “Money. Lots of it. That’s the simple answer,” explains Michael Hayes, longtime resident and former editorin-chief of the Phnom Penh Post as he joins me for a drink at the riverfront Cantina Bar. “Many foreign investors

P HOTOS: TO P : © Jeremi e M ontessuisz, BOTTOM: © Ni colas Axelrod

In 2006, the first time I visited Phnom Penh and even on later visits, ox carts jostled for space on the city’s main thoroughfares with tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws), motorcycles, rickety bicycles, second-hand Toyota Camrys and the occasional elephant. Electrical brownouts were common and the tallest building in town, The Independence Hotel, topped out at seven stories. Western brands were nowhere to be seen. The city of twomillion-plus population was such a rough and tumble place that many called it Southeast Asia’s very own “Wild West.” No longer. “Boomtown” is what many people are calling the Cambodian capital nowadays as international, especially Chinese and South Korean, investors and local entrepreneurs are helping to transform the once sleepy city. Ox carts are long gone, as is the elephant that used to be paraded down the waterfront’s Sisowath Quay daily. BMWs, Mercedes and Lexus SUVs now jostle for space on the city’s crowded streets. Phnom Penh’s once low-key skyline has become transformed with tall buildings. “I told you things have changed, didn’t I?” says Hong as he drops me off at my hotel across the street from the



say it’s relatively easy to do business here and make a profit.” He explains how an increase in rice exports, as well as the garment and tourism industry, have all contributed to substantial growth of the economy over the last decade. Gross domestic product, an important indicator of economic output and growth, climbed more than 7 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. Low labor costs have contributed to a massive increase in exports of garments

and footwear. Add to that a thriving construction and tourism market, and increases in foreign investment in areas such as auto parts manufacturing and agricultural products processing, and Cambodia’s longstagnant economy is on a tear. China invested more than $427 million in Cambodia last year, a jump of 62 percent over 2012 investment. South Korea, Japan and European countries are not far behind as manufacturers, many of whom are distressed by China’s rising wages and labor shortages, begin to add to or move their operations to Cambodia. Wages are still notoriously low in Cambodia and even led to riots and strikes recently. The monthly minimum wage is only $95 and has not kept pace with inflation. Nevertheless, “Foreign direct investment in Cambodia…is starting to raise millions of people out of destitution,” The New York Times noted in 2013. | 10•2014 [[2R]]


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city its moniker as “the Pearl of Asia,” have been transformed into high-end shops and classy residences. After visiting the boutique shops that sell everything from locallyproduced silk fashions to handmade jewelry, I meet Adi Jaya, the general manager of the street’s hippest hotel, The Plantation. The hotel, or “urban resort” as Adi describes it, is one of the many boutique hotels that have sprung up in Phnom Penh to cater to well-heeled tourists as well as locals. It too is a restored French building and dates from the 1930s. As we sit at the hotel’s richly landscaped pool area, complete with transplanted coconut, acacia, frangipani and champaka trees, he explains how a surging economy has transformed the city. “Every year brings more tourists and there’s a new emerging upper middle class, including a lot of young Cambodians who have returned from living or studying abroad. These returnees demand luxury and are willing to pay for it,” he explains. “And all of them are adamant about one thing—they are looking to the future, not the tragedies of the past.” Cambodia’s past is indeed tragic. After suffering during the Vietnam War, Cambodia was embroiled in a civil war that culminated in a 1975 takeover by the radical communist Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. Attempting to establish an anti-intellectual, communist “utopia” in the countryside, the Khmer Rouge

Buddhist monks along the Tonle Sap river.

Photo: © Gavi n Helli er/corbis

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s I walk along the city’s spruced up waterfront district I marvel at the scores of locals, from teenagers to golden-agers, who are bouncing along to a bass-thumping disco beat in outdoor, public aerobic classes. Once the haunt of backpackers and street-smart hustlers, the Tonle Sap riverfront is now catering to a hipper crowd with its explosion of boutique hotels, sushi restaurants and other trendy eateries. Young couples, dressed in the latest K-Pop (that’s K for Korean) fashions walk arm-in-arm along the newly landscaped quay whose colorful pavement rivals Rio de Janeiro’s famed beachside promenades. Seeing these young Khmer hipsters reminds me that Cambodia is a remarkably young country; two out of three Cambodians are under 25. Many girls are decked out in mini skirts, high heels and sunglasses, emulating their favorite K-Pop singers. Just several years ago many would have been wearing pajamas and flip-flops, outfits they wouldn’t be caught dead in today. After jumping into a tuk-tuk I ride past the glitteringly ornate 148-year old Royal Palace, home to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, and climb out nearby on Street 240, home to some of the city’s newest and trendiest shops and restaurants. Here and there some of the stately old French colonial mansions that once gave the



banished city dwellers to the countryside to work as forced laborers. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Between 1975, dubbed “Year Zero” by the Khmer Rouge in their attempt to erase history, and 1979, up to two million Cambodians died from exhaustion, starvation, torture or execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. For the next ten years the nation was occupied by the Vietnamese and underwent yet another civil war that claimed even more lives and devastated much of the countryside. The desire to look to the future is a sentiment I hear time and time again. In her elegantly restored two-story French colonial house, which contains both her studio and boutique office, internationally known designer Romyda Keth, explains, “We Cambodians need to know and remember what happened but should not be constantly looking back. We are more interested in the future. It’s you Westerners who keep reminding us of the horrors of Pol Pot, the Killing Fields, wars, landmines and all that.” Like many Cambodians I talked to, Romyda Keth was amazed that two of Cambodia’s most-visited “tourist destinations” were the notorious

Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), where the ground is still littered with the bone and clothing fragments of some of the thousands executed there, and Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a ghoulish former school where only seven of the 17,000 imprisoned there survived the Khmer Rouge’s torture. Says Romyda, “We have all lost relatives and friends. But we need to move on.” The impeccably dressed former Paris-based designer adds, “It is now Cambodia’s turn. We lost several decades, and we are now running to catch up.” To see firsthand just how fast some of these young Cambodian entrepre| 10•2014 [[2R]]


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neurs are catching up, I join 28-year old Chang Bunleang, a managing partner of the wildly successful local coffee house chain Brown Coffee for a frothy cappuccino. Lady Gaga’s latest offering blares out from the overhead speakers in Brown’s minimally designed waterfront branch. Patrons, a mix of local and foreign, tap away at their laptop computers; courtesy of the shop’s free Wi-Fi. Chang explains how he and four cousins founded, as the Phnom Penh Post noted, “a coffee chain that conquered Cambodia.” “Like my cousins, I was educated at university abroad,” says Chang. “But we all wanted to return to Cambodia because we knew that the economy was about to take off and there would be opportunities for

us.” Chang and his cousins explored several business ideas but decided in 2009 to introduce the foreign staple of the coffee shop, which was then virtually unknown in Cambodia. “It was risky because Asians are mostly tea drinkers and we knew we would have to educate our customers about coffee while offering an excellent product in comfortable surroundings,” explains Chang. Brown now boasts seven coffee shops and several restaurants in Phnom Penh. As he sips a large espresso, Chang admits there was another reason he came back to Cambodia instead of taking a job with a multinational abroad. “My parents went through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge,” he admits to me.

Travel Tips LODGING Historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal from US$180-$1,940 (www. raffles.com/phnom-penh); boutique hotels The Plantation from US$85$360 (www.theplantation.asia) and The Villa Paradiso from US$65-$180 (www.thevillaparadiso.com). FOOD Romdeng (www.tree-alliance.org ) features Cambodian dishes from about US$6. The Duck (www.the-duck.net ) has an eclectic menu, from homemade pasta to duck confit and imported steaks, US$6-$39. DON’T MISS Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded on the site of the Buddhist temple Wat Phnom, open to the public. The Russian Market sells everything from noodles to clothing. Many buildings of the Royal Palace complex are open, as is the nearby National Museum of Cambodia. The Cambodian Living Arts presents dance and musical productions at the museum (www.cambodianlivingarts.org).

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“They told us, ‘We lost a generation and it is up to your generation to be a generation of change.’ So this is about more than making money. It’s about accepting our responsibility.” More and more of Cambodia’s diaspora are returning. Chang and others have visited Cambodian friends at universities abroad, on Wall Street and elsewhere and urged them to, as he says, “at least work for a few years there, then look into returning home to get into business and help Cambodia.” Not all of Phnom Penh’s “returnees” have come home to do business. I travel 20 or so dusty miles out of town to a cozy house along the Mekong River to meet with one of Cambodia’s most famous native-born sons. Arn Chorn-Pond was sent to a Khmer Rouge children’s work camp when he was 11. “Every day I witnessed children being killed all around me,” Arn tells me, his eyes welling up with tears. He himself only survived starvation and execution by playing the khim, a string instrument, for his captors. “Music was my salvation,” he says. After eventually escaping to Thailand, he was adopted and resettled with sponsors in the United States. Then he returned to Cambodia. “It was important for me,” says Arn. “I wanted to help revive Khmer performing arts and inspire what few artists had survived the Khmer Rouge.” Almost 90 percent of Cambodia’s traditional artists had perished during the 1970s. Today his Cambodian Living Arts

association offers Cambodians the opportunity to learn the country’s traditional arts. “We need to be proud again of our culture,” says Arn. “It will give us riches no one can measure.”

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t the end of my weeklong visit I walk along the crowded quayside gate on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A jasmine-scented wind blows off the Tonle Sap River as I mingle with saffron-robed monks walking arm in arm, teenagers, couples of all ages, tourists and the occasional beggar. Suddenly a small gamelan orchestra begins playing soothing music, sounding much as it must have centuries ago when musicians played for the Cambodian Royal Court. I’m reminded that, as much as Phnom Penh is changing, it is in no danger of losing its traditions.

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Phnom penh  

Inside Asia's newest boom town