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Going for broke at Bokor

Cat Barton

The old casino atop Bokor Mountain looks out over the jungle to the Gulf of Thailand.

Tycoon Sok Kong talks to Vong Sokheng and Cat Barton about his ‘defining project,’ the $1-billion redevelopment of Bokor resort, and the challenges of enjoying free time in Cambodia

    

Cat Barton

Sokimex founder and chairman Sok Kong knows he has bitten off a lot with his plan to revitalize the old Bokor hill station in Kampot Province. “It is a big investment, it is a difficult investment and it will define me,” he says.

No sooner had Okhna Sok Kong stepped off his helicopter than he lit up a Winfield Blue and strode purposefully across the uneven grass atop Bokor Mountain towards the assembled journalists, cigarette dangling between diamond-encrusted fingers.

The 58-year-old looks every inch the tycoon: immaculately turned out in a well-cut suit, solid-gold Rolex watch and gold rimless glasses, he is preceded by a bevy of assistants and a vast reputation.

Smiling, smoking and barking orders in quick succession, Sok Kong quickly settles himself into a chair, orders a glass of red wine, and launches into an explanation of his newest project, a $1-billion redevelopment of the decaying French colonial-era Bokor Mountain resort.

“It is a big investment, it is a difficult investment and it will define me,” he says of his plan to create a “world class tourist city” from the dilapidated ruins of the Kingdom’s colonial past. “This is my ultimate challenge.”

The company he founded in 1994, Sokimex Cambodia Investment Co., Ltd, has a portfolio which ranges from garments to gas by way of five-star hotels. It has the ticketing concession at Angkor Wat, dominates the domestic market for petroleum products and Sok Kong’s Sokha Hotel Co., Ltd is an increasingly important player in the country’s booming tourism industry.

But the Bokor redevelopment will be the jewel in the Sokha Group’s crown.

“With this project, we are not looking for short-term profit, we want to do it well,” says Sok Kong.

 

Despite his punishing work schedule and penchant for Winfred Blues, which he bulk-buys in Singapore, the Okhna looks younger than his years – possibly because he feels he is just now coming of age professionally.

“This is the right time for me to do this business, now that the economy is growing,” he says. “If I didn’t [launch the Bokor redevelopment] now, it would become a missed opportunity.”

The project is ambitious. The Bokor mountain area covers 140,000 hectares, although the project only covers the previously developed areas – the three plateaus, which total about 14,000 hectares.

The first plateau is the highest on the mountain and the only area to have pre-existing buildings – the old casino, hotel, post office and church. This will become the “tourist city” and the other two plateaus will be developed into residential areas.

The aim is to finish construction of a new 600-room hotel over the next two-and-a-half years while rebuilding the 33-kilometer road up the mountain. The road – currently a muddy, pot-holed nightmare – will be enlarged and sealed at a cost of some $20 million.

The importance of preservation is emphasized repeatedly by Sok Kong and his employees. The French colonial buildings will be preserved; their outer shells strengthened and the insides ripped out in line with UNESCO recommendations.

When restored, the original hotel will offer a small number of higher priced luxury rooms.

“We will knock down the casino,” Sok Kong says. The original building is to be replaced with a purpose-built, 3,000-square-foot casino so the new development can capitalize on the long-standing reputation of Bokor as a high-end gambling retreat.

The residential areas aim to tap into what Sok Kong sees as a new growth market – second homes for middleclass Cambodian families and retirement homes.

“The main market is for Cambodians, overseas Cambodians and also retirees,” explains Sok Kong’s executive assistant, Svay Vuthy. “The weather here is good for retirees. We envisage some fulltime residents and some holiday homes.”

Although the master plan for the project is not yet finished, the company estimates that about 1,000 residential villas, condominiums and houses will be built.

The project has various impressively progressive elements, including a botanical garden and a market garden that will supply the hotel with fruit and vegetables. There are even plans for a wind farm to meet some of the resort’s electricity needs.

 

The biggest sticking point currently for the project is infrastructure, primarily the Sihanoukville airport.

“If international flights could land at Sihanoukville it would contribute to the entire project here,” Sok Kong says.

 

“Sihanoukville is dead because of [the lack of airport development]. If they want a tourist boom in the south like there was in Siem Reap then they need that airport.”

Sok Kong is optimistic about the impact of the project on the local economy. Not only will the project create massive employment opportunities – for example, the 600-room hotel alone will require 900 staff – it will also ensure they are jobs with perks, such as subsidized housing and long-term training schemes.

“We are not talking about the benefits now, we are talking about the benefits in 15 years’ time,” Sok Kong explains. “I want to create stable, long-term jobs for Kampot locals and also a stable supply of goods for the hotel project – people can grow the vegetables we need.”

Already, according to Sok Kong, the proposed development is proving a spur to the local economy, with land prices at the base of the mountain jumping from an average $10 per square meter before the project was announced in January to $70 a square meter today.

Managing the hotels currently in the Sokimex portfolio and overseeing new projects in Bokor, Kirirom and Phnom Penh – a large hotel on the Chroy Changvar peninsula is currently in the works – is no mean feat. When asked when he finds time to relax in between managing multiple multimillion-dollar development projects, Sok Kong smiles ruefully.

“Maybe in [England] it is easier for businessmen and they have time to relax. Here, we have a problem with human resources – it is very difficult for me to find staff I can trust and rely on. And the banks can only lend up to 20 percent [of a project’s cost]. All the banks in Phnom Penh cannot fund [my Bokor redevelopment]. I have to do everything myself,” he says.

With this in mind, can he succeed with his hugely ambitious project in Bokor?

“The Sokha Group, how much money do we risk to pursue my ideas? How much do we lose? But now, when I have success, people accuse me of getting favors, of getting all the prime locations for my business,” Sok Kong says.

“But what they see is simply the success of my business model – the pursuit of my ideas.”

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