Finally, I’ve had enough and made the move into the big exciting city where plastic bags grow on trees and the streets are barely paved with much more than mud.
Back on the homestead the rice is being planted, a battery farm for poultry is up and running (though the monsoon and sudden keeling over of many from the flock ensures the dream of being Kampuchea’s answer to Bernie Matthews won’t be realised for some time to come, as well as the bloody s’ka, an Asian yellow throated marten which like to bite off their heads. However a sideline in delicious corn and MSG based bar snacks now bubbles away in giant woks of burning oil (*desperate plug; try some at Quealeys, and get some orders in).
Time to follow the money and go somewhere where food can be bought refrigerated and wrapped in cling-film, a hallowed place where beer can be purchased already chilled and where fewer locals point as I pass, mouth agape and resembling one of the bemused-at-mortality catfish on sale at the market.
Phnom Penh, baby, it was inevitable really, with more tranquility than the 24 hour dog/chicken/monk/wedding noiseathon provides, and of course a steady income.
Through good fortune my new homestead is not the typical place where folks like me should end up (Prey Sar would probably be more appropriate, considering). But my new home, the Phnom Penh Thmey district of the capital is, perhaps, the best example of the modern upheaval in Cambodian society, and highlights the crossroads on which the country now stands.
For those with an interest in such things, Phnom Penh Thmey is just west of Toul Kork, and has been designated a development zone since the days of Lon Nol’s short lived Khmer republic. A few hiccups in the 70s, 80s and 90s put these grand designs on hold, but the zone has recently began to boom with the constructional aspirations of the wealthy.
All around the capital, new developments are popping up – thousands of apartment buildings, residential complexes and ‘Borey’ suburban neighbourhoods, such as the mighty and incomplete Camko City, not far from Phnom Penh Thmey. But unlike these all-purpose designed projects, there is more of a personalized feel in my new commune. It’s a place where the rich can put their own stamp on the skyline and live the dream.
Cut in two by Hanoi Road (which should be renamed Moon Road, due to the lunar grey dust and craters which make it a bone-shaking hell highway, even though the moon likely has marginally more oxygen than this place, the area features new Bank of Cambodia which will soon be finished and will join other businesses, including a God bothering international school, a Beltei or two and a God bothering university which has been in the process of opening for 2 years. There is also the imaginatively branded Superstore, a rival to Lucky, which joins the strip and offers a wide range of western products and $4500 bottles of booze (discounted 10% discount on Wednesdays).
The Vietnam connection, murky as ever, is there too as you would imagine on Hanoi Road, with several ‘Yuen’ agents and companies supposedly involved in the buying/selling action. Anybody who got hold of this swamp back in the 80s (purportedly many Vietnamese officials) will be wringing their hands with delight as they light up another Havana with a crisp Benjamin Franklin. According to my beer drinking sources, the local plod recently went around the commune gathering up those from across the eastern border for ‘surveying’ purposes.
With land prices rising to over $1,500 a square metre, an increase of around 50% in 2 years (source; Bong Ly, the neighbor who wheels and deals in this sort of thing), it’s not surprising that speculating is going on so much. This explains a lot of hastily erected walls and fading ‘For Sell’ signs spray-painted in a variety of languages. Between these ‘Land For To Sell’ plots, families live in squalid shacks or even in plastic tents. Some are construction workers, toiling in the day, resting at night; others are those who lived in the area before the bulldozers and cement trucks came. They simply have no place else to go.
Those with a half a heart and left leaning sympathies may well question the morality of having a family of 4 living in a Khmer’s interpretation of Graceland, whilst a family of 12 lives a few metres away in a tin shack, but as everyone’s 2nd favourite Austrian rock group Opus sang, Life is Life. To twist the knife further into the downtrodden, more than one villa is standing empty ‘For Rent’, the owners presumably living in another, bigger mansion down the road, or in France or the US.
So let’s say you’re a Khmer who has struck it rich through deft business strategies, well timed land deals, stolen trees, marriage to the right sort, or years of toiling for backhanders – it really doesn’t matter which. Money is the issue and the means are irrelevant. Of course you need the fleet of cars, with the Range Rover Sport taking the coveted prime position on the driveway or blocking both lanes of traffic as your wife buys the same cheap fried plastic snacks that $80 a month factory slaves chow down on. With all those needs taken care of, and spare cash available nothing says ‘I’ve made it’ than an opulent mansion designed by architects who got merit certificates in Disneyland studies and distinctions for research into the abodes of international despots.
How? Follow this step by step guide:
- Location, location, location. Inner Phnom Penh is now hellishly pricey, even for the new rich and it’s already been built on so extra cost has to be factored into the overall equation because a perfectly habitable villa must be razed to the ground before building work can commence. Nobody really knows why; it’s probably about having a personal touch and the ghost thing most likely. With inner suburbs ruled out Phnom Penh Thmey is the new up and coming place, with a modest, yet still sizeable parcel of swampland going for anything up to and over a few million.
- Build a wall. Your land purchase may put a minor damper on cashflow, so while you wait for the next legit business deal/dirty money to wash clean or for the last patch of Mondulkiri to be chain sawed, you need to make a mark, and nothing does that better than a 7 foot high brick wall. Like a dog pissing up a lamppost, it denotes territory and prevents dirt poor peasants building a shack and claiming squatter rights.
- Construct a big fuck-off palace. You will need plenty of marble, balconies and several dozen high ceilinged rooms to house yourself, wife, 2 spoilt children and that acquired collection of hardwood furniture. And a 70 inch flat screen for these rooms. Nothing screams good taste like garish coloured ‘Italian’ style roof tiles, and obnoxious paint schemes; the brighter the better. Don’t forget to provide an old dual purpose table/bed with a mosquito net so the servants have a place to live, eat and sleep.
The architecture around Phnom Penh Thmey can be quite interesting, from a few nice buildings – including a stunning not-yet-finished structure made entirely from wood to 70’s ‘modern’, to impressive villas, to huge monstrosities that HRH Charlie might describe as carbuncles. And of course the shells of projects that for some reason have been started (I hear ‘move to other country’ and ‘divorce’ as explanations), so left to the rain, dust and creeping weeds. Gigantic ghosts on the skyline, though worth just a fraction of the land value. It’s just one more weird and poignant reminder on how arse and elbow this country is.
I can remember when it was all rice fields. It still is in places, albeit some of the most expensive rice fields in SE Asia. However, with speculation rising, and empty salable plots remaining empty until the price is right, Phnom Penh Thmey will likely remain a boomtown/ghost town/shantytown/millionaires row for a while yet. You don’t need to be a subscriber to the Economist to understand that all bubbles burst at some point, though. Perhaps the rice growers will get the last laugh as they hold on to keep it useful, and increasingly valuable.