As infrastructure improves, Cambodia’s coastal hub is growing up. Five years after AsiaLIFE first investigated Sihanoukville’s development, Ellie Dyer returns to the town and its outlying islands to meet some of the tourist industry’s key players. She discovers a multitude of changes taking place in and around the Kingdom’s most famous beach resort.
“Is it true there’s a full moon party here tonight?” whispers an excited backpacker on the busy two-hour ferry ride from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong island. “It’s paradise,” declares another youth, who has spent months working on the island as a bartender in exchange for free lodging, food and drink.
Upon landing on the central jetty near Koh Touch village, a backpacker arcadia awaits. Bronzed Europeans laze on papasan chairs, splashing in the sea and playing leisurely games of beach volleyball before retiring to one of the many foreign-owned restaurants, bars and guesthouses that have popped up beside the island’s crystal clear waters over successive seasons.
Given the beach community boasted a solitary guesthouse in 2009, and just two more the following year, the influx of party-seeking foreign youths to the small fishing village represents somewhat of a budget traveller gold rush. But it also hints at the bigger picture — that the sands of Sihanoukville’s tourist industry are shifting.
From its early days as a sleepy coastal town, to its rise as a backpacker haven and today’s bustling shipping and tourist hub, Sihanoukville and its long sandy beaches have long been some of the greatest hopes for Cambodia’s tourist industry.
Yet its development has been far from a simple success story. The area has been dogged by bad press over the years and, at times, a seedy reputation. But spend time talking with the business owners of today and you’ll find a community united in the belief that change, for the better, is underway.
“Sihanoukville is like a teenager. It’s still very much in its formative years,” says hotelier Douglas McColl, a key member of the town’s newly formed Sihanoukville Tourism Association (STA), which represents around 40 individuals and foreign- and locally-owned businesses.
“And, okay, like any teenager it has its oops-es, but by and large it’s growing and getting stronger… Infrastructure is getting better, along with the standard of hotels,” he adds, while sitting down with AsiaLIFE in the dining area of Coolabah Hotel, near Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach.
In recent years, major transportation developments have had an impact on the city — most notably the long-awaited introduction of daily Cambodia Angkor Air flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, linking the popular temple hub directly with the coastal town.
In turn, locals are reporting increasing numbers of families visiting the area and a rise in hotels, including mid-range accommodation. Electricity has become more dependable, according to McColl, and the key throughfare of Serendipity Beach Road has improved. The area is also noticeably cleaner, thanks in part to the developing sense of community among its businesses.
An early morning walk along Ochheuteal Beach reveals why. For the last six months, STA has been funding a beach clearing team who scour the area six days a week, collecting up to 60 bags of rubbish each time, much of which washes in from the sea. The group is now installing permanent green bins across the seafront.
“Sihanoukville’s all about the beach and without that we have nothing. I think it’s so important that there are business owners, so many places around here, that care about the community,” says Georgie Bradford, co-owner of bar and guesthouse Monkey Republic. “People are taking massive, massive steps, at personal cost to themselves and their time, just to try and improve things, thereby preserving the essence of Sihanoukville.”
But intertwined with a cosmetic face-lift and infrastructural improvement lies
another major shift: the spread of the backpacker market. Budget travellers are now venturing out from the town to the outlying sands of Otres Beach and, increasingly, the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem.
“During the last rainy season was when everything started changing a lot,” explains Paddy Robinson of Koh Rong bungalow resort Monkey Island, which in 2010 became one of the first hostels to open on the stretch of sand near Koh Touch village.
“It’s now got to the point I’ve lost count of how many businesses there are,” adds the British businessman, who has seen former customers and staff set out on their own in the coastal hamlet.
Today, cheap guesthouses run side-by-side with foreign-run bungalows and busy bars, which pump out dance music to cater for their fun-loving clientele, some of whom can be spotted looking decidedly worse for wear by morning.
The area may not be to every visitor’s taste, but business is undoubtedly booming. The sound of construction work rings out across the village as small food stalls conduct a roaring trade in smoothies and snacks. There’s even talk of the launch of a new catamaran running on the Sihanoukville to Koh Rong ferry route — a development that would dramatically cut travel time to the isle’s shores.
Some travellers may mourn a paradise lost — Koh Rong at one stage seemed akin to the island described in Alex Garland’s The Beach — but business owners point out that change is bringing a welcome new revenue stream to a local community that previously relied on fishing.
“At the moment everyone’s bellies are full and they are enjoying it,” states Robinson, who says that the area had been overfished. “Tourism is one of Cambodia’s main businesses… it’s important that it develops in a way that protects its interests, doesn’t destroy what its got and the wealth trickles down.”
And though he admits that the stretch is “still a bit rough and ready,” the impact of rapid economic growth on the island’s community and environment is being considered.
In a positive sign for the future, volunteer group The Friends of Koh Rong is maintaining upkeep of the village’s school building. The Cambodian Conservation Centre, founded in 2012 by Cambodian PADI instructor Pierre Kann, is also proposing the introduction of a wide-ranging marine conservation programme.
Measures including daily reef clean-ups, the construction of coral nurseries, the recruitment of marine protection rangers — initially based in Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem — to monitor protected areas and reef health, and a marine protection scholarship enabling local young adults to train as dive-masters are set to launch later this month.
The government has granted Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group a 99-year lease on Koh Rong, and international investors and partners are being sought to contribute to its development — with plans afoot to build high-end resorts and residences along with an international airport, golf courses and a marina.
Royal Group says initial consultations have been conducted with chiefs and village leaders, and road building to link up main villages and transit points is underway, weather permitting.
The over-arching development plan is made up of five stages, with each consisting of a five-year cycle of work, though officials warn that timeframes will be dependent on supply and demand. “Should demand increase we will expedite the development, likewise should demand slow development will correspond,” says Royal Group spokesperson Ray Yager.
Only time will tell what such dramatic development would mean for Koh Rong’s backpacker community, but Royal Group says it “sees an opportunity for the villagers and the guest houses to co-exist” and emphasises the importance of providing the local community with “the opportunity for employment, skills training and improvement of their livelihoods.”
As Royal Group aims for a higher-end market, the potential for top-end eco-conscious tourism to take off on Cambodia’s coastline is demonstrated just 30 minutes from the backpacker community of Koh Touch, at its polar opposite — the luxury Song Saa Private Island Resort.
Initially opened in late 2011 on the twin islands of Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, the resort’s stunning design and top-class facilities, including private pools in guest rooms and its own time zone set an hour forward of the mainland, are attracting well-heeled travellers to its shores.
The development has put environmental concerns to the fore. Since 2006, it has maintained a 50,000-square-metre marine protection zone closed to fishing, and created a number of artificial reefs on the north-eastern side of Koh Rong. Bottom trawling is prevented in a larger 500,000-square-metre extended marine zone, which operates under rules of the communities fishing group of nearby Prek Svay village.
The Song Saa Foundation, a non-profit organisation established by the resort, is also engaged in two programmes centred on mangrove and tropical evergreen forest education and restoration. A youth education initiative allows local children to participate in the project as a learning exercise.
“We see the Song Saa approach, both the resort and the foundation, as offering a template that can inspire others and help to ensure a sustainable future for Cambodia’s precious coasts,” says Wayne McCallum, the executive director of the foundation, which is set to co-host a symposium next September to discuss the challenges facing Cambodia’s islands.
“What’s needed is a sound regulatory framework to be put in place to guide development along a positive path, ensuring long-term sustainability for business, the environment and the local communities,” adds Song Saa chairman Rory Hunter.
Work to be Done
The future of development in Sihanoukville and on its islands has yet to be realised, but all parties agree that there are still challenges to be met in the coastal region.
Real estate professional Simon Griffiths, of CBRE Cambodia, observes that land prices along the coast generally remain flat — though they are creeping upwards in Ochheuteal — and while Cambodia is “witnessing the winds of change in Sihanoukville” it is not yet a typhoon.
“The airport is of vital importance. It holds the key in some respects. However, there needs to be resorts, leisure and entertainment facilities available to tourists, otherwise flights will be empty,” he writes, highlighting the Sun and Moon Gulf resort area, about 15 minutes from the airport towards Ream, as a potential bright spot along a coastline that has “a huge amount of promise.”
Despite improvements in power supply, infrastructure concerns also remain. Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke out in April about water shortages in the city that left locals without running water for almost a week, the Cambodia Daily reported, though McColl says it has improved.
Griffiths also highlights the poor safety record of National Road 4, a major tourist artery into the town, while McColl believes that addressing petty crime is key.
Increasing development also brings new pressures on society. Non-profit organisation M’lop Tapang, which runs the training restaurant Sandan near Serendipity Beach Road and works with around 3,500 young people and their families in the area, has seen a shift.
Maggie Eno, one of its founders, says that while Sihanoukville was a destination for child sex tourism a decade ago, it is an issue of the past. The pressures of 2013 include land evictions and increasing economic migration, with poorer Cambodian families moving to the area for job opportunities. Some end up living on the streets and unable to return home.
“There’s more children coming to the streets every week… and it’s going to get worse, clearly, because we’re developing islands. Everyone goes to Sihanoukville to get to the islands,” she says, explaining that M’lop Tapang has a street-based outreach team.
The organisation also sees drug use as a rising problem in the youth community.
“There’s a lot of positives, and we’re really happy Cambodia is developing, but it is in our mandate — behind all that development — to be helping shape the services of all the fallout,” says Eno.
And of course, there’s an issue that McCallum describes as “the elephant in the room,” the spectre of climate change.
“We do not know what the effects of this will be, but we know there will be change and at a scale hitherto unknown for Cambodia’s coast, at least in human memory,” he says. “This means ensuring that any strategies, plans or developments help to nurture and build resilience into the economy, community and environment of the region.”
Yet whatever the next decade brings, what is certain is that Cambodia is currently home to an area of great natural beauty. A boat ride around the waters of Koh Rong reveals huge areas of untouched land and forest — an increasing rarity in Southeast Asia — with mile after mile of empty sands and not a person in sight.
Meanwhile Sihanoukville has been accepted into a club that celebrates the world’s most beautiful bays. During the club’s general assembly in 2011, Cambodian Tourism Minster Thong Khon reportedly stressed the country’s commitment to protecting its natural resources as one of its priorities of socio-economic, trade and tourism development.
And in the thriving island communities and towns of the south coast, the sense of expectation is great, as are the financial opportunities. But with such potential comes responsibility, and the realisation that now may be the time to work together to ensure the preservation of the coast’s environment, alongside its inevitable development.
A Phoenix From the Ashes
The co-owners of Monkey Republic were on a trip to Koh Rong when they got the call. Fire had broken out at the legendary Sihanoukville backpacker venue during the height of the 2013 hot season, and was ripping through its beach bar-style complex.
The team returned to land to see flames spreading through Beach Road, reducing Monkey Republic, a business established in 2005, to ash. “It was razed to the ground,” recalls co-owner Georgie Bradford. “It was such a big, emotional thing for something you’re so connected with, to have it all gone. There was a lot of heartache and a lot of tears.”
But although down, the Monkey team were not defeated. Just six months later, a yellow two-storey colonial-style building has risen from the ashes, with budget backpacker accommodation built behind. Opened at the end of October, the venue is set to raise the bar for the town’s budget traveller scene, thanks to its stylish and modern interior.
“We are all very proud,” says Bradford. “It’s a part of all of us who were involved. Everything we’ve got is going into this place, and hopefully it will be even better than before.”
Calling the venue “different and exciting”, the re-launched Monkey aims to create the same fun and relaxed atmosphere of yesteryear, but with facilities that match the expectations of modern tourists.
“The way Cambodia is, it’s always going to be appealing to backpackers, and there will always be a market for them here,” she says. “Yes they are on a budget, but that doesn’t mean they can’t drink and eat in a super, awesome cool place, and have a fun time.”
For more information, visit the Monkey Republic Sihanoukville Facebook page.