PHNOM PENH: From glitzy malls and high-rise flats to five-star hotels, a luxury building boom in Phnom Penh is transforming a capital once reduced to a ghost town into one of Asia’s fastest growing cities.
Inside the recently opened Aeon Mall in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s first mega shopping center, shoppers and curious residents flock to see the latest Levi’s and Giordano handbags, snapping selfies in front of a giant Christmas tree.
It is a common scene across much of Southeast Asia but was previously unimaginable for many in Cambodia where around 20 percent of people still live on less than $1.25 per day.
But while poverty remains entrenched, a fast-growing middle class and elite are increasingly looking for local ways to spend their cash.
“I am glad we have such a modern mall in Phnom Penh. It shows the city is growing,” says 20-year-old Bopha, a well-heeled university student who said her family made more than $1 million in a recent land sale.
Bopha said she used to have to travel to Thailand and Singapore for her shopping trips but that was now changing.
“Their cities are crowded with high-rise towers. I think we are heading in the same direction to be like them,” she beamed.
The $200 million Japanese-built mall is just one of dozens of new shopping complexes, condominium projects and hotels springing up in Phnom Penh as Cambodia rides a wave of high economic growth rates in recent years.
The capital is second only to Laos in East Asia for the fastest rate of urban spatial expansion, according to the World Bank, and its economy is expected to grow at 6.9 percent this year.
Rise of the high-rise
All across the city luxury high-rise condos are popping up with names like “The Peak” and “Diamond Island,” complete with billboards promising aspirational taglines such as “Sophisticated Urban Living.”
According to the government, Cambodia drew construction investment worth $1.75 billion in the first nine months of 2015, a 13.7 percent rise from a year earlier.
Many of the new entrants into the kingdom’s building market are developers from Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore.
The 39-storey Vattanac Capital Tower, Cambodia’s first skyscraper, which was finished in 2014, is designed in the shape of a dragon and incorporates Chinese traditional feng shui principles.