Cambodia now building a promising future

The building boom is impossible to miss against the Phnom Penh skyline

By Steve Blizard – from Phnom Penh 

During August I was the guest of Awareness Cambodia, a not-for-profit overseas aid organisation assisting some of the most underprivileged in rural Cambodia.

Founded by Perth dentist Dr Gary Hewett in 1995, Awareness Cambodia focuses on education, health and childhood development programs.

Nestled between sugar cane and forests being harvested for charcoal manufacturing, my trip included a visit to the Tropang Cho rural health clinic in the Aural Province.

It was here I had the privilege of seeing new born baby, only ten minutes out of the mother’s womb.

The next day was spent at the Sunshine House boarding facility in Kampong Speu Province, plus a visit to a rural Government school, where team members help improve the skills of the local English language teachers.

We returned to Phnom Penh, staying at the Graduation House facility for a few days, which houses the University students coming from Sunshine House.

Awareness Cambodia medical team visits the rural Trapong Cho Health Clinic

Organised Chaos

On first arrival at Phnom Penh Airport, getting a visa was a fascinating experience.

An hour later, it dawns on you that someone in the Australian Embassy should explain to the Cambodian Immigration staff how the McDonalds food order numbering system works.

It would speed up their process dramatically.

Finally heading to our overnight accommodation, the free-flow traffic and casual attitude to road rules in Phnom Penh can be quite a shock.

Chaos ensues as moto’s, tuk-tuks and cars come at you from every direction.

Fortunately, the heavy traffic volume is relatively slow, so drivers have just enough time to skilfully weave their way through the melee.

Cars were rare on Phnom Penh streets three years ago.

However, a new generation of Cambodians, now tapped into the Western lifestyle on their wireless internet, are keen to upgrade to motos and second-hand cars.

With few traffic lights, cars and trucks become a handy barrier for motos & tuk-tuks ride hide behind when approaching busy intersections.

New vehicles sell at expensive Australian prices, so there is a large second-hand car leasing market.

China recently donated 100 new buses to Phnom Penh

In July, as part of its foreign aid program, China donated 100 buses to Cambodia, in order to expand low-cost public transportation in Phnom Penh.

The donation of the gold-coloured Yutong vehicles comes three years after municipal bus transportation was reintroduced in the capital.

Yutong is the world’s biggest single bus manufacturer, building in excess of 56,000 vehicles annually.

Currently, the capital of roughly 2.5 million people has about 1.5 million motorbikes and more than 30,000 cars clogging its roads.

The riverside Foreign Correspondents Club – Phnom Penh

There are several joint ventures building much needed flyovers at some of the more congested points throughout the city.

Enterprising expats sell Aussie pies, pizza and burgers

Australian business

A favourite haunt in Phnom Penh for the Australian expat community is the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), reminiscent of the old Singapore Raffles, overlooking the Tonle Sap river.

On August 4, Telstra Business Woman in Asia Award Finalist, Marion Fromm, CEO of the Cambodian Harvest Dried Fruit Company, opened a new factory and staff housing at Prek Dong, outside the capital.

Cambodian Harvest is a leading manufacturer of high quality processed dried fruits and jams, providing employment and education for people with disabilities – many of whom have survived land mine accidents or polio.

Their glace mango, pineapple, papaya and ginger products are exported to Singapore, Japan, Korea, NZ and Australia.

I also met Chris, a partner with two Australians in the Brooklyn Pizza and Bistro and the Australian Gourmet Bakery and Café.

For those hungering for an Aussie Pie and sauce, this is the closest you will get to Aussie food.

Established three years ago, the partners were able to secure a ten-year lease of vacant land, on which they built their premises.

Construction costs are low, with an outlay of only US$11,000 per shop.

Dining out

There are food carts everywhere for the locals, however it can be safer to eat at the major markets or restaurants if hygiene is a concern.

Located in the heart of the CBD, the Night Market in Phnom Penh, known as Phsar Reatrey, gives access to a scenic river front view in addition a picnic area where you can sit down on mats to enjoy the food.

Charcoal fired satay chicken and pork at the Night Markets


Regulars at the markets, my Awareness Cambodia hosts selected an array of satay pork and chicken skewers that were exceptional.

During the wet season, however, the humidity can be quite intolerable, so western style air-conditioned restaurants are becoming popular.

A growing economy

Concentrated mainly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, the sheer number of over 1000 garment manufacturing enterprises, comes as a surprise.

These garment factories provide employment opportunities for over 700,000 Cambodians, who receive wages of US$140 per month.

On August 10, the Ministry of Labor announced they would send around 1,000 domestic helpers to Hong Kong by the end of the year.

Hiring day at a local garment factory

Labor Minister Ith Samheng said Hong Kong had guaranteed safe, humane and well-paying positions, a $550 monthly salary, meals and free accommodation.

Considering Singapore has been employing domestic helpers for decades from neighbouring countries and given the exorbitant cost of day care in Australia, perhaps a similar trial should be considered here.

Building boom

As you travel around Phnom Penh, it’s impossible to miss the construction boom, with the city skyline dotted with green scaffolding.

Last year $US3.3 billion in building projects were approved nationwide, trebling in the five years since 2011.

The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, said, in its latest quarterly report, that approximately 50,000 people are employed on average each day while in Phnom Penh alone, up to 23,000 casual workers were hired on a daily basis.

They earn around $8/day, while engineers and architects earned between $400 and $2,000 per month, the report added.

According to the latest half-yearly Knight Frank Cambodia report, despite oversupply in the high-end segment, condominiums that are priced below US$50,000, are still recording strong sales.

The Central Markets Building

However, most Cambodians prefer to live in ground floor shop houses, which can also be used for small business.

When comparing foreign investment in the Cambodian residential sector, compared to the Australian East Coast housing market, it is obvious that allowing free-market forces to operate unhindered should easily solve our housing affordability issues.

Recent reports that 25 percent of all foreign owned residential properties in Sydney and Melbourne are vacant (or not available for rent), indicates a key cause of unaffordable housing is mainly due to policy failure by Australian governments, not foreign investment.

A vibrant country, clearly Cambodia is free of many of the shackles of our stultifying nanny state.

As a result it is proving to be a popular destination for tourists and would-be residents.

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