New construction alters prime area’s ambiance, views

The character of my Boeung Keng Kang I neighborhood has undergone a remarkable transformation in the three years ago this month that I moved to Phnom Penh.


In this photo from my roof, every high building looking east was built in the last two or three years, probably less. The grey one in the foreground was just completed. The crane in the background (right) atop an unseen tall building with a dramatic elliptical shape is some months from completion.

As I have written in the past, one reason is the explosion of fast-food restaurants in my neighborhood, which is popular with expats.  The other reason is the breakneck speed of new construction, which is obliterating pleasant mid-century villas and the shade of trees that are recklessly cut down on every block.

Perhaps I could argue against the change, though that would be folly.  Instead, what I can rant about is three consequences of the construction.

First, the loss of those precious trees.  They cut them down to provide parking on the sidewalks in front of the buildings and permit unobstructed views into any stores and restaurants at ground level.

Although you can see what appears in the photos to be a plenitude of greenery, rest assured that they represent a fraction of what we had when I arrived in steamy Phnom Penh.  (In fact, where my apartment stands was a grove of banana trees not even a decade ago.)  The greenery was an important reason that we chose the neighborhood.

When we moved into our apartment, a demanding chorus of birds woke us every morning. Now, I hear the songs, but the volume is muted because their number is heartlessly diminished.  Roosters, too, used to crow before daybreak.  These days, there seems to be just one left within hearing.


Before Starbucks opened at the beginning of October, the company eliminated all but two trees along the two long sides of the corner building to make room for parking and expose the facade.  Yet, says its Web site, “We are committed to minimizing our environmental footprint and inspiring others to do the same. . . [W]e have long been aware that the planet is our most important business partner.”

Second, the infrastructure cannot handle so much building with so many new residents and their motor vehicles.

Traffic on our narrow streets can make it all but impossible even for a pedestrian to thread a way through the vehicles, especially mornings and late afternoons.  Moreover, heavy construction trucks leave roads pockmarked for months.  When it rains, the sewer system becomes so strained that streets literally flood.  Think of all those flushed toilets as occupancy rises.

The third consequence is that there will not be so many new residents, though enough to stress the infrastructure.  There already is too little demand for so much supply.  The boom has become a bust, yet acknowledgement of the situation is couched in diplomatic language.  Rents and sale prices are declining.

The developers and the folks who are paying up to own new condos, usually for investment, don’t care about the state of the market.  For residents here and of other countries in Asia, the purchases are a handy way to safeguard cash, ill-gotten or otherwise.  Renters are naturally delighted with the slumping cost of their housing.


Looking west toward to the notorious Toul Sleng prison, where so many lives were lost during Cambodia’s genocide.  New construction is rapidly turning the formerly forlorn Boeung Keng Kang III neighborhood into a livelier one today, though streets tend to be empty and dark at night.

The green patch to the left might look like park in the photos above, but it is a massive development site that is reported to have had a $3 million asking price.  Although the plot is now overgrown, the growth is unsurprising: It often takes months for a project to begin.

To get an idea of the scope, perhaps bigger currently than any other in Boueng Keng Kang I, please have a look at the two photos below.  The one on the left provides the name of the project on a construction fence that stretches all the way from the end of the block to the left and right beyond the parked cars.

Below, asking monthly rent is $1,400 for a spacious two-bedroom apartment that is tastefully finished and furnished on the fourth floor of this brand-new white-painted building dominating the left side of the photo.  It is  just down the block from the older condo where I rent a furnished two-bedroom unit for $1,000.  (Now you know a key reason that I moved here from Manhattan.)


 At the side of the 14-story structure is one leg of a square-shaped lot, where existing buildings — all or most of them a sort of orphanage — recently were demolished to make way for a high-rise proclaimed on fence signage to be “Picasso, City Garden, The unique one and only Picasso Building in Asia.”

If only the transformation of just my geographical orbit were rare, but it is not: You don’t have to go beyond the borders of my neighborhood to see how commonly it occurs elsewhere in Cambodia’s capital and beyond, where the country’s natural resources — forests and lakes — also are being squandered in pursuit of monetary wealth.

Unfortunately, disrespect of a nation’s architectural heritage afflicts not only Cambodia but much of Southeast Asia.  Focusing on Ho Chi Minh City, a fine piece this week in a Vietnamese newspaper also notes how the whole region has been affected as well.

To be sure, progress that is productive is a good thing.  Despite all the money pouring into Cambodia for construction projects and all the jobs they create, is it not worth asking whether so much new, and possibly wasteful, development represents progress?

Or does it represent nothing less lofty than short-sighted avarice?  In my view, clouds in the photos that I took this month look prophetic.

Happy holidays!  See you next year.


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