Dream Over

It’s a warm February night in Phnom Penh, and Dream Land is almost closed and almost empty.

Fifteen-meter-tall metallic clowns guard empty entrance gates. Two shrieking children disturb the quiet at Water Splash Playground. Down the path, speakers pump a techno remix of Pink’s “Get the Party Started” to an audience of Snow White, Batman, and boxing dinosaur statues.

Piles of cars from a forgotten ride at Dream Land. (John Vink)
Piles of cars from a forgotten ride at Dream Land. (John Vink)

Dream Land’s five-year lease on choice real estate across from the NagaWorld casino expired at the end of February, according to its general manager, Hing Sophan, who declined to say anything more about the park on the record. Developers have proposed a $1-billion, 133-story twin-tower skyscraper on the site.

But in spite of Dream Land’s spotty safety record and subpar marks from tourists—Tripadvisor reviews have titles like “Zombieland” and “Do Not Go”—some locals will miss the place.

Nineteen-year-old civil engineering student Lay Phanak nursed his melancholy with a soft-serve chocolate ice cream cone.

“I feel so sad when I hear the news,” he said, seated on a bench facing an immobile ferris wheel at the park. “This place right here is my childhood.”

A Dream Land employee uses her smartphone. (John Vink)
A Dream Land employee uses her smartphone. (John Vink)

Mr. Phanak remembers better days: concerts on the parks stages, bumper-car battles, and trips on his favorite attraction, Pirate Sailor—a ride that he enjoyed in part because of the park’s shaky reputation on safety.

“I’m not scared because I’m a risk taker,” he said.

In 2013, a 33-year-old woman was killed after falling off of a ride called Twister, according to a report in The Phnom Penh Post. The park’s management said the woman had panicked when the ride stopped, squeezing through her safety harness and falling five meters to her death.

Manny Men, a French-Cambodian queued outside the bumper cars with his baby strapped to his stomach, was sticking to mellower attractions during his last visit.

A batman statue stands guard. (John Vink)
A batman statue stands guard. (John Vink)

“It’s a wonderful place,” he said. Though the family had been to Disneyworld in France, he said Dreamland was a different genre of entertainment. “It looks like a village party,” he said.

With just days left before the theme park closed, however, the party already looked over. Workers were hauling potted plants and taking hacksaw blades to scaffolding. Many rides, including the park’s ghost house—where dwarves were once employed to chase clingy teenagers—already appeared closed.

A shark surfaces in front of a closed exit route. (John Vink)
A shark surfaces in front of a closed exit route. (John Vink)

If the Thai Boon Roong Group realizes its towering plans, Dreamland’s rides will one day be replaced by a skyscraper that would be among the tallest in the world. The proposal, currently up for a final review by the government, would include office space, condominiums, and a hotel.

Alex Kheang, a 20-year-old waitress at the casino across the street, found the prospect terrifying.

“It’s too dangerous,” Ms. Kheang said, explaining that she was concerned that the tower would topple on to her workplace. She would prefer to keep playing a fishing arcade game with her friends.

“I want it to go on,” she said.

A row of lockers at the park’s bathroom. (John Vink)
A row of lockers at the park’s bathroom. (John Vink)

Volaich Taing, who once owned a house nearby, welcomed the planned mega-project. “They don’t have a good use of land,” she said of the theme park, as she relaxed on a bench with her 10-year-old son.

Over the years, she watched the neighborhood transform. “The people who are poor sell their house and move far away,” she said.

Her son will have to find a new place to play, Ms. Taing said. And perhaps Dreamland was always just a phase; her 14-year-old daughter has already outgrown the park.

“She doesn’t want to come here,” Ms. Taing said. Instead, she now spends her free time at the neighborhood’s newest attraction: Aeon Mall.

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