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Growing Pains, as Capital Keeps Expanding

Cambodian vendors sell deep-fried crickets and bugs on a street in Phnom Penh, file photo.
Cambodian vendors sell deep-fried crickets and bugs on a street in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Phnom Penh is one of the fastest-growing cities in Southeast Asia. It added nearly 500,000 people between 2000 and 2010, for a total of 1.4 million. That has meant a lot of changes in a short period: more congestion, more markets, more housing. And, newcomers say, more opportunity.

The city is the best place in the country to find work, creating an irresistible pull for impoverished communities in rural areas. Today, the city continues to grow, and more change is inevitable in its neighborhoods.

The Toek Thla neighorhood of Sen Sok district is a typical example. Not long ago, the land here was nothing but grass and rice fields, along with a pond. But in recent years, it has become a part of the swelling city: markets, business centers, schools, car garages and, of course, factories. All of that has meant more commerce and more people.

People like Chhorn Noeun, who left Kampong Thom province with her two sisters to find work in the city. “Most people in my village have come to Phnom Penh,” she said in a recent interview at the small shop on a Toek Thla side street. “There’s almost no more people back home. People are following each other. One sees others leaving, so they leave as well.”

They come looking for opportunity, but knowing, too, that there is work.

“It is very hard to do business in the province if you do not have financial resources,” Chhorn Noeun said. “Here it is OK. If you do not have financial resources, you can work for others.”

She has worked as a cleaner for a gas station since she moved to the city, in 2007. In that time, her salary has gone up from $50 per month to $150 per month. That’s a lot of money in the countryside, but not so much in the city, where prices of goods keep rising.

“It’s costly in Phnom Penh,” she said. “One has to pay for rent, electricity, water, and school fees for kids.”

In the short time she’s been in the city, she’s seen it grow, as well. More buildings, more hotels, more businesses. But she said most opportunities in that growth are not for uneducated. “If people are well educated, it’s easy for them to find jobs and make money,” she said. “We’re not well educated. It’s hard for us.”

She hopes to one day save enough for plot of land in the area, so that she can build a house, like a friend and her husband recently did.

Growth is happening all across the capital. Long Dimanche, a spokesman for City Hall, said Phnom Penh has expanded in recent years from about 300 square kilometers to 700. It once had nine districts. It now has 12. About 20 different communes from the abutting Kandal province had to be carved up and added to Phnom Penh, to accommodate the growth, he said.

People come to find work, for the state or private companies. That’s concerning, because the country could ultimately have a shortage of farmers. “We might lack labor, to raise cattle or do agriculture,” he said.

A recent report on global growth by the World Bank noted the rapid expansion of Cambodia’s cities. Battambang and Siem Reap are also growing, doubling and tripling in size, respectively, from 2000 to 2010. Phnom Penh continues to grow, too, filling its own borders. More than 90 percent of the growth and expansion here have been within the boundaries of the city, the report said. But “urbanization” has also spilled out to the south and west, beyond the city limits.

Coffee shop owner Hong Gna, who has lived in the city since 1985, said that urbanization has meant good business and income. “Before, it was a rice field and a lake here,” she said. “Now houses are everywhere.”

But there is also competition.

“I just opened my grocery shop late last year,” said Sok Lanh, also a resident here since 1985. “These last few months, I’ve seen two more shops opened,” she said, nodding to her competitors across the street. “More and more sellers have started selling, like mushrooms. People are smarter and smarter, as well. They are not that gullible anymore. More sellers and less buyers. It’s very competitive.”

Competition and opportunity are here, but something has been lost for some. Dul Thavrin, a former police officer from Svay Rieng who moved to Phnom Penh to find a better job, said the growth doesn’t do much for him. “The traffic is very bad now,” he said. “It’s hard to move around.” As for the coffee shops, shopping centers, he doesn’t go into them, he said. “Those buildings are for the rich.”