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The city of tomorrow

The city of tomorrow



The banks of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers in central Phnom Penh are being transformed into what is touted as a people-friendly development project designed to maxi-mize the area's tourism potential.

The banks of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers in central Phnom Penh are being transformed

into what is touted as a people-friendly development project designed to maxi-mize

the area's tourism potential.

Bou Saroeun takes a closer look at the project, and finds that a bumpy road

lies ahead to...

Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara has a dream.

Looking at his city of pot-holed, garbage-strewn streets lined with a huge floating

population of beggars, landless peasants and a nocturnal army of fat, sleek rats,

Sophara says that Phnom Penh's rightful ranking as a tourism jewel of Southeast Asia

is just around the corner.

But unlike poverty alleviation, industrial development and the elimination of right-hand

drive vehicles, Sophara's vision of the Phnom Penh of tomorrow is already becoming

a reality along the banks of the Tonle Sap across from the Royal Palace.

Since January, heavy construction vehicles have transformed a once-sleepy spit of

annually-flooded farmland into the centerpiece of Sophara's plan for a city that

he aims to place at the top of the list of Asian tourist destinations.

"The new development plan is very important to attract tourists to view the

city from the other side of the river and to enjoy the new park," Sophara said

of the joint public park/flood dike construction project under way. "This will

help to attract many more visitors to the city in the near future."

The development plan also includes the extension of the riverside promenade along

Sisowath Quay from the Japanese Bridge to the Monivong Bridge four kilometers south.

The plan is designed to maximize public enjoyment of the river's environment while

allowing for the development of restaurants, trade exhibition sites and other business

areas along the length of the route.

Sophara has even got detailed specifications of the varieties of flowers - perennials

that will bloom year-round - slated for planting along the route.


But Sophara emphasizes that the new development is designed to be far more than a

simple aesthetic upgrade of the riverside area. By establishing an attractive pedestrian

link along both sides of the Tonle Sap south of the Japanese bridge, Sophara aims

to improve living standards for communities living adjacent to the development.

That intention has been welcomed by Pich Saroeun, Deputy Chief of Chruuy Changvar

commune near the Japanese Bridge, who says it's the first time that government officials

have paid attention to the development of his area.

"Before we were like a remote area even though we were part of Phnom Penh,"

Saroeun said of previous municipal administrations. "No one had any interest

in helping us."

According to Saroeun, the development has already benefited Chruuy Changvar residents

by tripling land prices in the area, prices that are expected to rise even higher

after the project finishes.

The consensus among the 2,341 families in the area is that Sophara's plan would make

them rich, Saroeun added.

"Our yioun (prosperity) is increasing," a long-time resident of the area

said of the development. "We have been waiting a long time for this."


But not all people living near the development are as enthusiastic about the effect

it is having on their lives.

The Tonle Sap eastern bank development has caused the eviction of 200 families who

previously occupied the land, while the Bassac development will eventually cause

the dislocation of 1,000 additional families.

While some of those Bassac families are being relocated under a municipal plan funded

by foreign donors, dozens of families are being forced to relocate and re-start their

lives elsewhere after more than two decades of residence in the area.

Those numbers and the human distress they represent have provoked cries of concern

from NGO representatives who work with the city's urban poor.

One of those voices of concern is that of Lim Phai, Chairman of Urban Sector Group's

management team, who says that the breakneck pace the municipality has taken in bringing

the riverside development to fruition is being done at the expense of long-term residents

of the area.

"The Phnom Penh authorities want to develop a beautiful city, but we want them

to develop the city and raise people's living standards at the same time."

Pich Kim Horn, 40, can speak first-hand about the negative effects the riverside

development has had on her and her family's life.

She and 86 other families derived their livelihood since 1992 from small farming

plots on 38 hectares of peninsula owned by the Chruuy Apevat development company.

Now Kim Horn cowers in her hut, a krama held permanently to her face in an attempt

to filter the dust kicked up by the convoys of dump trucks that roar past on what

was once her vegetable plot.

Kim Horn and her neighbors are now demanding compensation of $300 each from the Municipal


Chhoeun Sophy, 28, a Chruuy Changvar peninsula resident, has been forced to start

doing truck repairs since his vegetable plots were destroyed in mid-January.

"We are not against the development project, but they must pay us fair compensation

so that we can live," Sophy said.


Another controversial aspect of the riverside development project is a land reclamation

project that will involve the removal of a small island opposite the Chaktomuk Theatre.

Chea Sophara justifies the plan on the basis that the island and Chruuy Changvar

peninsula have extended their length into the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle

Sap by 300 meters since 1960.

That expansion, Sophara says, has disturbed fish migration from the Mekong to breeding

grounds in the upper Tonle Sap and Great Lake.

"If we remove the island... I think it will be very good because more fish will

migrate to the Tonle Sap.

But according to a Mekong River Commission (MRC) official, the city's efforts to

remove the island and shorten the peninsula are unrealistic.

"Removing that island will not affect fish migration in any way," the MRC

official said. "Besides, even if they remove the island now, it will just come

back in a few years due to natural siltation.

The MRC has called on the city to postpone the removal of the island and large scale

development of the Bassac's banks pending study of its potential long-term environmental


Increased flooding risks, a reduction in the tonnage of ships able to dock at Phnom

Penh Autonomous Port and a possible recurrence of conditions that caused the collapse

of the Monivong Bridge in 1964 could result from hasty development work, the MRC


Sophara, however, has little time for the MRC concerns, accusing the organization

of making inflated estimates of the cost of the island's removal.

Rather than the $800 million the MRC estimates the work will cost, Sophara says he

can do it for $200,000.

"I am [disappointed] with the MRC because they have done nothing about the island

even though their office is located in Phnom Penh," he said

"I don't want to talk about the MRC."

A future built on other's land?


Khek Vandy's opinion on the Municipality's Chruuy Changvar project is short and

concise: "Give me back my land."

According to Vandy, Funcinpec legislator and husband of Princess Bopha Devi, Chea

Sophara is building his vision of a future Phnom Penh on land illegally confiscated

from himself and fellow investors.

"I was very surprised when I saw on TV and read newspaper stories about the

development on my land," said Vandy, who claims to own 45% of the Chruuy Changvar

peninsula with Cambodian Chinese Association President Duong Chhiv owning the remaining

55% share of the land. "They should have come and negotiated with us first [before

starting work on the flood dike/public park project]."

Chruuy Changvar commune Deputy Chief Pich Saroeun confirms that the land was sold

to Vandy and Chhiv in 1992 by 178 resident families for $4-$7 per square meter.

Saroeun said the buyers never developed the land, allowing local villagers to use

it free of charge to grow vegetables.

Vandy brandishes a Duong Chhiv Import/Export, Tourism and Transport Co. document

dated April 2000 requesting permission to build a 2,500 meter dike on the property.

The request, he says, was ignored as were his demands that the Municipality compensate

him for what he estimates is the $2 million value of his share of the land - plus

interest since 1992.

"Who will dare to invest in this country with land graßbbing occurring

as easily as this?" Vandy complained.

Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara, however, rejected outright Vandy's claims

of ownership of the Chruuy Changvar peninsular site.

"This is state land and agricultural land," he said. "Private interests

have no right to buy it."

Post efforts to contact Duong Chhiv regarding the land controversy were unsuccessful.

Deja vue: plans from the past

Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara is determined to put a bright, fresher

face on Phnom Penh. Dirty, faded building facades are getting their first licks of

paint in decades, while the public deportment of Phnom Penhois - particularly in

unlit parks after dark - is also under his scrutiny.

But as translations of these prakas (public edicts) issued by King Norodom Sihanouk

during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum in September 1958 show, nothing is new under the

sun. The Post thanks the National Archives for their assistance.


"This is to inform all brothers and sisters of the nation that...the father

of national independence has criticized the dirty condition of Phnom Penh, of which

foreign newspapers have also spread gossip about. Therefore, the King has decided

to form a committee to ensure all city streets and buildings are kept clean and attractive.

To assist the committee in its duties, please observe the following:

  1. Don't litter.
  2. Don't urinate/defecate in public
  3. Don't build structures for public vending on sidewalks or on land that you have

    no deed or rights to.

  4. Those structures built in improper places must be immediately removed or will

    be forcibly removed.

"The successful clean-up of Phnom Penh will only go smoothly with the assistance

of the people. Don't allow your own interests to hurt the reputation of the King

or the Khmer people. Those who don't respect this edict will be punished according

to the law as a model for others."-The Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification



"Cambodia today has achieved independence by our respected King's hand.

"Now, the King understands that if the country is no longer colonized, the people

who own the country need to act with dignity and be well-dressed in order to be seen

as 'free people'. Therefore from now on all people must wear proper clothes in public.

When you leave your home at any time observe the following:

  1. Don't wear kramas
  2. Don't wear sarongs
  3. Don't leave your home naked.
  4. Parents must ensure that children are properly dressed before leaving the house.

    [Those that do not obey this edict will be arrested and educated in understanding

    the value of being free people in an independent country.]

- Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification Committee.


  1. Please ensure the front of your house is attractive and clean. Plant flowers

    in front.

  2. Do not build any unattractive structures on or adjacent your property.
  3. Do not hang clothes to dry outside your home.
  4. Householders are responsible for the cleanliness of the sidewalk in front of

    their homes.

  5. No goods may be sold on sidewalks.

- The Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification Committee.


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