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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Sinful Hill': smarter, cleaner, much more expensive

'Sinful Hill': smarter, cleaner, much more expensive

This stately home comes with its own fourth-story karaoke room.

Once known as the badlands of Phnom Penh, the streets of Tuol Kork have rapidly

smartened up. With this improved image has come a jump in prices, as the city's northern

suburb has become the place of choice for many of the new elite.

Say Syphanna of real estate agent Phanna Properties knows the value of Tuol Kork

property only too well: only a few years ago he sold his own block of land there

for $23,000. Today, he laments, the same block would probably fetch four times that.

Although land in Tuol Kork is still around half the price of the more central Boeung

Keng Kang area, Syphanna points out that property values there have enjoyed a spectacular

boom.

Tuol Kork, which fans out from the radio antenna at the top of Street 273, is famous

for its red light district and surrounding slums. But move toward the university

end of the suburb, and the prices of the houses and the prestige of the residents

increases.

Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh is one long-time householder. And should he need

to see any of his trusty generals at his Tuol Kork mansion, there are many on hand.

The area has long been popular with Cambodia's military elite.

And in an odd contradiction to their 'strongman' image, these same elite favor a

distinctly effeminate style of architecture commonly known as the "wedding cake".

Three, four and even five story ornate villas in rich pink with white frosting are

found on every street.

Among the better-known residents in this wealthy enclave is Ke Kim Yan, commander-in-chief

of the armed forces. Nearby is his deputy, Meas Sophea, while business tycoon, Mong

Reththy, and the chief of Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, Hing Bun Heang, also live in

the area.

Over the past few years the municipality has introduced more and better services

to the area, and streets once blocked to traffic have been opened and re-paved. Commune

chief Vann Sareth, who has lived there since 1981, says the difference is notable.

"It used to flood for three or four days," he says of the drainage system

that has helped to attract the new, well-heeled residents, "but now after just

three hours the water is gone."

He estimates that 70-80 percent of new residents are high-ranking officials, civil

servants, members of parliament, and "generals with at least one star".

"The others live in very poor conditions in the squatter areas," he says.

Some of these perennially poor have found themselves under pressure to move on as

the socio-economic status of the area improves.

"When they developed Road 305, 21 families had to be moved to Anlong Kngann

[outside the city]," says Sareth. "And when they made Road 592, six families

were moved to Samakki village."

Crackdowns on brothels, perhaps a better-known aspect of Tuol Kork, have shifted

a number of the poor to the margins of the newly affluent suburb, but Sareth says

there will be no large-scale removal of squatters who have lived in the area for

the last 20 years.

"All the land alongside the railway line is state property, so no one will come

to move them from there," he predicts.

Figures from the municipality's department of cadaster and geography show just how

much private money is pouring in to Tuol Kork: in the first quarter of this year

some 200 construction projects were approved in Phnom Penh, which was almost 50 percent

above the same period last year.

The municipality's deputy-director of land management, Chhoun Sothy, says 45 of those

construction projects were for mansions, and most of those were built in Tuol Kork.

"Tuol Kork had the most construction in 2001," says Sothy, "and so

far in 2002 it has also had the most land transactions of any area in Phnom Penh."

His words are borne out by a drive along the suburb's often-bumpy streets. A small

army of construction workers erects mansions for the rich, building high gates and

spiked iron fences.

Sothy also ascribes the renewed interest to recent improvements in access and services,

but also points out the area's history as a high status suburb.

"Under the Lon Nol regime and in Sihanouk's time, Tuol Kork was the prestige

area for the rich," he says.

In the 1960s and 1970s the area boasted a film studio. Actors and singers lived among

the city's elite. One famous Tuol Kork resident even immortalized the suburb in song.

In one of the 1960s most famous numbers, Sin Sisamuth lamented that he could never

return to Tuol Kork because it was the "shelter of sinful love". The song

accuses Tuol Kork of sheltering capriciousness and untrustwor-thiness. "Tuol,

I say goodbye, because you've become the sinful hill," the song concludes.

Making a statement: Proud and lofty porticos suggest big-time callers are welcome.

In 1975 most residents were forced to say goodbye to the area when the Khmer Rouge

evacuated Phnom Penh. During the 1980s the entire suburb became something of a fortress

housing Vietnamese military personnel, andthrough-traffic was blocked.

It was during this period that it became home to many of Cambodia's military. Commune

chief Sareth says at that time land could be purchased for "two or three chi

of gold", about $80.

"Before 1997 people were not interested in Tuol Kork," the municipality's

Sothy explains. "The land there was cheap, access was poor, and there was no

water or electricity services

All that changed, he says, when Street 307 was re-opened, causing prices to rocket.

Sothy says the fact that there are large plots of land available in Tuol Kork has

made the area popular for new villas. A 30 by 40 meter block can sell for as much

as $150,000 plus an extra $100,000-150,000 to build the average villa. There is not

much in the way of mortgage financing in Cambodia, which means most transactions

are handled with suitcases full of cash.

New services have kept pace with the arrival of the wealthy new residents. October

saw the opening of the new Tuol Kork market, which is based on the renowned Psar

Thmei, or Central Market.

And the local Diamond golf-driving range is already awash with excellencies practicing

their efforts at the game that counts, and rubbing shoulders with generals and city

governor Chea Sophara.

Soon these newcomers to the game will be able to go one step further and play a full

round at a course being constructed on Street 598. Owned by Sophara, the 14-hectare

site on Tuol Kork's outskirts will also boast a large country club.

With the new residents has come a new atmosphere of security. Bodyguards sit in swing

chairs outside most Tuol Kork mansions, chatting and eating, their AK-47s propped

nearby.

"Before there were many robberies in that area, so when the rich moved in they

moved in with bodyguards," says Sothy. Today the area is safer than ever before.

Sothy feels that property values could double again. That might be good for long-term

residents with a large block of vacant land, but he worries that those who sell may

be left with nothing.

"I'm afraid for the owners of that land, because they sell the land then buy

new land and a cheaper house," he says. "They try to sell their good land

to the rich, but if their business collapses they will have nothing. If they get

too much money then they may just waste it."

Meanwhile the pink and white wedding cakes keep moving in and moving up. The "shelter

of sinful love" is once again proving a prestige area for the new elite.

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