With her hand blocking the glare of the sun, Kuy Peou gazed steadily at the dust kicked up by the slow stream of vehicles lumbering over uneven surfaces trying to get into Phnom Penh.
“When I first came here, I couldn’t sleep. This construction project is really disturbing as there is so much dust, traffic and noise pollution from vehicles,” she said.
While the current construction along National Road 1 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh has left the road torn up by heavy machinery, with endless wafts of dust coating local storefronts as bumper to bumper traffic spews dark clouds of toxic exhaust, Peou is just one of the many business owners who hope the road will soon be paved. After opening a motorbike shop last October, and expecting to capitalise on the promising business prospectives along Cambodia’s main artery to Vietnam, her business has been hindered by the sheer lack of accessibility. She holds out hope and is confident that once the road is finally completed, business will take off and her investment will be worth it. Until then, the reality is that she can barely stay afloat.
For Keo Somphearak, a motorbike cleaner who has been living on National Road 1 for three years, the reality is much more daunting as his business has completely grinded to a halt.
“My business has to cease to operate because of this construction,” he said. “I want this project to move faster so that I can start my business as per normal.”
While Somphearak claimed he has been compensated for his loss of land and business along the 4-kilometre stretch of road that is being developed, with the government having paid him $500 per square metre, his savings are beginning to dwindle and he is eager to get his business back up and running.
“Once it is finished, business will be better as the road will be bigger and I will have more room to clean bikes more thoroughly,” he said.
But it is not just small business owners who have had to adjust to the bothersome project while waiting for construction to be completed.
Sim Senacheat, a director of a local branch of Prasak Microfinance, has already relocated his business further north. While he said that business was dramatically affected at first, with his new location, it is no longer a problem.
“The current road is considerably hard to travel on, and construction is expected to take up to two more years,” he said. “While it doesn’t affect our operations, it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Chhim Phalla, director of the Ministry of Public Work’s Department of International Cooperation who is responsible for overseeing the Japanese-funded expansion, said that the government has already compensated an undisclosed sum to homeowners and businesses that have had their land reclaimed for the road expansion, with only one or two cases left awaiting payouts.
“The first is the Total gas station and the second is the residence of an official who resides along the road in front of Chbar Ampov pagoda who has yet to receive compensation from the government,” he said.
While the expansion is part of an overall plan to speed up traffic to the capital as ground transportation becomes more important, he said that the construction has faced some unforeseen difficulties. One issue is that homeowners and businesses that have already received compensation have refused to vacate their properties, thus clogging up the ability to speed up construction. Another problem is ensuring that those who live in the surrounding areas still have access to electricity, as the spider web of black cords nesting on the electrical poles, have to be carefully relocated.
“The project will be finished by March 2017, but the actual progress is already moving faster than expected, so construction should finish before then,” he said. The expansion will turn the two-lane highway into a four lane, and will greatly ease congestion entering the capital, he added.
He explained that the $10 million development is not cutting any corners and that the road will consist of a 20-centimeter-thick layer of concrete, adding that the road is designed to handle heavy traffic.
Chrek Soknim, executive director of Century 21 Mekong, said that the area has long needed investment in infrastructure, and while the growing pains may hurt local businesses for now, once completed the land will be a prime development destination.
“With a new road, this area will see high development in terms of property, and the surrounding areas will benefit as well,” he said, adding that prices for land have already jumped from the initial price range of $150 to $300, to a range of $400 to $700 per square metre.
“But because the infrastructure is still limited, it will take time before development takes off,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the jackhammers and cement trucks continue to pile in, local residents like Peou have no choice but to wait idly by, gazing at the development that she hopes will make the wait worthwhile and her business profitable.
“The construction really stresses a lot of us out. I hope it finishes sooner so life can get back to normal,” she lamented.