In Phnom Penh's center, Boeng Kak Lake is being filled in to create a commercial and residential complex. Some boys use the site as a temporary soccer field near the Canadia Bank Tower, the city's tallest building.
In Phnom Penh's center, Boeng Kak Lake is being filled in to create a commercial and residential complex. Some boys use the site as a temporary soccer field near the Canadia Bank Tower, the city's tallest building. Michael Sullivan/NPR
Chum Savoeun lives in a squatters shack in Anlong Kro Ngyan, outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She is among the tens of thousands of poor residents forced out of the city by urban development.
Chum Savoeun lives in a squatters shack in Anlong Kro Ngyan, outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She is among the tens of thousands of poor residents forced out of the city by urban development. Michael Sullivan/NPR
A boy sits atop pipes that will be used to pump sand into the lake.
A boy sits atop pipes that will be used to pump sand into the lake. Michael Sullivan/NPR
The tiny Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia is trying to put its grim, war-torn past behind it and — economically, at least — it's succeeding so far.
The economy grew at a record 9 percent in 2007 and would have done almost as well last year had the global financial slowdown not hit.
That growth has brought big changes to the capital, Phnom Penh.
Two years ago, there were just two cell-phone providers; now there are six. And the streets of the capital are now surprisingly clean, after the city hired a Canadian firm to keep them that way. There's a fresh coat of paint on Wat Phnom, in the heart of the city. And the steep stairs to the pagoda at the top have been repaired, too.
Most of the vendors and beggars have been removed from the park below Wat Phnom, but people can still buy a songbird to take up the stairs to release, for luck, if they make it to the top.
Across the street from Wat Phnom, there's a new playground that would look at home anywhere in the United States.
And while there's no Starbucks — not yet anyway — the Kentucky colonel has continued his march across Southeast Asia. Cambodia is the latest domino to fall; a gleaming new KFC has landed on Monivong Boulevard, just around the corner from the art deco central market. The market, too, is getting a makeover.
Phnom Penh has its first serious skyscraper, too: the 27-story Canadia Bank Tower. Workers are scrambling to finish the health club and restaurant on the 25th floor in time for a scheduled May opening.
"Every day," says architect and project manager Chea Vuthy, "we come to work and have the cleanest air. And nicest view in the city."
Below, the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers spread out to the east and the iconic Boeung Kak Lake to the west.
Chea Vuthy says it's a good thing for the city to have skyscrapers like this one, to help illustrate the pace of Cambodia's development. Ground has been broken on two more buildings that will be even taller.
But all this development comes at a price. Boeung Kak Lake, for example, is being filled in with sand to make way for a new, high-end commercial complex.
Be Pharon belongs to one of 4,000 families being evicted from their homes on the lake to allow for this new development. She says the $8,000 developers are offering for her one-room house won't even begin to pay for something comparable elsewhere in the city, where residential property can go for as much as $3,000 a square meter.
"Nobody wants to leave here," she says. "It's close to the school and the hospital. And if we accept the developer's offer and move, we'll have to go far away — farther from work, farther from school, farther from everything."
Choung Choug Ngy is the lawyer for the families being forced out. In Phnom Penh, he says, development is a synonym for eviction. He says the project planned doesn't benefit anyone but the investors.
He says he'll keep fighting until the families get a better settlement. But that's a risky proposition in a country where the rule of law often takes a back seat to the desires of those with power.
"Basically, the mindset is, they want to move these people out and they're going to do it any way they can do it — and if people don't accept the packages, they could find themselves with nothing," says Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Phnom Penh.
She says tens of thousands of urban poor have been forced out of town in the past five years, and that makes life very difficult for them.
Anlong Kro Ngyan is one of those faraway places outside the city limits. It's a place where there's no electricity and no running water.
But it's a place Chum Savoeun calls home. She and her neighbors were among the first batch of squatters forced from the city center a few years back after a suspicious fire gutted their homes. Bulldozers moved in a few days later to clear the land for development.
Chum Savoeun and her neighbors were brought to Anlong Kro Ngyan and given small plots of land to build on.
"Things quickly turned bad," she says, after her husband got sick with HIV. She was forced to sell their small plot to pay his hospital bill. He died not long ago, and now she finds herself a squatter among former squatters – and HIV positive herself, with three small children to feed. She supports the family by picking morning glory — a kind of water spinach — from a nearby lake and selling it to her neighbors, for about a dollar a day.
Chum Savoeun's biggest fear, she says, is getting kicked out again and forced to move even farther out — as the city continues to expand. Things will be much harder then, she says, but there's nothing she can do but wait.