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Tea Leaves

In Cambodia's construction frenzy, size does matter

Extravagant and questionable projects risk overwhelming Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace and buildings in Phnom Penh   © Reuters

The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is perhaps not the first place one thinks of when it comes to the world's biggest airports. But a plan to build just such a facility in the small Southeast Asian nation, reported in mid-January, is the latest in a series of extravagant and, according to many critics, dubious projects. They have been sprouting under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the strongman who recently marked 33 years in power.

Located about 30km south of the capital, the airport would be the world's ninth largest, spanning 2,600 hectares, and cost $1.5 billion to construct, according to some local estimates. These figures have raised concerns about the project's viability and questions about the necessity of building such a large airport in a country of less than 20 million people.

But the plan comes as no surprise to Cambodians, or those who've called the country home in recent years. In the three years since I arrived in early 2015, I've seen Phnom Penh transformed, with skyscrapers, apartment complexes and other (mostly Chinese) construction projects popping up left and right. Those who have been here longer say the transformation over the past 20 years is beyond comprehension.

One of Phnom Penh's more eyebrow-raising projects is the Thai Boon Roong Twin Trade Center, a pair of 133-story skyscrapers planned on the Mekong River at an estimated cost of $2 billion. At 500 meters high, they would unseat Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers as the tallest buildings in Southeast Asia.

Even more audacious is a plan for a 600-meter skyscraper, outlined recently by Hun Sen at a graduation ceremony at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh; if completed, it would be the world's fourth-tallest building. However, no ground has been broken and projects like this often stall before construction.

Other developments include a roughly $160 million, 16.4-hectare sports stadium -- funded by the Chinese government for the Southeast Asian Games in 2023 -- as well as the loftily named Samdech Techo Hun Sen Dragon City, an $80 billion satellite city on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. This would also include a 600-meter-tall building serving as Hun Sen's personal headquarters.

That latter project is still at "concept" stage, even as property analysts express doubts about its viability. "Ghost" projects -- ambitious plans that fail to make it to completion or are long-delayed -- are an epidemic here. The first apartment I rented in Phnom Penh had a close-up view of the city's infamous Gold Tower 42, an empty, 192-meter structure that has stood as an unsightly skeleton in the city center for nearly 10 years. Construction only recently resumed.

There is no denying that Cambodia is on the mend from decades of war and strife. Economic growth has hovered around 7% a year for roughly two decades. But for a city that, to me, still has a great deal of old-school charm and a slower, more thoughtful pace of life, the crop of shiny new buildings feels out of place. Amid traditional elements like the iconic -- but also painfully inefficient -- tuk-tuks, or the vendors who laconically cycle around hawking their wares over loudspeakers, the country's construction boom seems like too much, too soon.

The government pats itself on the back for its dedication to monolithic, breakneck construction. Yet much of the country remains in poverty, particularly in rural areas. An intensifying political crackdown is taking place under the autocratic premier, including the jailing of the opposition leader and dissolution of his party. The premier and other officials have engaged in outright threats of violence against citizens who dare to protest.

It seems that the Phnom Penh property bubble, focused on the luxury market, could be set to burst. With concerns about over-reliance on Chinese investment, an expected sharp rise in population, and a lack of infrastructure and affordable housing, I can feel a palpable anxiety when people speak about construction in the capital.

Logan Connor is a Cambodia-based writer.

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