En route to Sihanoukville, a small yet important economical thoroughfare located on the tip of an elevated peninsula in Cambodia’s Southwest, it instantly becomes apparent the third world status given to the country.
Driving about 20km out of the city centre of Phnom Penh, the landscape becomes very rural, very quickly. The sight of young children running naked along the road amidst mounds of varied rubbish is very common. The National Highway is considered the countries most important, providing the link to the only international sea-port.
Arriving in the city at dusk the glow of casino lights fill the sky and the sheer number is astonishing – considering under Cambodian law it is illegal for Cambodians to gamble in their own country.
Some later research and a few questions to some in the know locals, I learn the casinos are mostly used by outlaw gangs for money laundering, illegal drugs and firearm profits.
Reports have also been circulating that the local Australian bikie group the Rebel’s are looking into establishing or purchasing their own casino. The gang has already set up a local chapter in the region and currently operate a bar with the Thailand based gang The Lone Brothers MC.
The city, or more appropriately, the town of Sihanoukville is definitely not winning any beauty awards, with most of the buildings quite dilapidated and the streets cracked. There is however a lovely centre monument located in the middle of the central roundabout that gives some structure to the otherwise disjointed streetscape.
The beaches themselves are not the whitest sand, nor the bluest water – but are more than clean and nice enough to waste a few days drinking the 50c draught beers.
This is where you meet what I would call the typical arrived one day and found themselves still at the bar 10 years later sort of expat. Mostly older and with a young local girl in tow, having a beer and chat reveals a lot of depression and personal issues that come with the lifestyle.
During my week stay in the town and in-between the islands I did not feel personally unsafe. However it must be noted that Sihanoukville is considered the crime capital of Cambodia.
Despite a well-publicised crackdown and the introduction of a new police chief last year, foreign tourists and resident expats have reported an increase in assaults of all forms.
The story of a 22-year old Australian woman being raped by two local bar employees whilst staying at the prominent backpacker hostel, Monkey Republic, should give warning to all tourists.
The impetus for writing such grim and sinister tales of Sihanoukville is not to scare people from visiting. It is to ensure people are aware of the serious underbelly of the town and to take appropriate precautions when partying in the area.
Next Stop: Koh Rong