Forever blowing bubbles

April 30, 2015

I’ve been banging on for a while now about a looming property bubble in Phnom Penh, but clearly prophets are without honour even far away from home. Here, in Cambodia in 2015, it’s all about profits.

A recent report from global estate agents CBRE says the supply of condominiums in Phnom Penh will increase by 533 per cent by the end of 2018, with some 9,500 additional units available for rent in the central and outer areas of the capital. A lunatic friend of mine even managed to sell a piece to the New York Times saying that Chinese investors would be lapping up Cambodian condos: I’m not so sure.

However, there’s no doubt that lots of people are rushing in to Cambodian property at the moment, and there are plenty of knock-on effects. One of these was brought home to me quite forcefully a couple of weeks ago, when one of my favourite bars, Cantina, was forced to close its doors because of unsustainable rent increases.

Run by a gentle American with the slightly improbable name of Hurley Scroggins III, Cantina was the unofficial gathering place of the foreign media in Phnom Penh. Ostensibly a Mexican restaurant, I’m not sure I ever ate there, but it was a wonderful place for a drink and a gossip. It was unassuming, and not the smartest place in town, but the Beer Lao was cold and the welcome cheerful. Everyone drifted past up and down the riverside, and, sitting gazing out over the waters of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, you could catch up with old friends and meet new ones, arrange jobs, listen to fantasists and lunatics, laugh at stoned tourists stumbling out of the happy pizza place next door and get your shoes shined. But, after 10 years, the landlord kicked Hurley out, and Phnom Penh is a poorer place for it.

It’s also poorer after a slew of closures of live music venues, the most recent being a bar called Equinox, on Street 278 in the trendy BKK1 area. Unable to afford a non-negotiable 300 percent rent increase, the bar, which had hosted almost every band that’s ever played in Cambodia, was forced to close up just a week or so ago.

The former owner said that he was gloomy about prospects for the area. “It’s East Asians coming in with all this money,” he said, referring to the increased competition produced by mainly Chinese investors. “It’s infected the Khmer landlords.” Asian businessmen have been seen touring the premises, but nothing is known about the future of the space.

I liked Equinox. They had some great music; the pool table was a bit eccentric, but the huge floor-mounted fans tended to compensate for that. When it opened, nine years ago, the roads in the area had only just been paved. And look at it now.

The news of Equinox’s closure came on the heels of a long list of other closures around the city. Slur Bar, The Groove and Oscars 51 shut up shop just before the Khmer New Year. Memphis Bar shut down, and The Village closed for refurbishments and never reopened. These names may not mean much if you don’t live here, but, if you liked music and lived in Phnom Penh, they were crucial. Nothing is replacing them.

Meanwhile, an American popstrel called Demi Lovato (I had to go and look her name up; I could only recall her being called something like Devil’s Tomato) has announced a gig in Phnom Penh in a couple of weeks, and 35,000 people are expected. Her fans here mounted a sustained campaign on Facebook to bring her here: the Demi Lovato Cambodia Fan Club has over 23,000 followers. She’ll join an exalted list of musicians who have made it to Cambodia in recent years, including the distinguished Danish band Michael Learns to Rock and not offensively bland Ronan Keating.

I’m sorry, I can’t help sneering. I guess if 35,000 people turn out for a gig in Cambodia, that’s got to be a good thing. Except…

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