Recreating Paris in Phnom Penh — for the rich

blog image

A huge high-end project that mimics Parisian streets and architecture is located in the center of Phnom Penh’s city and is an attempt to capitalize on the region’s growing demand for luxury goods in one of Asia’s poorest countries.

Beside the Mekong River, a copy of the Arc de Triomphe towers over stores and apartments inspired by Parisian Haussmann architecture.

“This building is gorgeous, really amazing,” said 49-year-old Heng Sokharith, who bought a space for his furniture company in the Elysee complex, which is named after the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris.

“Having such an iconic building in Cambodia fills us with pride.”

This “mini-Paris” is touted as an exclusive haven for the wealthy, providing escape from the busy activity and noise of the two million-person metropolis with its well-kept sidewalks, little cafes, and declared refinement.

What was previously marshland on an island has been transformed by the developers, OCIC, who built towers, a hospital, and an international school. One of the biggest companies in the country, OCIC, invested $400 million in the Elysee project, which began in 2015 and is almost finished.

The island where Elysee is located, Koh Pich, represents Phnom Penh’s comeback after decades of conflict that came to an end in the early 1990s.

Over the past 20 years, Cambodia’s economy has grown at one of the fastest rates in Asia. But cronyism and corruption plague the nation, with much wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite few connected to the longtime dictator Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet, who took over last year.

Even though the garment industry pays a minimum wage of approximately $200 per month and the GDP per capita is slightly over $1,600, the price of the large Elysee apartments soars to $1,300 per square meter despite these difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, according to OCIC Vice-President Thierry Tea, more than 80% of the 229 units have been sold, even though not all of them are now inhabited.

With affordable real estate costs as compared to other nearby cities, Phnom Penh hopes to attract foreign investors.

“If customers seek to purchase, rent, or secure returns on investment, they are warmly welcomed,” Tea told AFP. “There are lots of chances in Cambodia. Phnom Penh is a rapidly developing city with great promise.”

Cambodia has developed deeper ties with China under Hun Sen’s direction, which has led to a wave of Chinese investments that have not only fueled the construction boom in the capital but also given rise to a proliferation of casinos and other less respectable businesses.

“New Frontier”

Proponents of Elysee and other high-end developments expect Chinese funding as well as the growing middle class in China’s attraction to luxury brands.

In the near future, a high-end retail complex with up to 75 boutiques is scheduled to open near Koh Pich. The managing director of Bluebell, the business that owns the mall, Pierre Balsan, sees Cambodia as “a new frontier for luxury brands.”

“Changing brand managers’ perceptions of Cambodia and the country’s image” is the main task, Balsan told AFP.

Balsan said that part of the attraction of the nation was the handing over of authority to a younger generation last year, embodied by 46-year-old Hun Manet, who studied in both the United States and Britain.

Representing a new generation of elite leaders following his father’s nearly forty years in power, Hun Manet has promised to make Cambodia a “high-income country” by the year 2050. He does, however, manage a corrupt system that his father left behind, one that stifled any political criticism and rewarded cliques with ties to the government.

In an interview with AFP, Gabriel Fauveaud, a geography expert at the University of Montreal who specializes in Phnom Penh’s urban growth, pointed out the city’s pattern of “real estate income being monopolized by influential entities with political ties.”

A number of Cambodians working in the luxury goods industry declined to speak with AFP, citing the need for privacy.

Heng Sokharith is still upbeat about his investment, though.

“I foresee further development in the future, making this area even more appealing.”

Ethan Sullivan

Ethan's penchant for the pulse of the fashion world extends to covering lifestyle topics, offering readers a seamless blend of the latest style updates and lifestyle trends.

Read more