Pen Sokunthea escaped the bustle of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, for the sleepy riverside town of Kampot two years ago, drawn by its tranquil charm and laid-back pace of life.
“I’m not a big city girl,” says Pen, who runs a cafe on the outskirts of the town 150km (90 miles) south of Phnom Penh, close to the coast. “I much prefer the peace and quiet, and Kampot is perfect for that.”
However, big changes are coming to the town, which is set to become Cambodia’s next tourism hotspot. As investment opportunities and development plans are unveiled, fears have been raised that Kampot’s tranquillity may be shattered.
In the town’s colonial heart, construction has already started on a twin-tower development that rises above a quaint stretch of buildings lining the once peaceful riverfront. In January 2020, bulldozers rolled in and have been working from morning to night ever since, digging the foundations for the 42-storey project backed by Chinese investors.
Slated to house shopping malls, entertainment centres, condominiums and restaurants, the development will be the tallest in Cambodia outside Phnom Penh.
Meanwhile, a tourism port is slated to start welcoming visitors in 2022, Chinese investors are being invited to snap up land around Kampot, and swathes of Bokor National Park are being razed to develop satellite cities on the mountain slopes.
“I worry that Kampot is about to change a lot,” says resident and street food vendor Chan Seyha. “We’ve seen what has happened in Sihanoukville and we don’t want that here.”
Recent years have seen heavy Chinese investment in the coastal town of Sihanoukville, as the former backpacker enclave has been transformed by casinos, hotels and other businesses catering to visitors from China. According to the latest figures from the Council for the Development of Cambodia, China remains Cambodia’s leading foreign direct investor, pumping more than US$5.3 billion into the country between 2013 and 2017.
As land prices in Sihanoukville continue to climb, eyes are turning elsewhere, and Kampot is ticking all the boxes. In March, Kampot provincial governor Cheav Tay met Chinese investors studying opportunities in the tourism, industrial and agriculture sectors, as a swathe of development gets under way across the rural province.
Ross Wheble, country head of international property consultancy Knight Frank, notes that land prices in prime locations in Kampot have risen during the past 18 months. He says several factors are driving this increased demand.
“Its natural beauty and picturesque scenery, its proximity to Phnom Penh and growing popularity with domestic tourists, as well as numerous infrastructure projects including the tourism port, the widening and improvement of National Road 3, the huge investment in Bokor Mountain as well as the construction of a deep-sea port and a Special Economic Zone, to name a few,” he says.
Development of Kampot province’s US$8 million (S$10 million) tourism port is predicted to greatly increase the number of visitors to the area. As part of the Kampot Provincial Tourism Department’s master plan, the seaport will cater to passengers from the nearby Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, some Thai destinations and Cambodia’s islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The port will be able to welcome vessels carrying up to 400 passengers.
An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report on tourism in the Greater Mekong Subregion predicts the seaport will service 360,000 international and domestic tourists annually once it opens in early 2022. The port is being funded by an ADB loan.
The provincial tourism department says the seaport will help it hit its target of attracting 2.5 million tourists to Kampot by 2023. According to the latest figures, in the first six months of 2020, the province welcomed 838,000 local and international tourists. In the same period in 2019, 1,090,000 people visited the area.
The decline is due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a countrywide ban on crossing provincial borders put in place between mid-March and mid-April to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We believe [the seaport] will have a big impact on demand for tourism-related real estate, which has already been highlighted with the completion of Amber Kampot resort,” Wheble says.
The town’s first five-star resort opened in October. Despite room rates starting at US$350 a night, Amber is proving popular with local guests.
In the southwest of the province, the second phase of luxury villa development Forest Harmony was recently unveiled. In December, ground was broken on the US$18 million first phase, the development of 78 villas in leafy surroundings. The next phase of the Cambodian-French joint venture will include nine golf courses and four five-storey condominiums spread across 27.3 hectares (67.5 acres).
“This shows there is demand for more upscale offerings and we will see a shift away from traditional backpacker accommodation,” Wheble says.
Australian expat Calvin Kuikstad has run a cosy corner bar on the riverside next to the development for the past two years. “This will definitely take away from Kampot’s charm,” he says. “While it’s good that it will create a lot of jobs, it’s in the middle of colonial buildings and will ruin the whole sense of the town.”
Street vendor Chan also fears the development marks the beginning of a new chapter in Kampot, with similar projects following suit. “When there is one, more always follow,” he says. “I don’t want to see the old town destroyed and lose what makes it so special.”
In response to the development, Kampot residents launched a petition urging Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni to modify the project to a more “heritage-friendly construction” and shift the towers out of the Old Town. To date it has received 1,239 signatures.
While authorities have pledged to keep Kampot town casino-free, two spacious casinos on Bokor Mountain on the outskirts of the town attracted scores of Chinese gamblers before Covid-19. In the early 20th century the historic national park served as a hilltop retreat for the French during the colonial era to escape the muggy heat.
A grand hotel, post office, church and other buildings dotted the slopes but fell into disrepair when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and the mountain became the site of fierce battles.
In 1993, the area was established by royal decree as Preah Monivong National Park, one of 23 protected areas in the country.
In August 2019, the government unveiled its “Master Plan for Bokor City Development Project until 2035”. The “smart cities” will include residential and commercial areas, mixed-use zones, public and green spaces, tourism attractions and infrastructure.
Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony, Say Sinol, director of Kampot’s tourism department, said the project would provide a key tourist destination. However, environmental concerns have been raised about the master plan, with swathes of trees felled to pave the way for the mega development that will span 18,987 hectares of the 154,542-hectare park.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson is co-founder of environmental NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, which has raised grave concerns about the Bokor development.
“We have huge worries about the destruction of the environment and such valuable biodiversity in such a beautiful part of the country,” he says in a recent Facebook video. “This is the privatisation and sale of state assets, and is extremely concerning.”
Back in Kampot town, Chan continues to operate his food stall close to the construction site flanked by Chinese hoardings. “It’s business as usual for now,” he says, “but we have no idea for how long before more land gets sold.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.