Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Schrödinger's town

"Not your beach. Nyuh-uh."
The first person I met who had been to Sihanoukville was a Canadian traveller in Laos.

“I had heard there was still a place where you could get a $1 lobster meal in Asia,” said my new friend from Whistler. “And I finally found it.

“I was drinking a beer and a seller came up to me on the beach with a tray of lobsters. Two for a buck. I ate my fill.”

Sihanoukville is still mostly off the tourist radar. And it's hard to figure out why. We only came across it as the jumping off point to some offshore Cambodian islands. When my son balked at going to a place with no running water, I got to spend a few extra days with him in town.

Built on a series of hills on the edge of the ocean, this place has the makings of paradise. Long, white, sandy beaches; beautiful vistas and sea breezes cooling you off at night; and cheap, cheap, restaurants and bars.

We first arrived in town after a brutally long bus ride. A short tuk-tuk ride up one hill, and down another, brought us to a wide dirt road ending at the seashore, and our accommodation. I check us in to the sound of pounding surf at the hotel's edge.

But the night hides a multitude of sins. The next morning gives a very different first impression as you wander in town, the early sun already biting at your neck.

The wide dirt path that seemed quaint in moonlight becomes a post-apocalyptic scene of rubble and burning piles of construction waste; shanty stores crowd each other for curb space all the way up the hill. Overnight the tide has spewed up plastic cups, grocery bags, and even an orange file organizer onto shore. You can see other detritus in the surf just below the surface, waiting for landing.

But context is everything, as they say. And that's especially true in Sihanoukville. You have to give the town a second chance.

You learn the road outside the hotel door is just a few months old; it will be eventually paved and cleared. It really is under construction, and in no worse condition then a road project back home. And the hotels and bars clean the beaches daily, picking up the trash and leaving it pretty reasonable to swim in the area.... at least no worse then Koh Lipe, our first stop on this trip.

A dozen years ago, our hotel manager tells us, there were no tuk-tuks in Sihanoukville, no plastic plates. It was a sleepy, authentic, forgotten port town on the southern coast of Cambodia. And if you think the garbage is bad now, she says, you should have seen it a few years ago. “It's 75% better than it was,” she estimates. I shudder to think.

You get the feel Sihanoukville is between states now. Between sleepy town and exclusive destination, between working class port and tourism whore, between great opportunity and deep injustice. A Schrödinger's cat of a place.

Shanty towns butt up against $200 night resorts. People wash in stagnant ponds by the roadside, while the governor closes off swaths of beach for investors. My tuk-tuk guide one day tells me how an old fishing village was cleared out for a resort, only to see the project founder halfway through for lack of financing. It's still closed, the villagers scattered.

A bridge to somewhere, eventually.
Construction sites loom everywhere in town. And profit is king in the 'Kingdom of Wonder'. Development lurches, in fits and starts, leaving gaps in the economy and social fabric.

On one beach (there are at least half a dozen amazing stretches of sand around town) dozens of restaurants and beach bars are about to be cleared away for a private development. In another location, Russian investors have been sold a 99-year lease on an island. They are building a massive bridge for access to their resort.

Around the point from there, a 100-room hotel complex sits empty and baking, a lone security guard keeping watch at the gate.

As the sun sets on our last day there, I take a swim in the ocean, play a little in the surf. There's no garbage to be seen. Kids play football on the beach with a young tourist, the bars spread their tables and chairs on the sand for the evening crowds to come. It's another sunset on Serendipity Beach and I think about the town's future.

Cambodia is desperately poor. Is the governor selling off beach access to get jobs for his people, or to line his pockets? Both, presumably. Maybe the chance of jobs will keep children off the beach, away from predators- or maybe it will just put the practice behind a wall and gate. Maybe the resorts, the investors, will demand better stewardship of the land and water. Maybe the resorts will build proper sewage systems, the town get enough taxes from them to keep the streets and air clean.

Maybe people will get fed up and demand fair treatment and property rights.

As I wade out of the surf a Khmer lady walks by, a tray of lobster tails balanced on her head. I watch her pad away down the beach.

Sihanoukville is heading somewhere; you might want to visit before she arrives.

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