From a semi-submerged sandbar rising from where the Bassac, Tonle sap and Mekong rivers converge, to the shining light triumphing Phnom Penh’s rapid development as an international city, Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, had a short, and often troubled history.
Koh Pich in the 1990’s
Local legend has it that around 50 years ago a ship sank near the mouth of the Tonle Bassac river. Deposits of silt built up, creating a 700 metre wide island. The area was settled after 1979 by fishing families who also grew crops in the rich soil. By 2004 a conglomerate, Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC), was given permission to develop the island into an international commercial centre.
After a protracted, and often controversial, relocation deal with residents was reached in 2005, and initial construction beginning in 2006, the island is still in a frenzy of building activity over a decade later.
A satellite image showing Koh Pich before and after development began
Tragedy and Recovery
The darkest chapter of recent Cambodian history took place on a fateful night in November 2010. The water festival, a 3 day annual event, is one of the most important dates in the Cambodian calendar. Held to mark the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of the rice harvest, people flock to Phnom Penh to watch boat races and concerts.
22nd November 2010 will be remembered for ‘The Koh Pich Stampede’, after estimated crowds of 4 million people gathered in Phnom Penh. A bottleneck of festival goers built up on Koh Pich’s northern Diamond Gate Bridge and in the resulting crush 347 lives were lost, although that figure is still questioned and said to be much higher. No official has ever been charged or brought to account over the incident.
A memorial to the victims of the Koh Pich Stampede
A Buddhist stupa now sits close to the site, and the incident is marked each year with a memorial ceremony.
Since the disaster, the original Diamond Gate Bridge was demolished and replaced with the double ‘Twin Dragons Bridge’. Two more crossings were also constructed; Swan Bridge in the centre of the island, and Rainbow Bridge at the south, to ease congestion.
The 2016 Bon Om Touk water festival made a triumphant return to Koh Pich, with an emphasis on public safety. The event was hailed as a great success and was crowd safety was improved on for 2017. After a series of cancellations, this important celebration of Cambodian traditions is set to once again return to the calendar.
Diamond Island Today
The Island sits on the Bassac, Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers
Today the north end of the island has become one of the hottest hangouts for Phnom Penh youth, who flock every evening to drink, chat and relax on the riverside. Amusement games and fairground rides in the ‘Children’s Park’ give the area a carnival atmosphere and is family friendly.
After dark street vendors serve up a variety of popular snacks, whilst popular restaurants and fast food outlets cater to those who wish to enjoy everything from fried insects, to suki soup, burgers and seafood close to the river.
Dozens of restaurants have opened along the north side of the island
One of the oldest buildings on Koh Pich is the Diamond Island Conference and Exhibition Center, which hosts concerts, conferences, international trade fairs, and lavish Cambodian wedding ceremonies.
Koh Pich City Hall has a Roman theme
Another building used for wedding functions, as well as official ASEAN dinner receptions is the classically designed Koh Pich City Hall. Opened in 2010, the stunning building and Roman gardens can seat 4000 guests, with the price of a table starting at around $500.
For those who like to get on the fairways, but don’t have time to leave the city, the Huione Golf Club (formally Elite Golf Club) has a driving range, putting area and indoor golf simulator, as well as a gym, pool and sauna.
Huione Golf Club- practice your swing in the city
Around Swan Bridge, on the eastern side of the island are several hotels, including the Shaly Boutique and J’adore Lodge.
A Diamond Life
Privacy and security is key in the Elite Town community
The south of Koh Pich has been dedicated to urban development, with Elite Town. Boreys, or gated communities, sit on streets named after Ivy League schools. With an emphasis on comfort, convenience and security, the villas are in high demand and carry an asking price of $400,000 up to $2,000,000. A 4 bedroom villa from Towncity Real Estate can be rented for $3500 a month.
Due to its proximity to amenities, and Cambodia’s largest shopping complex, Aeon Mall, the area is popular with expats from around the world and diplomats.
Canadian International School
Canadian International School, which opened in 2016, offers a fully accredited curriculum from the province of Alberta, Canada. Currently running programs for pre-school to grade 8, the school, located in Elite Town has plans to expand and develop classes through to secondary level.
The Casa Meridian will be the first condo complex to open
Several ambitious condo developments are almost ready on the island, with the twin towered, 33 story high Casa Meridian due to be completed by the end of this year. With the first 3 floors being reserved for commercial usage, residential condos are available from the fourth floor. The developers promise amenities, such as swimming pool, tennis courts and gym to give owners 5 star luxury living, along with panoramic river views. Prices range from $100,000 to over $1 million with foreign investors being targeted as potential buyers, helped by changes made to old property laws, which now allow condos and apartments to be 100% owned by non-citizens.
A stone’s throw away, and also slated for completion in 2017, is the DI Riviera. Modelled on the iconic Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore, the five building structure will have three towers of 37 floors and two of 28 making it one of the tallest buildings in Cambodia, once completed.
The DI Riviera has been modelled on Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands
The Diamond Island story is still far from complete. The success of the Casa Meridian and DI Riviera complexes will determine the number of new condo projects already slated to be built around the area. Access is set to be further improved by two more bridges, bringing the total to five.
Many new developments are taking a neo-classical design
Hopes for a new diplomatic quarter based on the island have also been raised after the Embassy of South Korea opened its doors on Elite Road.
With so much achieved in a relatively short time, the rise of Koh Pich, from marshy farmland to high-end luxury, has not always been easy. As Phnom Penh expands at an astonishing rate each year, all eyes will be on the ambitious diamond, trapped between three rivers and wonder how bright it will shine in an ever-changing city.
An edited version of this article has previously been published in print. It is reprinted here in full with the author’s permission.