Cambodia Goes on a Building Spree

Bigger. Higher. Larger. These are the new catchwords for the Cambodian business community and politicians when it comes to construction in a country dominated for centuries by Buddhist grace and delicacy.

Nonetheless, they are synonyms that could all fit the latest pieces in a growing list of modern structures including a new airport proposed for Phnom Penh – so massive it would be among the 10 largest such facilities in the world. The current airport handles over 4 million passenger arrivals and departures.

The national authorities approved an investment plan for the project last week, reported the Phnom Penh Post, paving the way for a US$1.5 billion, 2,600-hectare structure to be erected in Kandal province by Cambodia Airport Investment, a joint venture between the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation and the government’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation. The corporation is supposed to contribute US$280 million, while over a billion dollars are forecast to be invested by foreign banks.

Details have not been agreed yet, but if the current outline is any indication, the structure could surpass even Beijing's Capital Airport — although the entire Cambodian population of 15.6 million is significantly smaller than the Chinese city's alone at 21.5 million. Beijing’s current airport handles more than 90 million passengers annually.

Meanwhile, right in the middle of the capital, work is ongoing on the Thai Boon Roong Twin Trade Center, a skyscraper whose two towers will soar up to 560 meters, making it the tallest building in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Construction is being carried out by the eponymous Thai Boon Roong Group, a company self-described as one of “Cambodia’s most prestigious local enterprise,” whose interests “span across a wide range of industries including real estate, banking, hotel, retail, industry and much more.”

In other news, its founder, the recently-deceased Teng Bunma, was one of the most powerful and well-connected tycoons in the country. Rumored to have a fiery temperament and haunted by drug trafficking allegations, he once pulled a gun while on a Royal Air Cambodge flight and shot out one of the plane's tires to complain of poor service. He later claimed he would have liked to pierce them all, but did not do so as the airport was crowded.

Regardless of who backs them, the slate of new projects is proof of Cambodia's economic rise and raises fears of a classic collapse from overcapacity. The country has experienced fast growth since the 1990s, with poverty decreasing and a marked improvement in living standards. GDP growth is expected to be slightly higher than 7 percent this year, helping to expand a new generation of middle-class urban dwellers and reshape a city whose tough past still lingers.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge rose to power and turned Phnom Penh into a ghost town of empty buildings and deserted streets. In a revolutionary frenzy, the communist guerrillas even dynamited the central bank, an odious symbol of capitalism to them. War and revolution left the place a shadow of its former, grander self, for the Cambodian capital was once said to be one of Southeast Asia's finest cities. “I hope, one day, my city will look like this,” Lee Kuan Yew told the late King Norodom Sihanouk during a visit in 1967. But Singapore and Cambodia would soon go down different paths, with the former becoming an authoritarian economic miracle, the latter sucked into Vietnam's conflict.

The unplanned building spree is unlikely to return the capital to its old charms. Vann Molyvann, the country's best-known architect who in the 1950s and 1960s had designed many of its iconic sites, was one of the new city’s fiercest critics. “Now there is no space, because the government is trying to sell any land they have. Why should they bother to make a public space out of 2,000 square meters when they can have money in their pocket?” he once told the Phnom Penh Post. Some of the dozens of buildings he designed in his signature New Khmer Architecture have been destroyed. The Independence Monument in downtown Phnom Penh, also his work, will soon lie in the shade of the Thai Boon Roong towers, which are rising only a few hundred meters away.

The frenzy, however, is putting the country on the path to modernity other Asian cities have already walked. The temples, palaces and colonial houses of the city center are set to be dwarfed by steel towers. New, better roads will intersect the city's rural surroundings. The skyline will rise and neighborhoods become gentrified. Perhaps with a vengeance, given how fast construction is taking place. According to real estate giant CBRE Group, investment into approved construction projects reached US$8.5 billion in 2016, increasing 143 percent over the previous year.

A serious issue is who will eventually buy all the condos and use the infrastructure being churned out. A report by property company Knight Frank argues that by 2020 the condominium sector could add 24,533 units to the 2,840 existing in 2015, an increase of over 700 percent. Costs run high, while prices in downtown Phnom Penh have outstripped the capacity of most Cambodian tenants to either rent or buy high-end apartments.

The same can be said for the city's massive new airport. The building will be cause for pride and will signal Cambodia's ascent, but the country remains very poor at many levels. Whether the authorities' priorities should lie with building shiny entry/exit ports or focus on the less exciting daily needs of Cambodians — as of 2014 roughly 56 percent of the population had access to electricity, data from the World Bank show — will be a topic for debate.

Michele Penna is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel from several Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar and Cambodia.