For quite a long time Siem Reap, actually the Angkor complex more accurately, has remained Cambodia's tourism Mecca, an exotic annex from the old world that was lost for eons before its rediscovery by French explorers in 1860. The heady blend of medieval exoticism and modern hedonism, delivered via some of the country's best luxury hotels, firmly anchors the city as the country's top draw for international arrivals.
A sign declaring the inevitable
Enter the concept of Sihanoukville, the latter day manifestation of an obscured old sea port plagued by disrepair and neglect after years of turbulence within the region. Situated at the tip of the Gulf of Thailand and flanked by pristine beaches along its coastline, it is little wonder the space was earmarked for developments since the mid 50s. Stalled by macro mishaps within the country, the area remained neglected until a few years ago where massive investments began to pour in from China with an ambitious mandate to transform the sleepy peninsula into a premier resort town.
With all developments come costs and a ride through the city presents plenty. The unchecked optimism in growth, largely induced by the Chinese belt and road initiative, is the most worrying issue at hand. Beyond the wanton desire to build something monstrous, new and profitable, as all Chinese developments outside the mainland are wont to attempt, the burning question of the day is whether this dream is sustainable, taking a lesson off the comparatively more tempered ambitions of Thailand's tourism industry in the early 2000 that had resulted in buildings still standing derelict and abandoned in the heart of its capital today.
The view of Sihanoukville from out at sea
Forging ahead, the Chinese have obviously placed their bets on the allure of betting itself, with 3 dozens Chinese-run casinos currently in operation and another 70 on the way. The city is constantly shrouded in the deadly cloud of construction and its main road, the only road linking to Phenom Penh at present, is perpetually congested with lorries and trucks laden with construction materials and the cars and motorbikes of the locals trying to navigate through the entangled mess. The road has invariably become a death-trap with the outrageously reckless maneuvers of many drivers and accidents are dime a dozen on it.
And the mess extends from the road to the airport (hardly capable to handle the increasing arrivals) and far beyond.
Environmental degradation is and must be of top concern here. With the wanton building, much of the beautiful coastline have already been laid to waste. The lack of effective waste management to cater to such large scale developments will very likely incur tremendous damage to the environment, from air pollution, soil erosion to rubbish and trash getting washed out to sea. With the borders of the Ream National Park, comprising delicate mangrove ecologies and sensitive coral reef systems, mere hours away, this heavy encroachment on the environment is bound to exact a heavy toll.
A street scene driving through Sihanoukville
Increasingly pressing also, the influx of Chinese expats have already created many social issues in the city. Around 80,000 Chinese nationals now reside in Sihanoukville and the rising crime rate, from drunken brawls to organised mafia activities, stem largely from this community.
The boom of industries will naturally usher in benefits for some. Job opportunities will be plentiful for the locals and earnings will increase. But it is not likely that any of the super-profits raked in by these foreign operators will aid the community meaningfully in the long run. Cambodia remains largely underdeveloped and proper education, training and medical services remain mostly out of reach for its impoverished citizens.
Siem Reap has been up and running for decades now but its surrounding countryside remains mind-bogglingly poor and under-developed.
Understandably, the natural beauty of the region does make spectacular backdrop to some of Cambodia's best resorts. Here are 3 of Sihanoukville's top luxury addresses that are fortunately far from the maddening crowd.
Song Saa Private Island
Placidity reigns on Song Saa Private Island, one of Cambodia's top island resort
Launched 9 yeas ago on a serene island within the Koh Rong archipelago, Song Saa comes replete with a lively house reef (somewhat bleached unfortunately) and alluring tropical elements. Its spacious villas were all raised rustic yet luxurious, and its commitment to sustainable development is evident in the building style and materials, many fashioned out of shipwrecks and recycled planks. All these approaches do not diminish but in fact heighten the stylistic opulence of the resort. Wonderfully stocked minibars (a full wine fridge actually), a beautifully appointed over-water restaurant and a spa set in the heart of the island are just some delights well worth the horrid Sihanoukville traffic and hour-long boat ride to step foot here. An operation with heart, Song Saa Foundation also seeks to improve the livelihood of the islanders with initiatives for education, training and the environment for the locals of Koh Rong.
Bensley Collection - Shinta Mani Wild
Tented luxury is a strong suit of celebrity designer and aspiring hotelier Bill Bensley
Away from it all, Shinta Mani Wild is located halfway between Sihanoukville and Phenom Penh and can only be accessed after hours on the road and bumpy dirt tracks, and capped off by zipping down from the jungle's canopy on Asia's 2nd longest zip-line for the more adventure-inclined. The tents here are incredibly posh, with butler service and fully stocked bars on vast verandas set with whimsically embroidered armchairs and ornate tubs pointing towards a cascading river. The wilderness may be its top allure but after years of poaching and encroachment, the area needs more time and active protection before its primordial ecology can hope to be restored. This is the passionate undertaking of Mr Bensley and the professed manifesto of his luxe camp set on the crossroads of Eden and nowhere.
Alila Villas Koh Russey
Alila Villas Koh Russey faces a lovely beach on Bamboo Island
Whilst most of the room inventory of Alila Villas Koh Russey comprise of modestly sized pavilions, the villas here are the choice abodes, set facing the beach or with ocean view. There is a spot of corals around the jetty with good water clarity and there are also interesting experiences, like a bio-luminescence night trip that will tempt marine enthusiasts into wading waist deep in pitch dark waters near a remote island. Massages, cuisine and the relaxing island ambience sum up the attractions of this Alila property raised not too far from the mainland.