Postcard from Sihanoukville
Norodom Sihanouk was a remarkable politician. Arguably the father of modern Cambodia, he served at various times during the twentieth century as King, Prime Minister, leader under French colonial rule, liberator from the French, and head of state under the Khmer Rouge (who he subsequently repudiated). Cambodia seems to create some remarkable politicians.
The town, now city, that adopts his name has a long history. It was used by the United States as a port and garrison town during the Vietnam War until it fell to the Khmer Rouge. As the tourists returned after peace in Cambodia, Sihanoukville became a relaxed beach resort for backpackers and other low-budget tourists, and this continued until the early part of the second decade of the twentieth century. Then the most extraordinary transformation occurred.
As part of her "Belt and Road" initiative, the People's Republic of China began to pump large amounts of money into Sihanoukville as a tourist destination for wealthier Chinese citizens, and a number of direct flights to the Chinese mainland began. Gambling is legal in Cambodia and very popular with Chinese people, so Sihanoukville was chosen as the subject of massive Chinese investment in order to transform the city into a gambling centre. By 2017 it was estimated that some 90% of business and commercial interests in Sihanoukville were Chinese-owned. At the time of writing the city has a population of approximately 300,000 and sprawls over several kilometres: a far cry from the backpackers' haven it once used to be. A series of enormous Chinese hotels and casinos sprang up from the sands, and with the exception of a small central area the entire city is now a sea of skyscrapers. Simplified Mandarin script (the script used in the greater majority of mainland China) abounds everywhere, substantially more than either Khmer or English. Virtually every guest in every hotel of calibre (apart from this author) is Chinese. Virtually every hotel contains a giant 24-hour casino.
This orgy of hotel-building, with all the infrastructure that comes with it (a giant, empty highway has been built between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital), came to an abrupt halt in 2019 when the local government banned online and arcade gaming, and Chinese investors suddenly lost interest as Chinese gamblers headed to other resorts where they could participate in these activities, in particular Macau but also a number of other destinations in the region. The bottom dropped out of the hotel market in Sihanoukville and hundreds of thousands of annual Chinese visitors just disappeared. Now the city is awash with half-built hotel towers, enormous restaurants and gambling halls with barely a handful of customers, and shuttered shops offering to sell the latest luxury brands but with nothing behind the facades.
Along with the Chinese investment had come crime. Chinese criminal gangs had made Sihanoukville dangerous; the city became known for gun crime, human trafficking and illegal gambling. As the Chinese population departed after the gambling regulations were imposed, many of these problems abated and now Sihanoukville feels much quieter. While there are still a number of Chinese tourists, they seem for the most part an amicable and friendly bunch and Sihanoukville's reputation for being awash with Chinese gangsters and drunks appears to have abated. Instead the city is being slowly reclaimed by local people, friendly if chaotic as ever, and one is free to wonder amidst the abandoned skyscrapers day and night without fear of harm.
The city has a surreal quality to it. This author sought to book a five-star hotel on the internet that, when he arrived, was so dirty and dilapidated he refused to get past the front door. He was then taken to another hotel, that required a full X-ray check to enter and one could get to the rooms only by passing through endless empty gambling halls. The third hotel he was taken to, he was told, had been booked in its entirety by a senior Cambodian politician for all his friends, for his birthday. It had a giant fish tank in the lobby but there was also an open quarry opposite the front door of the hotel with all the accompanying noise and soot. The admittedly very helpful if chaotic hotel staff then guided him to a fourth hotel, a couple of kilometres out of the centre overlooking a beautiful beach but adjacent to a rubbish tip. Most of the hotel was incompletely built. The ground floor was a giant casino, not completed, with chairs and roulette wheels not taken out from their polystyrene packaging.
The hotel gambling hall was also awash with (exclusively) Chinese people gambling amidst all this debris, and a series of stern security guards who kept on routinely providing military salutes to this author whenever he went past. None of the local tuk-tuk drivers (domestic motorcycle rickshaws) have any idea where this allegedly top end five star hotel was; but they have no idea where anything else in town is either. The hotel was said to have a number of restaurants and bars but in fact virtually all of them were either shuttered or incomplete. The electronic room key would fail approximately six hours. The hotel television offered in-room dining options such as a bottle of whisky and an entire Peking duck for US$400. For no obvious reason, the western food in the hotel was all at moderate prices and the Chinese food all at absurdly high prices. The staff were obsequious in their desire to provide service, following this author to his hotel room door to make sure he didn't get lost but unable really to provide any useful services at all. They had no idea where elementary business services such as a pharmacy or a mobile telephone service provider might be located; they were overwhelmingly eager to please but there were in fact no services that they could provide. The hotel had no proper signage, and it was easy to wonder off into a construction site if one goes down the wrong corridor.
At the time of writing this author has elected to move to a fifth hotel, one in the centre that looks less dilapidated and more professional. However it is pure chance as to whether one finds such a hotel. There are no maps of the city of any accuracy or detail; this author could find no contemporary guidebook; typical tourist websites such as Tripadvisor list bars, restaurants and hotels that have long ago closed; star ratings for hotels are meaningless; online reviews are often grossly inaccurate or outdated because everything has changed so much.
Sihanoukville may have a third economic life as a port city. There is some evidence that its port is growing, with a series of merchant vessels being seen coming in and out of the bay upon which the port sits. In the meantime the city is not entirely without charm for a casual visitor; but the charming parts require a lot of time and effort to find, in the absence of reliable information. There is an old market; a string a bars, nightclubs and enjoyable hospitality venues; the city does not seem to have the same endemic problems with prostitution that infect the capital Phnom Penh; accordingly some of the less desirable types of tourist that dominate the capital of Cambodia do not make it down to Sihanoukville.
Indeed if you want to get to know the real Cambodians, Sihanoukville is not a bad place to start. You can spend time meandering through half-built, mostly empty Chinese casinos and disintegrating hotel towers if you so please, and if you have a morbid fascination with the consequences of human folly and over-consumption. But you can also wonder around a series of local places, typically bars, restaurants and shops that were established in the backpacker era and have somehow survived notwithstanding that the backpackers have all left, and you can get to know the Cambodians in the flesh. This is much easier than in Siem Reap, which is awash with young drunk foreigners making fools of themselves; and in Phnom Penh, in which you inevitably become a magnate for the literally thousands of wondering prostitutes who very sadly dominate huge swathes of the centre of the city. In Sihanoukville, with a bit of effort, a lot of patience, plenty of deep breaths and maintaining that ever-necessary smile, you can meet real Cambodians without fear of being ripped off, stolen from, violence or other problems. At their heart, Cambodians are genuinely friendly people: something which is all the more extraordinary given their tragic history. As a nation they seem to carry something of the customary phlegm of their founding father, Norodom Sihanouk.