Its exact source may be a mystery, but experts say the quality of the pure spring water that runs underground down from Bokor mountain in Kampot Province is unmatched in Cambodia.
As well as being naturally filtered and unusually pure and clean, according to Institut Pasteur Cambodge, which tested the water in Phnom Penh, it may also have some medicinal qualities.
Now Nhim Vanda, first vice-president of the National Committee for Disaster Management and a four-star general to boot, is planning to bottle Bokor’s water and sell it all over the country.
“I believe I will make money from this water,” said Nhim Vanda in a recent interview. “It tastes very good and bathing in it can cure skin diseases,” he said.
The source of Nhim Vanda’s water may be a mystery, but his bottling plant is situated at the top of a new road that has been cleaved into the side of Kampot’s Kamchay mountain by the Chinese company Sino Hydro Corp, which is building the $270 million Kamchay hydroelectric dam project.
Just up the road from the Tek Chhou waterfall, Sino Hydro Corp is building several large office buildings. Further up that new road is the site where Nhim Vanda says there will eventually be a US-style motel, along with a 50-by-20 meter outdoor swimming pool, a manmade reservoir and his water plant.
In 2000, the government—in which he has held over 27 different positions in his long career—granted Nhim Vanda a 99-year concession on this five-hectare mountain side site.
All Nhim Vanda is now waiting on is the remaining machinery, from Germany, needed to draw the water out of the ground by a series of plastic pipes and mass-bottle it under the name “Ta Da Bokor” or “Grandfather Da Bokor.”
If everything goes to plan, bottles of Ta Da Bokor will go on sale next month, Nhim Vanda said.
Around 20,000 liters of water will be bottled per day, which will retail at a price of around 40 cents per liter.
Tourists will also be attracted to the area, said Nhim Vanda, because of the natural scenery and to visit the 20-meter high Neak Sach-Chang waterfall further up the mountain.
All in all it’s been a good year for Nhim Vanda. The recent addition of a fourth star to his military ranking coincided with the tiger in his private zoo outside Kampot town giving birth to four cubs.
Now he hopes the success of “Ta Da Bokor” water will see him into a comfortable retirement.
“I don’t know how long my political career will be so I hope this is a business that can provide for me after. One of the experts who analyzed this water said it was of a superior quality to the world-famous Evian water,” Nhim Vanda said.
“My plan is to build up slowly and sell at a reasonable price,” he said, noting that Ta Da will retail for a quarter of the price of its French competitor Evian.
“If I charge too much money too quick, it will kill the market,” he said, adding that his marketing plan is to enlist the help of the country’s 24 provincial and municipal governors, who have agreed to promote the new water in their areas.
For now, however, Kampot Governor Thach Khorn and Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak said they were both in the dark about the new government-aligned bottled water about to hit the market.
At the Institut Pasteur Cambodge in Phnom Penh, a staff member who tested Nhim Vanda’s water confirmed that it was unusually pure.
“The spring water is very unusual, in that it is already pure and naturally clean,” the employee said.
Such purity was due in large part to there being no human settlements nearby, said the staffer, who asked not to be named.
However, the Institut employee said, it was not accurate to compare Ta Da Bokor water with something like Evian, as the soil and rock conditions of both sources were entirely different.
As for the water’s alleged medicinal qualities, the staffer added that was possible as the water had a higher pH than regular water, which could make it beneficial for people with skin ailments.
Whatever the quality of the water though, some doubts have been expressed about the legal status of Nhim Vanda’s new venture.
“Underground streams belong to the state,” SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said.
“Where natural resources are concerned there should be a competitive, transparent bidding process, rather than just one person, as seems to have happened here,” he said.
According to the Water Resources Law, anyone who wants to use natural water, or water from a mountain source needs to get permission from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, ministry Undersecretary of State Nei Lorng said.
“I have heard nothing about this,” he said, adding that a factory using water without permission can be closed down.
Chan Borin, deputy director of the Standards Department at the Ministry for Industry, Mines and Energy, said that Nhim Vanda has not yet applied for a license to bottle water.
Out of 100 bottled water manufacturers in Cambodia, he added, only 10 had been approved with the ministry’s quality standard.
Nhim Vanda insists that everything in his new bottled water venture is going to be above board, particularly the quality.
“I believe that my formula for water production is 100 percent natural,” he said. “We are not lying,” he added.