A new theme park, “Angkor Lake of Wonder”, will be built next to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex by casino operator NagaCorp. The announcement raises concerns about impacts to the ancient seat of the Khmer empire, including the possibility of casinos and gambling.
A Hong Kong-listed casino operator has announced plans to construct a 75-hectare theme park just 500 meters from Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple complex.
NagaCorp’s new “Angkor Lake of Wonder” theme park and resort will be built on the south side of the Angkor Archaeological Park protected area.
The company compared the project to Disneyland, though it will be twice the size, and says the “comprehensive non-gaming integrated world-class resort” will not include any casinos. The development would be the only NagaCorp project that doesn’t include gambling facilities, according to VOD.
The company operates Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld, the largest gambling resort in the country, and is registered in the Cayman Islands. Gambling is illegal under domestic law for Cambodians in the country but permitted for foreigners.
The first phase of the development will reportedly cost US$35 million and include a water park, two five-star hotels, a “Chinatown”, a “high-tech” theme park, a canal and a “food street”. The company’s announcement says the plans are “based on the concept of generating as much fun and play as possible” and that the resort will “become the essence of Cambodia.”
The water park portion will include “lazy River rides and [a] large wave pool, designed with [the] theme of Angkor heritage and Khmer cultural landscape”, where “visitors of all ages can find a splash of adventure.”
The project will be designed by US architectural firms Steelman Partners and Gensler.
Locals have already raised concerns about the development
The plan has drawn condemnation from residents and civil society groups who say it will jeopardize the local culture and the UNESCO World Heritage site as a whole.
“I am not against development, but any development should be appropriate according to the culture in the area,” Pech Pisey, executive director at Transparency International Cambodia, told Radio Free Asia. “I think it is better to develop and preserve the Angkor area as a tourist site, not as an entertainment zone that could impact the culture heritage sites of our ancestry.”
Despite statements from NagaCorp and the Cambodian government that the complex will not include gambling facilities, civil society advocates questioned whether this will really be the case. Some residents have said they do not support the project if it will damage the identity of Angkor Wat.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan expressed confidence in the decision to grant the company a lease at Angkor Wat.
“NagaWorld has stayed in Cambodia since long ago, and [we’ve] endured happiness and pain together,” Siphan told VOD. “The government’s decision is based on trust.”
“I hope they will do it properly,” said David-Jaya Piot, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association in Siem Reap, as he voiced optimism about the project.
NagaCorp will pay no rent on the land for the first seven to 10 years and then pay US$450,000 per year for the duration of its 50-year lease.
The developers also say the Angkor Lake of Wonder theme park will be linked to Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld via new water plane flights from Tonle Sap lake, just south of Siem Reap, to the Mekong River near Phnom Penh.
Concern continues over Cambodia’s volatile gambling industry
Cambodia’s casino industry has been the source of major controversy in recent years amid a wave of Chinese investment and demand for casinos. The boom has brought rapid but short-lived opportunities for local workers and businesses, much of it centered around the beach town of Sihanoukville. Gambling is banned in mainland China, pushing citizens to casino destinations abroad.
Tens of thousands of Cambodian business owners and workers, as well as Chinese, flocked to the city to run restaurants, bars and other establishments aimed at the gambling clientele. While locals found opportunity, the vast majority of businesses—over 90% in early 2020—were Chinese-owned. Reports of an increase in crime in the city quickly spread, sparking anti-Chinese sentiment across the country.
As Chinese interest in Sihanoukville was in part connected to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the country, the public backlash presented a major problem for the Cambodian government and led to a series of task forces and efforts by authorities to find a solution.
In December 2019, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a permanent ban on online gambling, putting an end to the boomtown. Over 70 casinos shut down and over 200,000 Chinese nationals left the country, according to government statistics, leaving thousands of workers unemployed and forcing local businesses to shut down.
In October, the country’s parliament passed a bill to impose stricter controls on the gambling industry and establish designated gambling zones. The law is aimed at “boosting economic growth, promoting tourism, increasing tax revenue as well as maintaining social safety and security,” according to Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth. It also aims to combat money laundering as some of the money flowing through Sihanoukville’s casinos was reportedly tied to Chinese cartels.
The announcement of NagaCorp’s Angkor project has prompted questions about the trajectory of the country’s gambling industry. At present, NagaCorp has exclusive rights to operate gambling facilities within 120 miles of Phnom Penh under an agreement with the government. The frequent changes in gambling regulations have made some observers skeptical about the company’s promises not to build a casino at the Angkor site.
But regardless, the development of a resort complex only 500 meters from Angkor Wat is a major cause for concern for those who value the country’s heritage and the communities in and around Siem Reap.