(De)constructing Sihanoukville – a photoblog

Sihanoukville 2018: From beach resort town to a huge construction site © Arno Maierbrugger

Let’s call it nostalgia, or call it utter astonishment – but something is happening WITH Sihanoukville. Something irreversible.

We know what’s happening IN Sihanoukville since the Chinese invasion of (mostly black) money and construction companies began three years ago:

They are building condo and apartment complexes, casinos, hotel resorts, shopping malls, recreation centers, roads, logistics facilities in a designated special economic zone and even a sea port expansion – seemingly all for themselves. They are bringing their own equipment and construction material, and their own workers. The city, Cambodia’s fourth largest with originally around 90,000 residents, is being taken over by Chinese.

In the last three years, more than 200 residential, commercial, and mixed-use development projects went up in different parts of Sihanoukville. And it’s far from over.

It’s not that Chinese investment would be per se bad for the formerly sleepy beach town preferred by local visitors, backpackers and expats tired of Thailand in the past. But this is not just investment – this looks like a neo-colonialist takeover, apparently approved by the central government in Phnom Penh.

In the recent past, droves of monied Chinese arrived and picked up prime landed in the city in opaque deals of which the local administration had no idea they had happened in some back rooms in the capital.

But these weren’t the usual land deals which would avail the locals by provide employment or new business opportunities for them – no, these were brutal deals involving evictions of apartment and land owners, forced shut downs of established local businesses either by order or through spiraling rents and the destruction of popular and Sihanoukville-typical downtown areas with restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as beach restaurants and other leisure spots.

Sihanoukville Square, once a large central area with eateries, watering holes and a popular beer garden, is currently being demolished as are formerly well-frequented pub venues. The beach area which used to be a nice walking spot with small, inviting local restaurants is now covered by a huge blue canvas to seal off what will be transformed in a luxury beach resort at a prime location.

Further down the beach, there are a few restaurants left, and – guess what – there are all patronised by Chinese. They serve Chinese food, and menus are no longer in English language, they are in Chinese and only occasionally in Khmer any longer.

Then there are dozens of casinos operating and more to be constructed, and almost all the money that is gambled away there is coming from China, often from elusive sources. The unimaginatively designed box-like buildings rise right beside each other along the beach road and on major streets across town, and – illuminated at night – make for a somehow destitute pseudo-Las Vegas feeling after dark.

Despite all the hustle and bustle of construction and urban transformation, it isn’t so that locals benefit much into the new era Sihanoukville is entering. In fact, there are little job opportunities for them but low-skilled service roles such as cleaner or security guard at casino hotels, construction helper or truck drivers.

When passing by the many constructing sites, Chinese language can be heard to be spoken by the workers. While it is understandable that Chinese companies make use of their own engineers and other skilled workers, they also bring their own ordinary construction labourers, casino personnel and other semi-skilled staff from China. They are followed by Chinese small businesses that open restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores with Chinese goods and other second-tier services for their compatriots, ousting locals from the food chain.

The locals also soon realised that the Chinese are a special breed. They seem to be totally careless or ignorant about the role they took on in this city. And they are not interested in interacting with Cambodians more than necessary, let alone eat their food, use their services or try to adopt some of their culture. The Chinese – and not only in Cambodia – clearly prefer to remain among themselves and are, by and large, disinterested about getting to know anyone or anything outside their familiar domains, which includes culture, economic networks and language.

Just a few Cambodians, mostly former land owners, hit the jackpot when they managed to sell some prime plots to Chinese developers. They make for the occasional, but still bizarre sight of a Ferrari and other luxury cars honking their way along the roads crowded by a mix of dirty construction lorries, tuk-tuk taxis and ramshackle vehicles.

That this makes the locals more than a bit unease is not surprising. Actually, many of Cambodian residents already left for the provinces or other towns because they lost their jobs and lodging become way too expensive.

Western expats also left in masses, according to Mark, an Australian who owns the Missing Monkey bar and steak house near the Golden Lions roundabout, one of the increasingly rare Western-owned places in Sihanoukville.

He’s never set foot in any of the Chinese casinos, despite more than a dozen being located in close vicinity to his restaurant.

“It’s us, and it’s them. There is no interaction,” he says, expressing concerns about the dwindling number of expat patrons at his formerly highly popular pub.

“Most of them have left to Kampot, They just couldn’t afford to live here anymore, of simply called it quits because of the chaos here,” he says.

Kampot, a small beach town some hundred kilometers east of Sihanoukvile, is seemingly emerging as a refuge for those fleeing the Chinese invasion. It’s also Mark’s probably last resort.

Only backpackers seem to be mostly untouched by the huge transformation that goes on around them.  There are some bars, night spots and hotels left between the roundabout and the ferry terminal on Serendipity Beach Road, and that’s where they hang around, but the action is muted. Mark says that it’s just a matter of time when the Chinese bulldozers will arrive there.

Who wants to escape the dust and chaos of Sihanoukville, takes a tuk-tuk for a 15-minute ride to Otres beach where the laid-back atmosphere is still unspoiled, but probably not for long because the yellow Chinese construction cranes are already visible in the distance, towering over construction sites that are meant to turn into sea view condominiums for Chinese investors.

This gives the delightful motto of Otres Corner Beach Bar, “Last hippie standing,” probably a whole new meaning.

All pictures  © Arno Maierbrugger

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Sihanoukville 2018: From beach resort town to a huge construction site © Arno Maierbrugger

Let’s call it nostalgia, or call it utter astonishment – but something is happening WITH Sihanoukville. Something irreversible.

Sihanoukville 2018: From beach resort town to a huge construction site © Arno Maierbrugger

Let’s call it nostalgia, or call it utter astonishment – but something is happening WITH Sihanoukville. Something irreversible.

We know what’s happening IN Sihanoukville since the Chinese invasion of (mostly black) money and construction companies began three years ago:

They are building condo and apartment complexes, casinos, hotel resorts, shopping malls, recreation centers, roads, logistics facilities in a designated special economic zone and even a sea port expansion – seemingly all for themselves. They are bringing their own equipment and construction material, and their own workers. The city, Cambodia’s fourth largest with originally around 90,000 residents, is being taken over by Chinese.

In the last three years, more than 200 residential, commercial, and mixed-use development projects went up in different parts of Sihanoukville. And it’s far from over.

It’s not that Chinese investment would be per se bad for the formerly sleepy beach town preferred by local visitors, backpackers and expats tired of Thailand in the past. But this is not just investment – this looks like a neo-colonialist takeover, apparently approved by the central government in Phnom Penh.

In the recent past, droves of monied Chinese arrived and picked up prime landed in the city in opaque deals of which the local administration had no idea they had happened in some back rooms in the capital.

But these weren’t the usual land deals which would avail the locals by provide employment or new business opportunities for them – no, these were brutal deals involving evictions of apartment and land owners, forced shut downs of established local businesses either by order or through spiraling rents and the destruction of popular and Sihanoukville-typical downtown areas with restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as beach restaurants and other leisure spots.

Sihanoukville Square, once a large central area with eateries, watering holes and a popular beer garden, is currently being demolished as are formerly well-frequented pub venues. The beach area which used to be a nice walking spot with small, inviting local restaurants is now covered by a huge blue canvas to seal off what will be transformed in a luxury beach resort at a prime location.

Further down the beach, there are a few restaurants left, and – guess what – there are all patronised by Chinese. They serve Chinese food, and menus are no longer in English language, they are in Chinese and only occasionally in Khmer any longer.

Then there are dozens of casinos operating and more to be constructed, and almost all the money that is gambled away there is coming from China, often from elusive sources. The unimaginatively designed box-like buildings rise right beside each other along the beach road and on major streets across town, and – illuminated at night – make for a somehow destitute pseudo-Las Vegas feeling after dark.

Despite all the hustle and bustle of construction and urban transformation, it isn’t so that locals benefit much into the new era Sihanoukville is entering. In fact, there are little job opportunities for them but low-skilled service roles such as cleaner or security guard at casino hotels, construction helper or truck drivers.

When passing by the many constructing sites, Chinese language can be heard to be spoken by the workers. While it is understandable that Chinese companies make use of their own engineers and other skilled workers, they also bring their own ordinary construction labourers, casino personnel and other semi-skilled staff from China. They are followed by Chinese small businesses that open restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores with Chinese goods and other second-tier services for their compatriots, ousting locals from the food chain.

The locals also soon realised that the Chinese are a special breed. They seem to be totally careless or ignorant about the role they took on in this city. And they are not interested in interacting with Cambodians more than necessary, let alone eat their food, use their services or try to adopt some of their culture. The Chinese – and not only in Cambodia – clearly prefer to remain among themselves and are, by and large, disinterested about getting to know anyone or anything outside their familiar domains, which includes culture, economic networks and language.

Just a few Cambodians, mostly former land owners, hit the jackpot when they managed to sell some prime plots to Chinese developers. They make for the occasional, but still bizarre sight of a Ferrari and other luxury cars honking their way along the roads crowded by a mix of dirty construction lorries, tuk-tuk taxis and ramshackle vehicles.

That this makes the locals more than a bit unease is not surprising. Actually, many of Cambodian residents already left for the provinces or other towns because they lost their jobs and lodging become way too expensive.

Western expats also left in masses, according to Mark, an Australian who owns the Missing Monkey bar and steak house near the Golden Lions roundabout, one of the increasingly rare Western-owned places in Sihanoukville.

He’s never set foot in any of the Chinese casinos, despite more than a dozen being located in close vicinity to his restaurant.

“It’s us, and it’s them. There is no interaction,” he says, expressing concerns about the dwindling number of expat patrons at his formerly highly popular pub.

“Most of them have left to Kampot, They just couldn’t afford to live here anymore, of simply called it quits because of the chaos here,” he says.

Kampot, a small beach town some hundred kilometers east of Sihanoukvile, is seemingly emerging as a refuge for those fleeing the Chinese invasion. It’s also Mark’s probably last resort.

Only backpackers seem to be mostly untouched by the huge transformation that goes on around them.  There are some bars, night spots and hotels left between the roundabout and the ferry terminal on Serendipity Beach Road, and that’s where they hang around, but the action is muted. Mark says that it’s just a matter of time when the Chinese bulldozers will arrive there.

Who wants to escape the dust and chaos of Sihanoukville, takes a tuk-tuk for a 15-minute ride to Otres beach where the laid-back atmosphere is still unspoiled, but probably not for long because the yellow Chinese construction cranes are already visible in the distance, towering over construction sites that are meant to turn into sea view condominiums for Chinese investors.

This gives the delightful motto of Otres Corner Beach Bar, “Last hippie standing,” probably a whole new meaning.

All pictures  © Arno Maierbrugger

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