As we made our way down through Laos and into Cambodia there was a consistent theme in the travelers that we met. Avoid Sihanoukville. In Laos at a dusty bus station in conversation with a young French traveler and a local Laos man we learned high speed rail is on its way direct from China. The local Laos man says the small beach town is new Chinatown. Avoid Sihanoukville. In Siem Reap talking to a local restaurant owner who just had to close his location in Sihanoukville. He was pushed out by the rising rent cost driven up by the Chinese casino mafia. Avoid Sihanoukville. In Pakse a passing discussion with a traveler telling of the mountains of trash that engulf and wash over the city. Avoid Sihanoukville. In Mondulkiri learning there are work crews working 24/7 building up skyrises leading to traffic jams clogged with work trucks going to and from the city. Avoid Sihanoukville.
After all that why would we be anywhere near Sihanoukville you ask? The answer is this, Sihanoukville is the launching point out to the beautiful Koh Rong Samloem, a paradise with a slower vibe than the big island, Koh Rong, which is known for its party scene. Yet the only way to the islands is through the rapidly growing beast of a city, Sihanoukville. We spent no more time than necessary in the town and we still felt we couldn’t get out of there faster. The non-stop work crews, traffic jams of work trucks, piles of reeking trash, all of it true. Never had I witnessed such a stark example first-hand of the full bearing of development in action.
In 2018 alone, over $1.3 billion has been invested in the development of Sihanoukville, $1.1 billion by Chinese investors. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, Cambodia is one of the first countries in the Southeast Asian region to embrace this with open arms. The investments are aimed at a lot of good things for Cambodia; improved power plants, bigger and better road infrastructure, a larger international airport at Phnom Penh. On the surface this seems a win-win for both Cambodia and China. Chinese investors reap the profits from the development and money is injected into Cambodian cities as infrastructure improves and more tourists see the area. Think trickle down economics.
For land owners and construction workers in Cambodia this has worked out incredibly well. An apartment that used to rent for $500 a month to a local Cambodian now rents to a Chinese businessman for as much as $4,500 a month. Construction workers on Chinese projects are paid as much as three times as much as they would earn on a local project.
For a lot of local Cambodians however the development is something of a nightmare, some feeling that when the development is done, there will be no Cambodia left. Almost 20% of the population in Sihanoukville is now Chinese. Most are businessmen who prefer to go to Chinese establishments. No different than what any foreigner would do, we always seek out the comfortable. The end result is nearly all of the money that was supposed to be injected into the economy is essentially going to the Chinese developers and businessmen who have migrated or the locals who were already wealthy (in Cambodian standards) ie land owners and skilled laborers. The gap between rich and poor has increased significantly creating a sad truth. As cost of living goes up local Cambodians are the ones that must move out of the city and back to their villages as rent skyrockets. This disparity has caused some animosity to grow between the Chinese and local Cambodians. One Dutch traveler we met said he received a warning from his embassy to avoid big groups of Cambodian and Chinese people as fights sometimes break out. Looking at the underlying causes for the frustration it is hard not to see why there is a growing issue between the two groups.
Another side effect is tourism on the islands is slowing as well because of the negative aspects of the development going on in Sihanoukville. Which depending on how you look at it could be a good thing or a bad thing. It is a hit to the local businesses on the islands which is a shame, but for a traveler looking to enjoy some paradise without too many tourists it is great. These islands are truly a wonder, in fact Mandy and I agreed this was the best beach we have ever been to. We have been to the Caribbean, Cabo San Lucas, Costa Rica, Cozumel, which all have great beaches so that is saying something. We stayed in Saracen Bay which is lined with hostels and restaurants. At night there are fire shows and plenty of live music. Swinging in the swings out over the ocean at night was a very fun night!
The opposite side of the island is about a 25-minute walk out to Lazy Beach. There are no tuk tuks, ATMs, or cars on the island contributing to the slow vibe. Unfortunately what should have been an equally beautiful beach was ridden with trash, floating in from the deep sea. Mandy and I set to work and collected an entire concrete bag full of trash from the shore and ocean. As we pulled some of the bigger pieces out of the ocean we also saw the beauty of nature. Always adapting, the larger pieces of trash acted as a shelter for tons of little fish. The water is clear and provides no shelter from predators. The coral system in the area has largely been depleted which leaves these little guys few options. We knew it was the right thing to remove the trash from the ocean, but it left me wondering where they would go now.
We loved Koh Rong Samloem and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see an amazing beach and relax unplugged from the world. Just remember, avoid Sihanoukville and get to the islands as soon as possible!
Check out this article written by Hannah Ellis-Peterson at the Guardian where I got a lot of these facts. I would also encourage researching images of Sihanoukville now, a true paradise lost to development. We did not capture any images in our haste to get OUT!