Phnom Penh’s skyline is rising, with larger developments being erected in every central neighborhood. The city shows no sign of slowing its construction, but traditional-style apartments still appeal to many Phnom Penh families.
High rise apartments are beginning to cast shadows over the traditional Khmer-style houses that blanket Phnom Penh. These buildings offer an array of luxurious options, from modern appliances to rooftop swimming pools and bars, but many still find charm and utility in the city’s smaller homes.
Young professionals, both local and foreign, are the first to start moving into modern style apartments in the city. For Borin Pin, a French-Cambodian engineer who settled in Phnom Penh three years ago, a six-storey apartment in the Tonle Bassac neighborhood was the perfect choice. He wanted a space that was simpler and less expensive than the serviced luxury apartments, but in a central location so he would not have to fight traffic in the mornings. “One of the reasons I chose this apartment was because it reminded me a lot of the place I lived in Hanoi,” he says. “[Here] you’re more in touch with your neighbors.”
But modern living includes another aspect of property development that one property manager finds is often ignored: safety requirements. Lay Kheang, the developer behind Phnom Penh’s DK Residences, describes security as the foundation of modern apartments.
He fostered this philosophy by studying property and fire safety in France for years, and brought some of those methods back to Phnom Penh, which he laces into the design of his residences in the BKK2 neighborhood. The most pressing concern among new residences is fire safety, Lay believes. Without an established and enforced fire code in Phnom Penh, Lay aligned his building with that of French and other Western countries, requiring sprinklers, carbon monoxide detectors and equipment available throughout each floor of the building.
In addition, he designed his property in an environmentally conscious way, ensuring there was enough lighting and ventilation to keep the building naturally cool and bright, while delivering an ambiance that residents love. Through the design and a tenant code of conduct, Lay hopes to provide a safe, comfortable environment for all residents. “If everything is there, then you can say, ‘Okay, this building is functional,’ and you can give the keys to the person renting,” Lay said.
Changing Student Lifestyle
Even though families are crucial to traditional and modern Cambodian homes, the rise in students attending universities in Phnom Penh is pushing many young adults out of their provincial family homes and into university housing in the city and suburbs.
Em Sreytol moved away from rural Kampot province five years ago, determined to gain an education and someday see other countries. She studied a marketing degree for two years, but now is in her third year studying Japanese language at Royal University of Phnom Penh and living on the outskirts of the city.
She shares a room in a small, simple dormitory in Stung Meanchey with three other university students, and socializes with the young women when she’s not studying on campus. “We study together, and we can talk about anything that’s bothering us,” she says. She often cooks for herself and sometimes shares with roommates. But on a sunny Saturday in December, in between classes and library sessions at the Royal University, it’s easiest for her to stop for fried rice at the campus canteen. “I miss my mother’s cooking,” she says in between bites.
Sreytol would love to return to her family’s home, and she visits every few weeks. But once she finishes her degree in Japanese language, she doesn’t plan on returning to the province. Almost all of the possible job opportunities for teaching Japanese would be in Phnom Penh, so she plans to put down roots in the city.
Traditional Homes Still an Attractive Option
When putting a high rise apartment on the market, Sorn Seap, founder and director of Key Real Estate Co. Ltd. in Phnom Penh, says Cambodian families are unlikely to take interest. Many local buyers can’t afford the centralized service apartments, while others prefer traditional houses. Families enjoy spending free time outside and chatting with the community. “Some people do not like to live in apartments because it does not feel like a house,” he said. “They’re not used to it, they feel like it’s not a house, it’s so strict, there’s no full freedom [because of guards], so they’re not in the mindset.”
But instead of moving to inner-city Khmer homes, more families are moving into the borey lining Phnom Penh’s suburbs. These low-level row homes are decked with stylish decor and the latest in appliances like towering apartments, but they have more spacious rooms that are well-suited to families. The popularity of these projects, which can hold hundreds of families, is pushing the borders of Phnom Penh’s suburbs in Sen Sok district to the north, Boeng Tumpun district to the south and off National Road 1, Seap explained.
The key interest in borey over apartments is land, Seap said. Most wealthy individuals still prefer land, which they see as having the highest value appreciation over time. Borey are low to the ground, and families have outdoor space as well as indoor.
Pagna Ukthaun, an executive at a social enterprise, decided to choose a new, clean space at a more affordable price. His home in Borey Peng Houth’s Chbar Ampov development gives him the same amenities as one of the serviced apartments within the city – 24 hour security, a gym, shops, new appliances – but in a cheaper part of town with more open space.
Pagna misses out on some of the city’s “vibrancy” living away from the city center. And though it appeals to some residents, the cookie-cutter style of the complex is not to his taste. “I think the same design of hundreds houses just make it look soulless,” he said. But Pagna likes his residence overall, and it was less expensive and time-consuming than purchasing an older flat near the city center that he would have to renovate.
For now, modern style apartment and condo complexes will continue to attract mostly foreign residents, who are more accustomed to high-rise living and appreciate the conveniences that come with it. As traffic stagnates and urban professionals grow busier, Seap believes Phnom Penh’s apartments will grow more popular with local families. “I think in the future, probably five years’ time, there will be more working people living in apartments.”