Delays Possible: The Changing Face of Cambodia’s Capital

Delays Possible: The Changing Face of Cambodia’s Capital

Phnom Penh’s residents live under an ever-changing skyline, as the city experiences transformative urban development. One photographer captures the impermanence of life in the permanently unfinished Cambodian city

Penh is a city in transition. Swarming, a little
suffocating, and always shapeshifting, it’s an unfinished project.
Its extremities are yoked by cranes and half-built highways, its
skyline a boneyard of skeletal silhouettes – work-in-progress tower
blocks, with top floors naked to the skies. It wasn’t always like
this. After the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in January
1979, the Cambodian capital – like most of the country’s cities
– was left largely empty, much of the population having been either
removed via forced evacuations or killed during the regime’s rule.

But then, the 21st century arrived and, in an attempt to catch
up with the warp-speed development of other Southeast Asian
countries, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government installed a
programme of urbanisation, funded by Chinese investment. Major
initiatives – conceived to emulate the shiny cityscapes of Vietnam
and Thailand – were launched: the Phnom Penh City Center project
saw the Boeung Kak Lake dried up and filled with sand to enable the
building of a business district. Another saw 75 hectares of
marshland on the small Mekong River island of Koh Pich, known as
Diamond Island, sold for the development of villas, condominiums
and a shopping centre. In what has been nicknamed “Elite Town”, a
particularly dazzling new neighbourhood that has sprung up under
the city’s cloud-dashed skies, new housing costs up to £1 million
per unit. Across the street, you’ll find The Elysée – a £135
million real estate project whose aim is to turn a section of Phnom
Penh into a replica of Parisian living, complete with
Haussmann-style buildings and a model Arc de Triomphe.

Phnom Penh is at the same time this burgeoning metropolis and this disappearing landscape

In this photo journal, Benjamin Filarski captures the
evanescence of living alongside the urban transformation, drawing a
portrait of a city that seems permanently unfinished, its
population in a constant state of waiting. His lens finds three
Buddhist monks resting by the river; moments of life amid the
waterway’s fishing communities; and the strange landscapes of a
half-built road, leading to a future city not fully envisioned.

“In the city centre, skyscrapers grow like mushrooms,” says the
photographer. “On the outskirts, streams are silted up and coconut
palms cut down. The countryside has been transformed into housing
estates and industrial zones. Phnom Penh is at the same time this
burgeoning metropolis and this disappearing landscape.”

@filarskibenjamin |

Siem Reap Cambodia

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