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This Charming City: Rise of Tonle Bassac

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The Tonle Bassac horizon at dusk. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days


The riverside district was once the site of a radical social housing project. Now Tonle Bassac is in the throes of the city’s development boom.

Is Tonle Bassac becoming the East Village of Phnom Penh?

The area is undoubtedly one of Phnom Penh’s most distinctive neighbourhoods, where trendy eateries and cultural fixtures such as Meta House meet traditional tailors, noodle shops and bobor sellers and fruit stalls by the teeming Phsar Kapko market.

The area, which extends from the banks of the Tonle Bassac in the east, to National Highway One in the south, across to Monivong Boulevard in the west, and Samdach Preah Sihanouk Boulevard in the north, is a growth area both for arty enterprises, boutique eateries and for big business.  

“It reminds me of the villages in New York and how they would have been 30 years ago,” says Doug Gordon, co-owner of eclectic second-hand shop Trunkh., which opened late last year and stands on the corner of Sothearos Boulevard facing the iconic White Building.

The housing block, designed by Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap as social housing for civil servants, now stands decrepit but bursting with character.

Gordon says he chose the location because of the distinctive architecture.

“It’s a huge part of Phnom Penh’s draw and history. It defines this neighbourhood, it’s like a mountain.”

Around the corner, still on Sothearos, construction on a sleek new restaurant, The Duck, is well underway.

Owner Dah Lee, from New Zealand, says the contemporary Western bistro will open in four to five weeks.

Lee picked the location for its street profile, the park area in the front of the building, and, like Gordon, the character the White Building brings to the block.

“With Meta House, Trunkh., and us - three significant places - hopefully it will be an interesting little strip.”

Social hub Java Arts Cafe has been a hallmark of the area for quite some time, while the relatively new, Secret Garden-esque Botanico GastroBar, the sleek Vietnamese restaurant Ngon, the Lost Room, the Ebony Tree and the brand new Italian pizzeria, Piccoli Italia Da Luigi, are nurturing the district as a choice dining destination.

However Gordon, an American who has been based in Phnom Penh for a year and a half, says he is also worried the growth and development in the area could cause it to lose its character.

“I’m worried about sterilised, Westernised businesses around the corner.

“Foreign investments are great if they’re creative, but unfortunately that’s not usually the case,” Gordon says.

Naga2, the sprawling resort planned to open in 2015, just 200 metres from the original Naga World casino, will feature two 5-star hotel blocks, luxury shopping boutiques, high-end restaurants, a theatre, and, of course, a gaming and entertainment complex.

Kuek Narin, vice-president of Asia Real Estate Cambodia, says Tonle Bassac has a lot of potential for even further development.

Its riverside location and proximity to other developments, like Diamond Island are contributing factors, he says.

“Cambodians did not always like foreign investors, they wanted the development themselves… but Cambodian people need to learn more, and spend more time, and look at what others are doing.”

Narin believes it is up to locals to protect their cultural identity.

“It is not the responsibility of businesses.”

Meanwhile, the monolithic Japanese-owned Aeon Mall - three storeys high and slapped over 68,400m2 -  is set to open next year.

The $205 million centre is one of the biggest developments planned for Tonle Bassac, owned by Japan’s largest shopping plaza developer and operator.

The three-storey mega-mall, to be home to dozens of food courts, cafes, boutiques, beauty salons and electronic stores as well as a cinema and a bowling alley, will also flank Sothearos Boulevard,  adjacent to Sofitel and the Russian Embassy.

Aeon is considering building up to five other malls in Phnom Penh, and possibly expanding into Battambang and Siem Reap, managing director Makoto Yajima says. The company aims to make Aeon Mall Cambodia locally managed in the future, Yajima insists.

For now, the bustling surrounds have a typically local flavour, heaving with neon convenience stores, tailors, hardware stores, massage parlours, guesthouses and restaurants.

Some of these shop owners and managers say they were unaware of the mall development down the road and how it would affect their business.

Aeon aims to open the doors of its Phnom Penh mall in May 2014.

They say they expect about 10 million customers to flock to he shopping complex in the first year; a car park  with more than 2000 car and moto spaces is also planned.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Walters at




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