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City on the Rise: Phnom Penh

Adventure the Only Game in Town

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Adventure the Only Game in Town

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Cambodia only awakened from its nightmare under the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago, but prices in Phnom Penh are already higher than in Taipei. Open to any kind of foreign investment, the city has become an adventurer's haven full of opportunities.

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Adventure the Only Game in Town

By Hsiang-yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 556 )

If you had never before visited Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, you might think it the setting for a surrealistic novel. On one side of the street, a row of dilapidated apartments still pockmarked by bullet holes dating back to the days of the Khmer Rouge's terrifying rule. On the other side, a 32-floor commercial building that towers above the neighborhood, a symbol of a new, modern era.

Here, there are plans to build a skyscraper in the city rising 555 meters into the sky, about 47 meters higher than Taipei 101.

Dirt roads that have been in a state of disrepair for more than 20 years give way suddenly to grand paved boulevards named after donor countries or famous leaders, such as "Charles de Gaulle Boulevard," "Mao Tse Toung Boulevard," "Kim Il Sung Boulevard," and "Confederation de la Russie."

When military and police personnel get off work, they head to foreign companies, their guns at their sides, to serve as security guards, while shirtless and barefoot children walk the streets, asking foreign tourists for money in Japanese, Korean and Chinese. 

The Greenback Is King

Here, the Cambodian currency, the riel, is nothing more than an oddity, the U.S. dollar being the main currency in circulation. Chinese renminbi and even the Taiwan dollar can also be used.

When a reporter lost the pictures he needed for a visa on arrival just after landing at Phnom Penh International Airport, the immigration officer told him in fluent Chinese, "it doesn't matter. Just give me coffee money. 10 U.S. dollars, or 300 Taiwan dollars if you want."

To the reporter's side, a couple that had gotten their visas ahead of time in Taiwan were being hassled by immigration because they refused to pay US$2 in "coffee money."

Even more surreal, the average prices in this new city are higher than they are in Taipei even though per capita income is less than US$2,000 (NT$60,000) a year. A 250cc bottle of Coca-Cola costs nearly US$3, and a simple meal in a mall starts at around US$9.

To outsiders, the city would seem to lack even basic planning or regulations, dominated instead by extreme freedom and scenes of utter chaos. But, in fact, that's simply a reflection of the efforts being made by modern-day Cambodia and Phnom Penh to grab opportunities and change their fate.

In this country with a small population and few natural resources, the only economic sectors of any consequence are agriculture, textiles and tourism, and 90 percent of its goods consumed are imported. These inherent disadvantages have led Cambodia since the end of the 1990s to follow a strategy of "just get something, then try for something good." It has almost unconditionally opened its arms wide and embraced any overseas investment, hoping to lean on external help to extract itself from years of poverty and its tragic fate. 

But over the past 10 years, as other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have seen their economies take off with the help of their maritime shipping edge in the Strait of Malacca, Cambodia is only now finally seeing an opportunity for explosive growth.

"Cambodia has been through too much suffering. Now is the best chance we have to once again stand on our own," says Pung Kheav Se, chairman of Canadia Investment Holdings Plc and Canadia Bank Plc. and Cambodia's most influential ethnic Chinese businessman, in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine.

Most Open Foreign Investment Strategy in Asia

As labor costs in China and southern ASEAN countries have risen in recent years, Pung says, many foreign companies have begun eyeing northern ASEAN (consisting of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar). Phnom Penh's biggest attraction to investors is its strategy of being receptive to all foreign investors, an investment policy that has been dubbed the "most open in Asia." Speculation in the property market, for example, has indirectly created jobs and improved the city's basic infrastructure.

Because of this open-door approach, the city's face has been given a dramatic makeover, but it has also generated serious problems, such as a widening rich-poor divide, rampant money laundering, and official bribery and corruption.

Today's Phnom Penh has become an "adventurer's paradise" practically unparalleled in all of Asia. Opportunities are everywhere, but they all come with substantial risks.

"Many people think that Cambodia is still a communist country. In fact, it is so free here that it's like there are no laws. If you buy a piece of land, you can do anything with it. Nobody will bother you," says Taiwanese businessman Panda Lin with a laugh. Lin, who boldly invested in a textile plant in Cambodia about 20 years ago, is now the head of the Taiwan Commercial Association in Cambodia.

Lin now has three garment factories in Cambodia exporting products to prominent department stores and discount stores in the United States and Europe.

When it's time to get off work at Lin's biggest factory in downtown Phnom Penh, nearly 2,000 workers board buses single file to head home. Nearby roads suddenly grow congested for more than an hour.

To the side of a factory lies a 100-hectare development that is home to 6,000 new apartments. But at a price of NT$6 million per unit, the apartments have so far drawn little interest.

The rise of the northern ASEAN region has attracted an inflow of companies and capital from all over the world, and Phnom Penh is hoping to capitalize on that momentum to once again transform itself.

"Things are changing here very quickly. You cannot stop or relax because there are always new opportunities popping up, and there something unexpected can also happen at any time," Lin says. "But that's just proof of Phnom Penh's charm and allure."

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

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