No sooner had Okhna Sok Kong stepped off his
helicopter than he lit up a Winfield Blue and strode purposefully across the
uneven grass atop Bokor Mountain towards the assembled journalists, cigarette
dangling between diamond-encrusted fingers.
The 58-year-old looks every inch the tycoon: immaculately turned out in a
well-cut suit, solid-gold Rolex watch and gold rimless glasses, he is preceded
by a bevy of assistants and a vast reputation.
Smiling, smoking and barking orders in quick succession, Sok Kong quickly
settles himself into a chair, orders a glass of red wine, and launches into an
explanation of his newest project, a $1-billion redevelopment of the decaying
French colonial-era Bokor Mountain resort.
“It is a big investment, it is a difficult investment and it will define me,”
he says of his plan to create a “world class tourist city” from the
dilapidated ruins of the Kingdom’s colonial past. “This is my ultimate
The company he founded in 1994, Sokimex Cambodia Investment Co., Ltd, has a
portfolio which ranges from garments to gas by way of five-star hotels. It has
the ticketing concession at Angkor Wat, dominates the domestic market for
petroleum products and Sok Kong’s Sokha Hotel Co., Ltd is an increasingly
important player in the country’s booming tourism industry.
But the Bokor redevelopment will be the jewel in the Sokha Group’s crown.
“With this project, we are not looking for short-term profit, we want to do it
well,” says Sok Kong.
Despite his punishing work schedule and penchant
for Winfred Blues, which he bulk-buys in Singapore, the Okhna looks younger
than his years – possibly because he feels he is just now coming of age
“This is the right time for me to do this business, now that the economy is
growing,” he says. “If I didn’t [launch the Bokor redevelopment] now, it would
become a missed opportunity.”
The project is ambitious. The Bokor mountain area covers 140,000 hectares,
although the project only covers the previously developed areas – the three
plateaus, which total about 14,000 hectares.
The first plateau is the highest on the mountain and the only area to have
pre-existing buildings – the old casino, hotel, post office and church. This
will become the “tourist city” and the other two plateaus will be developed
into residential areas.
The aim is to finish construction of a new 600-room hotel over the next
two-and-a-half years while rebuilding the 33-kilometer road up the mountain.
The road – currently a muddy, pot-holed nightmare – will be enlarged and
sealed at a cost of some $20 million.
The importance of preservation is emphasized repeatedly by Sok Kong and his
employees. The French colonial buildings will be preserved; their outer shells
strengthened and the insides ripped out in line with UNESCO recommendations.
When restored, the original hotel will offer a small number of higher priced
“We will knock down the casino,” Sok Kong says. The original building is to be
replaced with a purpose-built, 3,000-square-foot casino so the new development
can capitalize on the long-standing reputation of Bokor as a high-end gambling
The residential areas aim to tap into what Sok Kong sees as a new growth
market – second homes for middleclass Cambodian families and retirement homes.
“The main market is for Cambodians, overseas Cambodians and also retirees,”
explains Sok Kong’s executive assistant, Svay Vuthy. “The weather here is good
for retirees. We envisage some fulltime residents and some holiday homes.”
Although the master plan for the project is not yet finished, the company
estimates that about 1,000 residential villas, condominiums and houses will be
The project has various impressively progressive elements, including a
botanical garden and a market garden that will supply the hotel with fruit and
vegetables. There are even plans for a wind farm to meet some of the resort’s
The biggest sticking point currently for the
project is infrastructure, primarily the Sihanoukville airport.
“If international flights could land at Sihanoukville it would contribute to
the entire project here,” Sok Kong says.
“Sihanoukville is dead because of [the lack of airport development]. If they
want a tourist boom in the south like there was in Siem Reap then they need
Sok Kong is optimistic about the impact of the project on the local economy.
Not only will the project create massive employment opportunities – for
example, the 600-room hotel alone will require 900 staff – it will also ensure
they are jobs with perks, such as subsidized housing and long-term training
“We are not talking about the benefits now, we are talking about the benefits
in 15 years’ time,” Sok Kong explains. “I want to create stable, long-term
jobs for Kampot locals and also a stable supply of goods for the hotel project
– people can grow the vegetables we need.”
Already, according to Sok Kong, the proposed development is proving a spur to
the local economy, with land prices at the base of the mountain jumping from
an average $10 per square meter before the project was announced in January to
$70 a square meter today.
Managing the hotels currently in the Sokimex portfolio and overseeing new
projects in Bokor, Kirirom and Phnom Penh – a large hotel on the Chroy
Changvar peninsula is currently in the works – is no mean feat. When asked
when he finds time to relax in between managing multiple multimillion-dollar
development projects, Sok Kong smiles ruefully.
“The Sokha Group, how much money do we risk to pursue my ideas? How much do we
lose? But now, when I have success, people accuse me of getting favors, of
getting all the prime locations for my business,” Sok Kong says.
“But what they see is simply the success of my business model – the pursuit of
Top Go to