Asia-Pacific

Cambodia struggles to realise skyscraper dreams

Not so long ago there were only a handful of families living there. It had only the most basic facilities, and was accessible only by boat. But as the name Diamond Island suggests, the government saw a glittering future ahead.

The authorities removed the families - some of them forcibly - and brought in well-connected private developers to transform the place.

They built a convention centre and wedding hall, a small park and a housing development called Elite Town.

Image caption The Diamond Island Exhibition Centre can be glimpsed beyond the bridge

More was to come. Prime Minister Hun Sen held up Diamond Island as a symbol of the country's development. And he announced plans to build the world's second-largest structure there. It would be more than half-a-kilometre high - and show that Cambodia could do things to make the rest of the world take notice.

Two months later, the world's attention was indeed drawn to Diamond Island - but for the worst possible reason. Crowds overwhelmed the colourfully lit fairy-castle bridge linking the venue to the city centre - and at least 350 people died in the crush.

It seemed like Cambodia's adventures in skyscraper-building had come to a grisly end.

After the disaster, making the crossing to the island would have been a haunting journey, even in a country without deep-held superstitions. Here, people fear and respect the spirits of the dead - and Diamond Island seemed destined to become a ghost town.

White elephants?

There have been dozens of other ambitions projects to raise the skyline of Phnom Penh.

Image caption Canadia tower has struggled to find tenants

Little more than two years ago there were plans to build as many as 50 tall buildings in and around the city. But progress has stalled on almost all of them.

Many were funded by South Korean developers. And when they took a major hit during the global financial crisis, they pulled the plugs on their Cambodian projects. All those proposed multi-storey towers are still just muddy holes in the ground.

Some are officially just suspended until the economic winds are blowing in the right direction. Others have been abandoned completely.

And the only skyscraper which did make it all the way to completion has hardly been an unqualified success. It may call itself "the first high-rise international office building in Cambodia" - but the Canadia Tower has struggled to find tenants.

Real estate agents have suggested there simply may not be enough demand.

All of which adds to the impression that skyscrapers in Phnom Penh would be nothing more than concrete-and-glass white elephants.

New bridges

But their time may yet come.

Image caption Work on Tower 42 has resumed, after a pause at the 30th floor

Many businesses and international organisations make their headquarters in villas in residential parts of the city. Even companies as huge as Unilever are based in what are essentially houses - while the United Nations occupies entire blocks of villas.

They're not exactly the flexible spaces, wired for communication, that modern organisations need. And parking can be a nightmare - delaying all road-users as traffic grinds to a halt.

So there's a case to be made that skyscrapers would benefit the whole city. And things are, perhaps, starting to look up.

A Korean-funded satellite city on the edge of Phnom Penh is reporting increasing sales to foreign buyers. And work has re-started on the much-vaunted Tower 42, which had stalled at somewhere around the 30th floor.

But what of Diamond Island? Despite the Water Festival disaster, it hasn't become a ghost town. People didn't cancel their wedding parties - and it recently played host to a large, regional tourism exhibition.

Perhaps most importantly, the developers have announced plans for new bridges. If Cambodia is going to be serious about skyscrapers, it's also got to be strenuous about safety.

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