Phnom Penh’s Wealthy Seek a Quieter Life

There are brand new, neo-classical mansions. The streets are lined with trees, water fountains, manicured turf and even playgrounds for children. 

Welcome to Phnom Penh’s suburban dream—gated communities that have emerged in recent years along main roads out of the city and in other pockets of affluence.

Some are known as “satellite cities” and others by the Khmer word Borei, which translates literally as “town center.” They are high-end estates carrying ostentatious names like “Star Platinum” and “Elite Town,” and offer a getaway from the bustle of the increasingly congested downtown area of Phnom Penh.

Among the largest already open is the Grand Phnom Penh International City, in the former wetlands north of the city. Visitors enter through a Brandenburg-esque gate, topped with leaping bronze horses. Wide, clean streets skirt reservoirs, clusters of houses and an 18-hole golf course.

In 2009, when Cambodia became embroiled in the global financial crisis, housing prices plummeted and work at many of Phnom Penh’s suburban developments ground to a halt. But the economy is again growing fast and new property projects on the outskirts of the city are beginning to show some signs of life.

“I like the environment,” said resident In Channy, who is president of Acleda Bank and moved into one of the “chateau” model houses at Grand Phnom Penh International City in Sen Sok district three years ago. “It’s clean and quiet, and I like gardening.”

Mr. Channy said that, while he doesn’t have time to play golf due to the pressures of his job as head of the country’s largest bank, he regularly cycles near his home. Living in Grand Phnom Penh, he said, is no more expensive than the city center. The 20-minute commute to central Phnom Penh is not a problem, since you actually avoid much of the city’s traffic, he said.
Another resident, Peter Kooi, a Dutchman who works in the microfinance sector, said that most of his neighbors are members of Cambodia’s wealthier classes.

“They are lawyers and bankers—Cambodian professionals,” he said.The project, a joint venture between YLP Group—a company controlled by the wife of former Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan—and Indonesian company Ciputra, is ambitious. So far, only about 100 families have moved in since the project was approved in 2006, but the “city” will ultimately include 4,500 houses, a water park, a school and a shopping area, covering 260 hectares in all.

According to Yap Chee Yeong, the project’s director, the “quality of life” is Grand Phnom Penh’s main attraction. But access to such communities doesn’t come cheap with properties at Grand Phnom Penh costing between $80,000 and $600,000 for the most expensive villas.

The different house models in the city—which has cost $150 million to build so far—are named “Florence,” “Veneto,” and “Versailles” after some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities.

“Our architectural designs are classic and colonial type, therefore we named the properties with the European city names,” said Mr. Yap.

It is a monument to the new wealth on show in Cambodia, where the gross domestic product per capita remains below $1,000.

The golf course clubhouse’s walls show pictures of high-ranking officials posing on the greens. Prime Minister Hun Sen is said to have hit a number of holes in one on the course, which was designed by Nicklaus Design, a firm owned by the U.S. major-winning golfer Jack Nicklaus.

According to the global realtor CBRE, Grand Phnom Penh is one of seven satellite city projects scheduled for completion in the next 10 to 15 years.

The projects cover together nearly 8,000 hectares, or about 12 percent of the city’s total land. They include the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation’s (OCIC) 75-hectare Koh Pich project, where the yellow villas of Elite Town are taking shape. Koh Pich also features a driving range, “Elite Golf,” the colossal and grand “Koh Pich City Hall” and a new development named “La Seine” after the river running through Paris. There is even an adventurous plan to build the world’s second tallest building.

The projects represent a new way of living for Cambodians, more like suburban America than the Chinese row houses and bustling streets that define most of Phnom Penh.

But there are doubts about the demand for this lifestyle. The ambitious, $1 billion CamKo City has filled some apartment blocks and villas, but stalled midway through construction in 2011 amid a financial scandal among its South Korean investors.

And a report from CBRE in November concluded that “Current demand for satellite cities is low.

“Phnom Penh’s population is currently not willing to relocate to these developments often due to the lack of amenities and facilities. However, the satellite cities in Phnom Penh are all relatively new and at this time they all have the opportunity to become success stories.”

Other announced satellite city projects include local businessman Ly Yong Phat’s 1,000-hectare “Garden City,” set to include a new national sports stadium, for which a ground-breaking ceremony was held this week. There is also AZ Satellite City by AZ Group, the Asian Economic Zone project by developer 7NG and a 2,572-hectare OCIC project named “New City” on the Chroy Changvar peninsula.

According to figures from Bonna Realty, only between 20 and 30 percent of Cambodians living in Phnom Penh would consider living in satellite cities.

But other projects, which are not classified as satellite cities but are gated and guarded by private security firms and boast quiet streets, new homes and play areas, are favored by more than half of Cambodians, according to Bonna Realty.

“People want to live there more than satellite cities because compounds are usually close to the city center,” said Hin Socheat, Bonna Realty’s assistant to the managing director.

“They are faster to construct. When they buy, they can live there in a short period. The satellite cities have many projects—villas, shops, offices, markets—so they’re not finished.”

These compounds include Star Platinum—one of six projects, at varying stages of completion, being built by local businessman Peng Huoth. Buyers can obtain credit if they put down an $8,999 deposit.

Star Platinum lies just off National Road 1, and is an oasis in which children’s bikes are abandoned on curbs and sports utility vehicles fill driveways.

So far, work has finished on the first phase of the project where there are a total of 500 units made up of two-story terraced homes going for $74,600, right up to ostentatious villas going for as much as $739,800.

Promotional brochures for the project show living rooms fitted with modern white furniture, flat screen televisions and shiny metallic surfaces for picture frames and ornaments. Bedrooms come with walk-in wardrobes and kitchens with American-style refrigerators complete with water dispenser.

Kong Sin, 54, lives in an $80,000 terrace house—one of the smaller options in the project, which is expanding rapidly and is already home to more than 500 families.

“There’s a pure breeze. It’s really good,” she said, comparing the lifestyle favorably with normal Phnom Penh living where it is nosier and more polluted.

“In the evening, you can’t let the children out if you’re in the city. They stay in the house. Here, you can let them go where they want.”

Also in the Western-style streets of Star Platinum, which as yet does not have any proper amenities, the large orange cooler boxes of a roadside shop stand out.

Dy Heang has converted the ground floor of her home into a store, selling coffee and groceries to residents.

“A lot of people are living here already, so I set up a small shop,” she said, adding that she was happy to be living outside of central Phnom Penh.

“I like living here because it’s safe. It’s a new city and you feel safer,” said Ms. Heang.

“You can leave your door open any time of the day.”

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