In the lee of the looming bulk of Gold Tower 42, on Sothearos Boulevard, a building is going up which expects to change the lives of many children in Phnom Penh.
The man behind the building, Meng Hieng, describes it as “an indoor edutainment centre, which aims to provide kids, families, children and parents with entertainment and also education”.
Meng Hieng is a serial entrepreneur: he owns Monument Books, which has 11 shops in three countries, and also runs Exotissimo Travel. But Kids City, as the 12-storey building is called, is something of a departure for him.
“The reason we built Kids City is because there isn’t much to do here in Phnom Penh, there are not a lot of attractions or children’s parks, and although there are a couple of playgrounds, at Wat Phnom and on the riverside, they’re not very standard in terms of safety and quality, and it’s not so practical with the weather in Cambodia; either its raining or its too hot, or its too dusty.”
He continues: “so then I thought maybe it would be a good idea to have a centre with a variety of sports activities and entertainment activities, and make it safe, and make it nice and then people can come any time of the day, regardless of rain or shine, and you don’t have to make complicated plans.”
It would have been considerably cheaper if he had built Kids City outside the centre of Phnom Penh. “But if I build a park in Kirirom, how many people do you think are going to take two hours to get there to see whether it is raining or not by the time they arrive, and a day is gone; so basically we are selecting important activities and put them together and make them closer to where people live and easy for planning and it’s 365 days’ operating and safe.”
In terms of entertainment, Kids City boasts “a climbing wall, and ice skating, and laser tag, a huge playground, and in the playground we have 48 play elements that will take the kids up to three or four hours of play, if they don’t tire out first.”
For adults, the will be a Gloria Jeans coffee shop and a Blue Pumpkin restaurant, as well as shops “focusing on children’s clothes, accessories, baby and mother care products, and we also have what we call a day-care centre”.
However, it is the educational side of the project that most excites Meng Hieng. “We have what we call a science gallery and a science discovery area … it will be the first science exhibition ever built in Phnom Penh, and we are working with schools, because before we built the science parts, we sent out questionnaires to science teachers, collecting feedback on subjects of teaching and we sent them to our museum expert to incorporate a list of exhibits so that when it opens they can conduct field trips.”
He continues: “We are very excited about and very positive about our science area, because in many countries science is part of the government program, it is a subject that is funded by the ministry of education or the government, but in Cambodia, we are very pleased to share this facility with children and I have to say, if I hadn’t had a chance to travel abroad, I wouldn’t know any thing about science, because my education was ruined by the war, the civil war, by the Khmer Rouge, so then I think it’ll also give the parents the opportunity to explore science as well.”
Meng Hieng refuses to disclose the costs of the project. “We haven’t really finalised our costs – the forecast was low, but this was my first time doing this, so things add up. At this point I wouldn’t want to announce the exact investment until we are closing our books,” he says.
However, he admits, “it’s a significant investment. We have expensive equipment; the playground is made in Manchester, the museum is from Belgium and New Zealand, the ice is from the USA, climbing is from New Zealand, so some of them are quite expensive. There is a gyroscope, a high-wire bike, a hot air balloon. There is an augmented reality dome, and there is a lot to discover in this little dome.”
And what of Gold Tower 42, the perennially unfinished skyscraper just feet away from Kids City? “I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know who owns it, who runs it, who is building it. When we started to plan this project we didn’t know if they were going to finish it, honestly speaking, for the last nearly two years and it is still there and I can’t get any information. I can only say that in such a nice city, this kind of unfinished building should not keep on, it’s not so good for the image of the city.”
The 7,000-square-metre Kids City, which is due to open to the paying public in May, is quite unlike anything else already here. “This is something new to Cambodia. In other cities you have all these activities scattered around, but here you have them all in one place.” And in the future? “Maybe another Kids City. Maybe in Yangon.”
Meng Hieng’s philosophy is a simple one. “Basically success is all about the people around us, and I think let’s work with them and be nice to them; if you don’t manage people well, if you don’t treat people well, if you don’t pay people well, if you don’t train people well, then no way.”