Tales from the Southside
by Will Capel
[Tales from the Southside is published on this website on the 8th day of each month.]
New Government, Sihanoukville Style
It has been announced that the two principal parties have signed an agreement on a new government that, hopefully, will be in place when this gets posted. This is a good thing, regardless of who got what positions or how bloated the new Royal Government is. I’ll let Gordon and others pontificate on the implications.
What is interesting to me is that since the elections on July 27, 2003, the number of infrastructural improvements in Sihanoukville seems to have skyrocketed – major and minor thoroughfares have been repaved, potholes that normally would have taken months to repair are now being patched in days, the new (hypothetical) back road to the new (not so hypothetical) market is shaping up quite well. Road barriers on the Golden Lions stretch of Ekareach and near the Borey Kamakor intersection with route 4 are not perfect but a good start on keeping the three-abreast weekend Landcruiser posses in line, and the number of power cuts seems to have diminished, along with an improved, consistent water supply.
Was the money for these projects allocated before the elections? Most likely. In the mind of this expatriate, however, it does create a strong argument for keeping things as they have been – not to mention that when the elections were held, all three major parties played similar vote-purchasing games and one party clearly received a majority of ballots. At the end of the day, the Royal Government exists so that farmers can get their product to market, not for trail bike riding expats who want to get the most air over some dilapidated bridge. On our last bike trip, I came off pretty hard outside the Kompong Cham rubber plantations and for two weeks I was an even bigger fan of road improvements than normal.
Regardless, as I wrote around the time of last year’s elections, I’m a guest here, and pretty happy to be a guest, and if the Kingdom of Cambodia decides that something should be done a certain way, then I have precious little to argue with, particularly concerning my homeland’s track record with the 2000 presidential elections. Bring on the new government.
But Wait ...
Those in the know, ranging from Vann Molyvann, the fella who laid out Sihanoukville back in the day, to my buddy Lindsey who is editing a water table report as a sideline from English teaching, all claim that given current growth in the city of Sihanoukville there is a definite ticking time bomb for the water supply here. The current source is from a small reservoir / fresh water estuary in the shadow of the Independence Hotel, from where water is pumped to the top of Sihanoukville Mountain where a spankin’ refurbished treatment facility (allegedly, but I’m not going to argue with Grant the water board advisor) is churning potable water through to the town. Longer term residents know that at the end of the dry season the city mains turn off for longer and longer each year, perhaps exacerbated by longer term residents consistently filling their tanks as a hedge against shortages.
The solution? Yep, there is one, and painfully simple – the Kbal Chhay watershed, the waterfall on the outskirts of town that eventually feeds the Ream estuary – plenty of fresh water on hand there to supply a city that may double in size in the next ten years. Problem with solution? The usual hassles with private landholders and a government unable to sacrifice individual barons for the sake of one of Cambodia’s bright growth spots. To be continued ...
Took a field trip down to Biba the other weekend for an evening of karaoke with friends and on the ride through Phum Thmei the changes are pretty amazing – most of the first section of brothels has been completely cleared out, and the access road to the port has been widened to a proper four-lane highway, the first of its kind in Sihanoukville. The more important question, however, on the minds of several residents is where will the chicken farm move once the port takes over that whole area? Hey – its the rainy season, we don’t have much to talk about at night.
Current speculation seems to be divided between two areas : Omui Street is the new location of local institution Rose’s Massage, about a kilometer or so past the new market. It is generally assumed they have their ear to the ground about these things and got in early.
The dark horse candidate, however is on the bending road that plays host to 333 karaoke parlour leading down to the swamp by the Golden Lions. While this doesn’t make much sense, this row of karaoke houses seems to have taken off recently. Your guess is as good as mine.
For those of you concerned about the prurient nature of this piece, look at it another way : I had the (mis)fortune of studying urban planning at university, and it is of interest – where do you locate a classic not-in-my-backyard industrial zone? The original town plans for Sihanoukville, as far as I can tell, never incorporated a redlight district but two certainly sprouted up; one on the outskirts of the planned civic center of town (Phum Thmei, now being relocated) and one on the outskirts of the commercial center (Phnom Khieu). It also bodes for the direction development will take; one can only assume that a redlight area will be located on land of secondary value for investment, and currently it seems like the massive gold rush on plots everywhere in the city will continue for the foreseeable future.
A similar, although perhaps less harsh, dilemma exists with budget tourists in Sihanoukville. The two main areas are on Weather Station Hill, perched above Victory Beach, which started as a budget mecca over ten years ago when McMealy Chenda and Sam’s opened in the area. Still, the number of prime locations on that triangle are now few, with the remaining Khmer houses being fixed up presumably to house guesthouses and restaurants. The secondary locations are quite attractive, but hindered by the location of the port and perceived dirtiness of the beach, not to mention that Serendipity and Ocheuteal continue to sprout guesthouses in all price ranges and have better access to prime beaches.
The Ocheuteal and Serendipity spreads have begun to expand towards the Golden Lions roundabout, to the point where the road linking Serendipity to the Golden Lions has had most plots spoken for, with a flurry of construction either started or planned. Competition for guests has gotten fierce, with some guesthouses offering up to $2.50 upon arrival and $1 a day to moto drivers who deliver customers. Still, the number of bars and restaurants in the region (uh, not to mention bookshops, since I just relocated down there) continues to increase in quantity and quality. The Golden Lions area will look drastically different in six months time; perhaps this will be the greatest hindrance to relocating the redlight area to 333 road. Although, hookers and backpackers in close proximity would certainly be interesting ...
This should probably go in as an update on the ‘where do I eat’ section for the Sihanoukville guide, but two new restaurants deserve a mention regardless. Ku Kai (I’m spelling it wrong, I know I am, but I’m writing on the opposite side of town currently, and I’m not going to hop on my bike to check, call me lazy, well, leave that to Gordon, but anyway ...) is run by a young Japanese couple who have set up shop almost directly across from McMealy Chenda on Weather Station Hill.
An aside. As a fresh-faced backpacker, I landed in Bali during Ramadan and expected to chill out for a few days waiting for the (assumed) full ferries to sort themselves out before I could head over to the (assumed) less trammeled pastures of Lombok and Flores. 45 days, a couple of mad Dutch and their cousin Paul, Leonard the Swede, and Harriet from Alice Springs later, I found myself in Ubud, a Japanese restaurant in a tourist mecca, and listening to Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly” repeatedly while stuffing myself with cut-rate sashimi ... while surrounded by Japanese tourists doing the same thing. Harriet, who was killing me softly in her own way, and I repeatedly gorged ourselves for under US$10 a piece.
Another aside. Yes, and it is leading somewhere. I don’t particularly care for Phnom Penh, in much the same way that expats throughout Cambodia don’t particularly fancy Sihanoukville. Nice place to visit and get in the necessities, but as far as long visits or residency goes, forget about it. I like beaches, I like moderate weather, I like having a chat with the woman at the supermarket instead of being just another white face. Don’t get me wrong, I just went to Phnom Penh last night for the second anniversary of Talkin’ to a Stranger bar and saw a load of my favorite people and indulged in divine cocktails – but, again, necessity. And one necessity that Phnom Penh previously provided is now taken care of down on the coast, quality Japanese food.
Dirt cheap! Rotating market-based sashimi at $1 a plate, mains around $2, miso soup at 35 cents, green tea around 20 cents, and cans of Asahi around 65 cents, all frighteningly good. Lovely management, lovely food, and cheap lager. What more do you want? Get there before they come to their senses and raise prices.
The other new contestant is around the corner on Weather Station Hill, Miam-Miam. Lousy name, but the pedigree of management doesn’t come better – the La Poillete lads, probably the finest chefs this side of the luxury hotels in Phnom Penh, decided to open up a fast food outlet. While the burgers aren’t the best (try Bar Ru’s bacon and onion cheeseburger) they are a buck, chicken chwaramas are a buck, and the Tunisian spring rolls are 50 cents. Rumor abounds on why they’re doing everything for so cheap, ‘cuz there’s no way they can make a profit at those prices.
Ok, I’m writing this from my laptop over a cellphone connection, which means I can’t call up Gordon’s latest column very easily, so the following comes from memory based on an internet cafe visit yesterday to read his most recent missive. And I’m not interested in or trying to get in a press-based argument with him about development in Phnom Penh – neither of us live there, first and foremost, and second, for those of you who read the Phnom Penh Post, I’ve had my fill of letter wars. And obviously, I hold Gordon in much higher esteem than a bunch of Kiwi fraudsters masquerading as a child protection organization. Where am I going with this? Oh yes ...
Regarding Canadia Bank’s proposed “skyscraper” along Monivong Boulevard, I think it is a lousy idea for a number of reasons.
I haven’t visited every colonial city throughout the world, but ultimately, from what I have seen, read, and studied, Phnom Penh still retains a quintessential urbanity that is pretty goddamn unique on the planet. Again, I can’t imagine living there – see the above about beaches and personal contact – but it hit me one day while wandering south along Sothearos Boulevard past the Royal Palace. Right before you hit Street 240, there is a split second, a mere half footstep really, where the dominant features change from the Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Assembly Building (Nation, Religion, and King) to the sliver of verdance that is the park framing the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, a park that has had a slippery history but still remains one of the few green spaces in the city. It is one of the most stunning half-steps I’ve walked, and I’ve incorporated it into walking tours I give to visiting friends and acquaintances.
Given the exponential increase in motorized traffic that Phnom Penh has witnessed in the previous decade, as a city, as a traffic pattern, it has held up extremely well based on the low-laying spread that was designed in the early days of the French protectorate. It is well and good to hold court with the jaded expats on the riverfront talking about the good old days, and goodness knows I’ve participated in a few of those sessions myself, but all the same, Phnom Penh was designed as a compact city of two to five story shophouses and apartment buildings, with the expected traffic that those structures will provide. There is no designated commercial center; the closest thing to ground zero is the roundabout of Wat Phnom and the increased avenue width of Sisowath Quay and Sothearos Boulevard, or Confederation de la Russie Boulevard near the decentralized administrative centers. To the chagrin of most Phnom Penh-based expats, there is no one place to go shopping; we all know that certain things are to be purchased at Psah Thmei, others Psah O’Russei, and there is always the Russian Market and various smaller wet markets spread evenly throughout the city.
Yet, we have all been stuck in what pass for traffic jams on Monivong Boulevard around the intersections with Charles De Gaulle Blvd and Pochentong Road, and I know I’ve done my fair share of moaning as well as listening to others.
And I am forced to look at the situation around the new Soriya complex on Street 63 south of Psah Thmei. Great mall, love the food court, love the bootleg cd shops, love the burger joint, but trying to get in and out is a constant headache.
Now, imagine a 20+ story building on an already congested thoroughfare on one of the busiest intersections in town. Picture the five to seven rush hour when all of the workers, with their Landcruisers to Chalys, try to crowd the streets. Many of the champions of free enterprise and development might think twice when they have to wait 15 minutes to make a left-hand turn to pick up their evening shopping at the Bayon Supermarket.
The most important reason why Phnom Penh works as a city is the tenacity and genius of the residents, Khmer, Chinese, Vietnamese, and western. It is a remarkable example of 1,000,000 people overcoming just about every adverse twist in history to create an amazing, vibrant, cosmopolitan urban center. Full stop. I would argue, however, that the secondary but crucial element of Phnom Penh’s functionality is its essentially decentralized nature which allows for a series of neighborhoods to function as a small-scale metropolis; there are all the benefits of a big city while retaining a neighborhood feel. Much like ... and I expect the anti-French crowd to pile in the hate ... Paris. There’s one skyscraper in central Paris. It is hideous. The French came to their senses and preserved their inner city while building a new commercial district on the outskirts.
I think Phnom Penh, which is arguably the Paris of this region, should follow the same path. It is a beautiful city, absolutely gorgeous; what others dismiss as mid-20th century claptrap villas I see as a fantastic meld of modernist European design with a distinctly Khmer outlook; I can’t look at the municipal buildings on the road out to Pochentong and not see a new nation coming to terms with modernity and its own millennia-old architectural tradition ... how do you reconcile cement with stilt-houses? For some reason or another, Cambodia has found a way to do so with beauty.
I am all in favor of the Kingdom of Cambodia presenting itself on the world stage, building upwards as its neighbors have done. No argument there. One of the benefits of Cambodia’s recent history, if it can be called a benefit, is that Phnom Penh has been spared the horrific sprawl that has engulfed other urban centers of the region until now – there is plenty of land available within a short commute that would support skyscrapers as well as the decentralized urban center which, in my opinion, is a remarkable meld of traditional Khmer, Chinese, French Colonial, and Khmer Modern. Toul Kok comes to mind, as does the area around Toul Sleng and the circuit of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard – all excellent locations with better traffic circulation that would continue the tradition of a decentralized, functional Phnom Penh. Central Phnom Penh is beautiful, absolutely stunning, and not in a strictly French Colonial way, to be cherished and protected.
End of rant.
To those who wrote in about Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge, the publisher is Yale University Press, based in New Haven and London. Their website is www.yalebooks.com. While it is easy to get caught up in intellectual piracy and Southeast Asia and not paying more than $5 for something, I would highly recommend paying full freight for this book.
The strike at Raffles Le Royal and Grand Hotel d’Angkor continues. The awareness spreads. And on my last visit to Phnom Penh, the security at the gates seemed almost fascist. These workers are standing up for what is rightfully theirs, and I continue to encourage and support a boycott of any and all Raffles properties until management comes to their senses and gives the best damn staff in the Kingdom of Cambodia a fair shake and their due.
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The text appearing on this page is © 2003 - 2004 estate of Will Capel. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder(s) is prohibited.