7 years of change: Documenting the transformation of Cambodia

By: Asian Correspondent Staff Feb 17, 2015 3:55PM UTC

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July 07, 2011 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A resident of Boeung Kak rows a wooden boat against a storm moving in over Phnom Penh. The new buildings of the Council of Ministers and the office of the Prime Minister can be seen in the background. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

Words by Denise Hruby, images by Nicolas Axelrod of the RUOM Collective

With the first beams of sunlight, men and women would set out on wooden longboats, passing the reflection of their stilted homes onto the middle of Boeung Kak, a lake nestled in the heart of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Soon, their hand-made fishing nets would be filled with flapping fish, and their woven baskets would brim with morning glory. Little more is needed for a filling supper.

Most of the maps you’ll find of Phnom Penh will still show this vast body of water. Surrounded by the Council of Ministers, the Royal University and the offices of the Prime Minister, the community seemed a little out of place: Lacking electricity, clean drinking water and hygiene, it was the poor who had formed a close-knit community here.

If you’d visit the once vibrant area today, you’d find little more than sand. In 2008, a real estate company started to pump sand into the lake. A few years later, and the water was no more. Neither was the vibrant community of several thousand people that had called the lake home for decades.

That somebody would fill in a whole lake to erect high-rise buildings might seem ludicrous — but after acquiring the rights to develop the lake, that’s exactly what a real estate company did. With the economy growing at a flabbergasting average of 7.7 percent over the past 20 years, the need for development is inevitable.

After decades under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and ensuing civil war, the country’s middle class is growing, and so is consumerism. Cambodians are embracing this modernisation. The young now dress in fashionable clothes and munch on Belgium pralines before watching the newest 3D Hollywood blockbuster. Affluent families are moving into apartment buildings that feature gyms, pools, countless air condition units and a daily maid service. Even luxury carmakers like Porsche and Rolls Royce have opened dealerships in the capital Phnom Penh.

Countless opportunities exist for investors, but critics say that rapid development has made the rich richer, and the poor poorer. The majority of the population is left out.

For the hundreds of families that were violently evicted from their homes in the city center, development meant that they were relocated to barren plots of land. Schools, health-care centers, markets or any income opportunity were out of reach. The ones who fought for their land were violently suppressed, driven out of their homes with tear gas and water canons.

Today, their once poor but lively communities have been replaced with sterile real estate projects.
In Cambodia, development has been happening fast – but with little regard for collateral damage.

Transitioning Cambodia is the first photo book that will showcase these rapid developments in modern-day Cambodia, it’s changing landscapes and society.
 The Ruom Collective is currently running a crowd funding project to distribute the photo book in pre-sale throughIndiegogo
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The gallery below illustrates the dramatic change that has taken place in Cambodia over the past number of years (hover over images for captions):

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