Change hangs heavy in the air as Cambodia continues to develop at a breakneck pace. Editor Marissa Carruthers takes a look ahead at what the country is shaping up to look like in the next two decades. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

The class of senior year university students pause as they mull over the vision they have for their homeland in 20 years. As part of the younger generation that will help shape Cambodia’s future, they are soon expressive in what they hope to see.

A capital with a skyline that teeters towards the stars, a lifestyle like those enjoyed in Singapore, less poverty, better education, modern amenities and a technology-driven society; a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures while retaining the rich heritage that makes the Kingdom of Wonder so unique. These are all common themes debated by the class.

“We will be in our 40s in 20 years,” says Sok Arunwattey, 23, who is majoring in business communication at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). “We are the ones who will build our country, and who can look after our culture.”

In a country that is witnessing development at a rapid pace, the students can see drastic changes on the horizon. Construction has become the signature tune of Phnom Penh, and a glance around the capital reveals an ever-growing collection of buildings wrapped in green netting as more modern condos, offices and apartments are developed.

The promise of a better economy looms, with Cambodia making steps towards its ambition of becoming a middle-income country by 2030. Last month, the World Bank revised the Kingdom’s status, pushing it from the low-income bracket to lower-middle, meaning the estimated gross national income per capita now sits between $1,026 and $4,035.

Pledges have been made to overhaul the country’s education system, and a drive to shift from an agriculturally dependent economy to a light-manufacturing driven one were unveiled in the Industrial Development Policy, which aims to see the country’s industrial sector make up 30 percent of gross domestic product by 2025, compared with 24.1 percent in 2013.

“There is optimism that Cambodia will flourish as part of ASEAN, as infrastructure improves, barriers decline, and the population becomes more educated and affluent,” says Nancy Jaffe, director of market research company, Mango Tango Asia. “The country certainly has come a long way in the last 10 to 20 years.”

With infrastructure improving and links with the rest of ASEAN set to be strengthened, the future of Cambodia looks bright. But the question on many young Cambodians’ minds is, does development come at a price?

Urban Sprawl
“Phnom Penh is the cultural, educational, financial and governmental hub of Cambodia, and it will stay that way,” says Cary Sheih, executive director of real estate firm Avebury Asia Partners.

He predicts as the capital swells out and up, satellite cities will form in outlying areas, and industry pushed into nearby provinces, such as Takhmao, Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Speu as land value in Phnom Penh spirals.

However, visions of a mini-Singapore are a long way off, predicts Sheih. He believes that while Phnom Penh will undoubtedly become more of a regional hub, it will still sit a tier below modern Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City.

Urbanisation rates nationwide currently stand at 20 percent. In comparison, built-up Hong Kong and Singapore boast 100 percent, with Western countries generally sitting at about 80 percent. While urbanisation is set to sprawl across the Kingdom, and quickly there remain “huge differences in quality”, says Sheih.

“We grapple with infrastructure every day,” he adds. “There’s a lot of work to be done. There needs to be modern roads, improved drainage, more housing and public transport, expressways instead of single lanes, more cohesive planning, and for Phnom Penh to have a transparent blueprint.”

Figures from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction show the construction boom is only just getting started. In the first five months of this year, 990 construction projects with a value of more than $6.5 billion, were given the green light. During 2015, a total of 2,305 developments, worth $3.3 billion, were given the go-ahead.

Destined to change the capital’s horizon, these are a mixed range of offerings, taking in high-end condos and business centres to five-star hotels and satellite cities. Already, a swathe of game-changing developments have taken hold of the capital, such as the $500 million The Bay condominium project, which is slated for completion in 2019, and boutique office space, Raintree Cambodia, which will open at the end of the month.

One development in the pipeline that will change the capital’s landscape is Phnom Penh City Centre (PPCC). Located on the controversial Boeung Kak Lake site, which has been embroiled in lands rights issues after thousands of residents were evicted and the lake filled with sand, plans for the 111.6 hectare space give a glimpse into the next chapter of the capital’s evolution.

“The development was conceptualised to transform Phnom Penh’s city landscape into a modern commercial and leisure hub, with modern facilities purpose-built for both local and overseas businesses and investors,” says Michelle Lao, MD of Shukaku, which is spearheading the project. “Through the creation of new facilities and spaces, the development will create opportunities for the growth of commerce, culture, education, medical services, entertainment, arts and sports in Phnom Penh.”

Plans include a sports complex, complete with six futsal fields, badminton court, volleyball court and café, a 22,000sqm Central Park, residential projects and modern, mixed-used developments with versatile office space.

Work on developing infrastructure and features, such as drainage, underground cabling and roads are slated for completion in 2019. By 2035, Lao expects the PPCC district will be home to more than 56,000 residents and welcome 190,000 daily visitors.

“Cambodia has a bright future and we are very excited to be a part of building the Cambodia of tomorrow,” says Lao. “Cambodia already has many advantages such as a stable and favourable investment climate and strong economic growth – despite the global economic slowdown. It also has a lot of untapped potential such as its young and dynamic labour force, abundance of natural resources and growing tourism sector.”

Economic Standing
Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen noted that the Kingdom’s economy is currently dependant on traditional sectors, such as garment, construction and agriculture.

“This indicates it is necessary and urgent to diversify into new sectors,” he said, announcing the drive towards a more light-manufacturing industry, as well as bolstering the steadily growing tourism sector, which looks set to play a firm role in Cambodia’s economy well into the future.

The Ministry of Tourism has set a target of attracting 7.5 million foreigners annually by 2020, generating $5 billion. In 2015, 4.77 million international tourists landed in the country, raking in $3.1 billion, which accounts for 10.5 percent of Cambodia’s GDP and provides more than 800,000 direct jobs.

“This fact presents terrific opportunities for our country, as well as international investors, to derive the maximum benefits from this important sector,” says Minister of Tourism, Dr Thong Khon.

A single visa to travel across the whole of ASEAN is currently being mooted, and Dr Thong says discussions are underway to look at the potential of widening visa exemptions for target countries.

Last month, Vietnam extended its visa exemption for five European countries for another year after witnessing a rise of more than 21 percent in visitors travelling from those markets.

Earlier this year, the Cambodian government approved a move that sees three-year visas dished out to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans visitors.

Investing in future generations is also a huge driving force, and one the government has pledged to embrace. Its Teacher Policy Action Plan states that by 2020 all teachers will have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree to ensure they can educate the next generation of students to their full potential. Careers advisors are being placed in schools to offer guidance, and the curriculum is being re-written.

“The youth of this country are the future of this country,” says Jeffrey Holte, learning co-coordinator at Liger Learning Centre, which sits on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. This month, the school is gearing up to welcome its second batch of innovative youngsters, which it hopes to equip with the skills to become the next generation of the Kingdom’s leaders.

Taking a fresh, unconventional approach to tackling education, the school, which opened in 2012, selects 50 Grade 6 students from all 25 provinces to take part in the six-year scholarship programme. As well as the usual curriculum, classes tackle a range of subjects that require critical thinking, such as coding and robotics.

“We want to create the next generation of leaders, of change agents,” says Holte. “To do this, they need to be problem solvers, critical thinkers and have innovative skills. We are certain there will be more jobs here that require these skills in the next decade so we want to prepare these kids for those jobs.”

Keeping Culture
“Progress will make Cambodia less unique,” states Jaffe, echoing a grave concern, raised by the PUC students.

As modernisation takes hold of Cambodia, dents will undoubtedly be made on its rich cultural identity. New buildings are already replacing the creations of Cambodia’s past, shopping centres becoming the meeting point for the young, and fusion restaurants are taking hold.

Its natural resources are being drained, and nearly irreparable harm is being inflicted on the environment and the Kingdom’s diverse and stunning natural beauty.

Illegal logging continues to plague the country despite efforts to crack down on the trade. Rampant fires threaten the rainforest and its inhabitants, and proposed dams along the Mekong River pose detrimental threats. The rapid rise in tourism has also raised fears over the future of the environment and pollution if it is not carefully nurtured.

Modernisation also brings with it the familiar stores that line high streets across the globe, supermarkets and mass consumerism. “As more international chains enter the market, consumers will shop at H&M and Gap like the rest of the world, instead of putting together unique looks from the markets and second-hand stores,” says Jaffe. “Shopping will move towards modern trade, away from traditional markets. Locals will spend more of their food dollars at international F&B chains, both Asian and Western, and less at local street stalls.”

While foreign investment is welcomed and seen as a way to push Cambodia forward, the detriment that this may have on the country’s culture is an issue, says Sok, adding Bangkok’s development is an example of how modern can merge with tradition.

“There is still a lot of culture there,” she says. “It is developed but a lot of the buildings are still done in traditional style. Cambodia can do that but I don’t think you can become modern and keep all of your heritage.”

Keeping its rich history and the arts alive is also vital if Cambodia is to retain its unique identity. “Many teenagers don’t appreciate or care about our culture,” says Sok. “They need to be taught and educated to keep it alive.”She cites examples of Cambodia’s culture influencing modern trends, such as trendy kramas and fashion that incorporates elements from Apsara dancers.

“Cambodia can support its uniqueness by building on its heritage and asserting its place in the broader world through the arts, developing its unique music, art and film scenes,” adds Jaffe.

“We are likely to see an emphasis on Cambodian traditions around holidays as Cambodians strive to find ways to reconnect with their heritage, while moving into the modern world.”