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Phnom Penh: Skyscrapers Next To Shantytowns

Like the rest of the world, Cambodia is changing fast.

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The world I grew up in as a traveler was a real shit hole. I began traveling in 1999, right in the middle of the first act of globalization. It seemed like everywhere in the world was just coming out of some gruesome civil war and 80s-style Western “diplomacy” was beginning to be shown for the disaster it was. It was the start of a new era, but the remnants of the previous time were still evident everywhere.

It was an interesting time to have started traveling. Cities in developing countries were deep in a mess of rapid urbanization as millions flooded into their slums and shantytowns. These place were sometimes such hellish places that they bordered on the intriguing. But the world’s infrastructure grid was also rapidly improving, modernized transportation modes were being introduced, air travel had become ubiquitous and cheap, materials and food from other countries was becoming more readily available, housing was improving, shantytowns were being “hooked up,” and the internet was just starting to catch on globally. It was a time of rapid transition — countries and cities that had fallen to ruin and dysfunction after times of relative order and prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century were just starting to find economic handholds once again. It was the start of something new.

But I took it for granted. I had a rather impressionable, youthful ideological bend in those days, and talked about shit like the “global race to the bottom” — how everyone in the world was going to be poor and live at the mercy of the rich. I didn’t bother doing any research into economics; I didn’t bother talking with anyone who knew anything about the topic. I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway — I already had the answers I needed, plucked right from a photocopied pamphlet and some song lyrics that told me this was bad.

During this period I’d use my travel observations as evidence of how the “global south” was doomed, but what I lacked in addition to a proper vetting of information sources was perspective. I had no idea where these places were coming from, all I knew was a few brief, frozen-in-time snapshots. More poignantly, I pegged the world for getting worse when it was actually getting better.


The Vattanac Capital Tower rose up from the crowded highway as I came into Phnom Penh from the airport. It looked like a 39-storey boot stomping down on the shantytown that was once where it now stands. It’s the country’s second skyscraper and it looks out of place in the sea of inconspicuous low-rises it towers above. When a city builds something as stark and conspicuous as this they are trying to send a message. Usually that message is something to the effect of, “We have arrived.”

Phnom Penh is a city in transition. Rising up a little later in the game than some of its neighbors it is now the next frontier for investment, development, and that peculiar phenomenon know as economic diplomacy. The lower a country starts the farther it has to rise, the farther the rise the more money that can be made — perhaps.

Phnom Penh CBD

I walked through the half-built towers of the new central business district that the Sino Great Wall groups is constructing. An entire district of mid-height towers and relatively large office buildings were going up in a singular blast of development. I watched an infomercial on a jumbotron in front of a real estate company’s office about Cambodia’s new position as an economic hub on the New Silk Road. It was the same “glorious future” crap that you see everywhere in developing countries, but what was interesting was that up over the screen, to my left and to my right I could watch what was being broadcasted being built. Regardless of what will come to fruition and what won’t, there was something that made me ask “what if?” What if this works?

Phnom Penh Aeon mall

Just beyond the emerging CBD was the Aeon Mall. Very often rising countries grasping at the consumer luxuries of the developed world have difficulty filling their own shoes, and over-capacity reigns. Not here. This place was packed. While someday this shopping center will more than likely be eclipsed by a slew of newer and trendier and more expensive malls and end up looking like yesterday, today it’s a monument. It’s the first big modern mall in Cambodia, and is a testament to the country’s rising middle class.

According to the World Bank, about 20% of Cambodia’s population is now middle class, which is roughly the same as they reckon live in poverty. Although the way that they middle class is defined is rather inexact and slightly misleading. The World Bank claims that a middle class Cambodian has a daily consumption expense between $2.60 and $5.10 per day and also owns a television and a motorcycle.

If “middle class” in Cambodia means spending no more than $5.10 per day, then this isn’t going to get them very far. Even Phnom Penh is now seeming pricey. Restaurants apparently think little of charging $5-$15 for a plate of food and coffee unabashedly sells for over $3 per cup. I ate a bowl of awful noodles in the food court of Aeon for $5. A couple of eggs and toast was going for $4.75 at my “budget” hotel. While the prices I mention are in the tourist/ middle class bracket — there are plenty of cheaper options readily available — what surprised me was how widespread and numerous providers of this service bracket were and how many people, locals as well as foreigners, were frequenting them.

This doesn’t mean that the poor aren’t here. They are. But they’ve always been here. What hasn’t been here is the people driving cars, dressing slick talking on iPhones, running successful businesses, sending their kids to university, and paying $5 for shit bowls of noodles at the new shopping mall. It is easy to take these vast socio-economic transitions for granted; it’s easy to come into a place like Phnom Penh and see only the working poor carrying parcels in and out of the central market; it is easy to say, “Yeah, but 20% of the population is still poor.” But from the perspective of what places like this were not long ago and what they’re becoming now borders on the miraculous.

Wherever we go in the world we now we are seeing the glimmers of an evening-out of prices, wages, standard of living, infrastructure, lifestyle. I have 4GLTE internet in Cambodia that’s better than the AT&T service that I get in the USA at a quarter the price; there is little that I can’t get here that I can get there. This evening-out is not fully there yet and there is a reasonable chance that it may never be, but the transition has been incredibly fascinating to watch.

The shit hole of a world I first began traveling in lives on, but it’s fading fast. I suppose decades of aid, investment, foreign factories, micro-financing, tourism, and girlie bars eventually amount to something. Places that not long ago struggled with a deficit of food now struggle with a deficit of parking spaces. My world has changed.


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Filed under: Cambodia, Globalization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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