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
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
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
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
"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.