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An ode to Phnom Penh, by Kounila Keo, senior writer for Lift and lifetime resident of Cambodia's capital.
Q: How does Phnom Penh compare to the cities you’ve been to?
When people think about Phnom Penh, they remember the past when Phnom Penh was considered the “Pearl of Asia” and one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. But, with the race to build the highest building in Phnom Penh for the past 10 years, the skyline has changed quickly and will surely change at a more rapid speed in the years to come.
Phnom Penh is nearly 600 years old and is still quite a small city. History has it that one of the Cambodian kings, King Ponhea Yat, in 1434 moved the capital from Longvek (now Pursat). The name Phnom means a hill or mountain where Penh was taken from the name of Lady Penh whom Cambodians call “Yay Penh”. According to an old folk tale, Yay Penh one day found four Buddha figurines that prompted her to have people build up a hill, these days called “Wat Phnom” by the locals, and it houses the four figurines.
When it comes to the present, Phnom Penh was rightfully chosen by the king for its convenient location, a junction of three rivers: Mekong, Bassac, Tonle Sap rivers, and they all still exist. According to Cambodian belief, where there is water, there is prosperity. And though the resources in the river are in danger, there is still plenty to be caught. The fact that even city people believe in the power of the earth is evidence of the country’s dependence on agriculture, and Phnom Penh is the commercial, cultural, industrial and historical centre for Cambodia, and with it, all the riches it holds.
For those who came to Phnom Penh early, the city’s shape and feel have shifted drastically, particularly in the past 10 years when the government as well as investors have been planning increasingly ambitious building projects. The news that unveils the plan to build one of the highest buildings in Asia surprised the whole nation when Cambodia’s Prime Minister said Cambodia would erect a 555-metre tall high-rise. Reportedly, the world’s tallest building is in Dubai (828 metres), while the current second one is in Taiwan (509 metres). In Phnom Penh, Canadia tower, 118.1 metres, is the tallest one followed by the 42-storey Golden Tower, which is to be started after a pause for financial reasons in the last three months.
Having travelled for quite a while, I started to realise that different cities are endowed with different auras. In big metropolitan cities, the message is out loud: people need to become rich and perhaps be smarter. A tourist who comes to Phnom Penh for the first time might think Phnom Penh is a transitioning city. It is embracing the old colonial and modern architecture simultaneously, while urbanisation has been a government priority for almost a decade. Many of the urban slums that were once a distraction to tourists were washed away and the people were sent to places far away from the city and reportedly without enough support.
Besides, one can find sheer poverty within the vicinity of an incredibly luxurious life in Phnom Penh. People come from every place thoughout Cambodia to the capital for the same old reason: to find a better job, and God willing, a more comfortable life. With a reportedly 30 percent of the population living under less than two dollars a day, that reality does not exist for many people. The damage to wallets caused by an increase in fuel consumption by cars and vehicles, is compounded by the increasingly unsafe air and, too often, traffic fatalities and accidents, which are rising every year. It also means moving toward a speedy lifestyle that affects clothing, food and everything else, while poor people are living in many worse parts of the city.
If one could ask what message Phnom Penh sends to visitors, I would be up to answer: “You should get richer faster because everybody else is getting rich now.” Families are evicted every week, people must move out and leave their life. Last month nearly 400 people died in a few hours, one of the great tragedies we have seen. These events are scary, but Phnom Penh seems to keep speeding forward without stopping to watch the accidents that are happening.
Investors who have wanted to change the skyline of Phnom Penh and build more shopping malls, supermarkets, department stores and other luxurious facilities, have been granted the rights and favourable conditions to do so in the government’s bid to reduce poverty and boost development. Expectably, in a few years to come, Phnom Penh’s skyline will be looking very different.