While Siem Reap Smiles, Phnom Penh Suffocates

Photo from Siem Reap Provincial Administration

Deserted by international tourists due to the pandemic, Siem Reap City, gateway to the temples of Angkor, has taken advantage of this dead time to spruce itself up. At the end of nearly two years of gigantic works, the messy small town has turned into, according to everyone, a beautiful city that is welcoming, well organized, fit to live in, and worthy of the international fame of Angkor Park.    

By living so close to an architectural treasure, it’s hard for us to imagine how much so many people around the world dream of seeing Angkor. For us who live in Cambodia, it is so simple to again immerse ourselves into the magic of the temples. We take a car, a taxi, a bus and here we are.      

But, throughout the world, many people have to wait years before they can make this dream come true. There is no end to the number of specialized magazines that have recognized Angkor as one of the most beautiful sites in the world that one must absolutely visit like the pyramids of Egypt, the Inca temples, etc., and over which tourists fantasize, wherever they are from. From now on, the pleasure of discovering the temples will be accompanied by that of having a pleasant stay in a charming and dashing city equal to Cambodians’ proverbial sense of hospitality.

The salutary improvement work in Siem Reap City can compare with the evolution of Phnom Penh.  According to a recent study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme, the ratio of public space in Phnom Penh has gone from 1.1 square meter per person in 2014 to only 0.67 square meter per person in 2020. This statistic puts Phnom Penh well below other cities in the region such as Singapore whose average ratio is 7.04 square meters per person, Seoul with a ratio of 14.66 square meters, and Ho Chi Minh City with an average of 13.7 square meters per person.      

Clearly, in Phnom Penh, real estate developers don’t care about public space. They build high-rises wherever they wish and sit on regulations that were meant to ensure an equitable sharing between public and private spaces.   

And yet, those developers should understand that the value of what they build depends on the environment in which it is set up, of the green space nearby, of the traffic flow in the immediate vicinity, and so on.      

But no: In that area, it’s everyone for himself and to hell with what is public.

This promises us a city difficult to live in, without a soul, in short uninhabitable, which we only think of fleeing.    

There was a time when Angkor was the capital of an empire. And its soul.

What if it was this again?  

Many countries have two capitals, one the economic and political capital while the other embodies the soul of the nation.

Which city in Cambodia could fulfill this symbolic function better than Siem Reap City. 

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