New Heights: Phnom Penh’s Builders Defy Gravity and Fear

În a city where the highest natural relief is the 27-meter-tall Wat Phnom temple mount, construction workers are used to staying close to the ground.

But with economic growth comes land pressure, and Phnom Penh, too, wants its titans—the status symbols of a newly rich metropolis. So workers have climbed to new heights to build the capital’s first skyscraper.

“My first day was on the 10th floor,” said Thy Pirun, a 23-year-old worker from Kom­pong Cham province who never worked on tall buildings before his first day on the job at the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corpor­a­tion building at Ang Duong and Monivong boulevards.

“I was afraid of falling down to the ground. Both my legs were trembling,” Thy Pirun recounted on a recent morning while working on the top floor of the building. “Most newcomers always have fear, and their legs sometimes don’t follow them because our country never had high buildings like this,” he added.

Under construction since 2005, the OCIC building is expected to be ready by June 2009, said a member of staff at Mega Asset Man­agement Limited, which manages OCIC properties in Cambodia. When the 28-floor building is complete, it will host a shopping center, a restaurant, Canadia Bank’s headquarters and other offices, said the staff member, who declined to give her name.

The 23-floor building will stand about 118 meters above the ground—about one-fourth the height of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur—according to the building’s project manager, Chea Vuthy, an architect trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

Four hundred workers are employed on site, down from 500 at the height of the construction, Chea Vuthy said.

“First we had difficulty… because we had never worked on a tall building, and the workers had less experience on high floors,” he said. “It was hard to train them, so we hired a few foremen and skilled workers from Thailand.”

But Cambodian workers, too, soon got used to the dizzying heights, Chea Vuthy said.

Morn Mon, a 35-year-old father of four and the leader of a team of steel workers on the very top floor of the building, compares workers on the ground to soldiers staying at a base camp and skyscraper workers to those who head to the front.

“It’s like soldiers who go to the battlefield and soldiers who stay at the camp. The more they get out to the battlefield, the more experienced they become and the more careful, too,” he said.

Safety is paramount when just tripping at this height could lead to a fatal fall.



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