With the recent rise of alternative housing options, as well as surging land and home prices, many locals still prefer to dwell in the type of community that they are used to: those with plenty of land.
While that term has now become known as borey, its patronage dates back further than the last few decades.
According to the legendary definition of borey, which has existed since ancient times and represented a kingdom or country, it wasn’t until Samdech Chuon Nath, a great monk who lived up until the mid-1900s and who created the first Khmer dictionary, used the term to vaguely describe a city, town or province – making it the standard lexicon.
The concept of the borey further evolved during the French Colonial era, recalled Sokheng Pon, a 74-year-old former chief of the loosely dubbed Borey SKD (Société Khmer des Distilleries) in 1964, along National Road 6. According to Pon, the French built some of the very first hybrid French-Khmer houses for worker families near the distillery around 1929.
While workers were allowed to stay for free, they were required to maintain the hygiene of their houses, clean the streets and manage the sewage system, Pon said.
“[When I lived there], the management at the borey was a collective system under the village chief’s supervision. Most borey residents had similar vocational skills, mutual discipline, and good livelihoods,” he said.
“That’s why the borey, [at that time], had a wonderful environment; no littering, no foul smells. The residents lived good lives,” he said, adding that living within a community provided safety.
Pon returned to the same borey after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and began working at the distillery again.
In present-day Cambodia, the characteristics of a borey draw certain parallels to the original definition, but borey developers have hinted that its current definition steers more towards a ‘gated community’. In line with developers’ marketing plans, the word ‘borey’ is now synonymous with an urbanised version of communal village life.
According to Saraboth Ea, Managing Director of Maxem Property, he had first noticed the emergence of borey developments here about a decade ago.
“It wasn’t a borey in the sense of the word now but the concept of it started out from that of affordable houses outside the city for people who were working in provincial area factories, so row-houses were built to support the community,” he said.
“Building healthy communities around these developments is vital, as opposed to ghost towns,” said Ea, referring to the need to have a mix of residential homes and commercial enterprise.
The first large modern borey developer was Borey Piphup Thmey, back in the late 1990s, after which others followed suit, according to Phou Sambath, Director Assistant of Borey Phnom Penh Thmey (BPPT), a developer that runs multiple boreys in various locations across the capital.
While the term now refers to a ‘gated community,’ it facilitates the need for community, security and infrastructure, Sambath said.
Thida Ann, Senior Associate Director of CBRE, said there are approximately 85 developed and developing boreys in Phnom Penh, wherein almost all its residents are Cambodians.
Borey developers, in general, contribute to the community by building power supplies and public services in the whole area and not just within the borey itself, she asserted.
“This … has paid off because now a lot of shop houses and businesses have sprouted up outside the borey,” said Sambath.
Despite being commercially driven developments today, community life within a borey can still mirror the close ties among its inhabitants that first defined borey community life as established in the French Colonial era.
“In our first two projects, there were extended families staying in the same borey, hence making up a cluster belonging to several nucleus families,” Sambath explained.
A resident at Camko City, Sonina Thon, said that the biggest appeal of living in her borey townhouse is the security it provides her and her family. She feels that it is a prime place to strike up friendships with other residents.
“Another great factor is the peaceful environment – no loud traffic sounds or loud music – and fresh air, trees and public space,” Thon said.
Sambath said that at the end of the day, Cambodians prefer landed properties that are more affordable than standalone villas. Living in a borey, the land space around your house is yours to do whatever you like with it.
“Also, it is good for people in the community to share common traditional values,” Sambath concluded, echoing Pon’s recollections from decades past.