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The Sublimation of Sihanoukville

Last month, Peter Lloyd wrote an interesting article for inpattayanow headed ‘Pattaya v Sihanoukville’. I have been visiting Sihanoukville (Cambodia) a couple of times a year for the past eight years and agree with everything Mr. Lloyd wrote. From my first trip, the beach-side city has been my Plan B should I reluctantly leave Thailand. However, Mr. Lloyd hit the nail on the head when he wrote that Sihanoukville “up until now, hasn’t really presented a viable living alternative to Pattaya … it always seems to be about to take off, but it never does.” I will take this opportunity simply to add some of my own thoughts on the relative merits of living in either Pattaya or Sihanoukville. On my last trip earlier this year, I too noticed “so much is changing that it is now possible to see Sihanoukville developing into a genuine alternative to Pattaya.” But under closer scrutiny, the changes seem to be the same as the changes now taking place in Pattaya. The element iodine sublimates; i.e. goes directly from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid state. In the same way, Sihanoukville has gone straight from being a tourist backwater for only hardened travellers to the luxury, package tourist Mecca we see evolving in Pattaya. It seems to have skipped the Pattaya ‘Fun Town’ liquid phase completely. As I see it, there are three problems with Sihanoukville and I’ll tackle these in no particular order. The first is that much of the development and luxury residences now underway have been paid for with Russian money. Yes, the Russians have invaded Sihanoukville in the same way they have invaded Pattaya. Russian investors with roubles to launder have bought up prime pieces of real estate with the purpose of turning Sihanoukville into a Southeast Asian Dacha for the nouveau riche of the former Soviet Republics.
Mr. Lloyd included in his article a photo of a new bridge built to an island off Victory Beach. That bridge was built with Russian money; the island is being developed by Russians into an exclusive 5-Star resort and even Victory Beach itself is now ‘owned’ by Russians. This is not a problem if you like Russians, but some people don’t appreciate one select group or nationality dominating what should be a multinational playground for all. The second problem is the southern coastline of Southeast Asia from Chantaburi in Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is the wettest part of Southeast Asia. The wet season builds up from April to the wettest month, which is October. During September and October, Sihanoukville can be very wet. A local told me one year it rained non-stop for six weeks straight; alternating between annoying drizzle and heavy downpour without any respite. During part of this time, Sihanoukville was cut off from the outside world because the highway to Phnom Penh was flooded and the boat to Koh Kong (no longer operating) could not travel in the high seas. The beautiful beaches were battered with high tides and storms while people just sat at home and waited. Business effectively came to a standstill. Mr. Lloyd commented on recent development: “There seems to be momentum to it as well, which may bring further rapid development as the city closes the credibility gap, and begins attracting long-term foreign residents and retirees who might otherwise have gone to Pattaya or Thailand.” This is true and brings me to the third problem involving Sihanoukville’s potential to attract foreign retirees. At present, the medical facilities in Sihanoukville can at best be described as ‘primitive’ and at worst, ‘non-existent’. Should a retiree suffer a heart attack or stroke, the current standard treatment is to send him to hospital in Phnom Penh by road; a trip of four hours. Alas, should the heart attack or stroke occur at the height of the monsoon, the retiree can only bend over and kiss his arse goodbye. In Pattaya we have excellent medical facilities where the chances of recovery from a heart attack or stroke are high. This, I believe, is a major reason more expats and retirees have not moved out of Pattaya to Cambodia. Perhaps plans are underway to build a modern hospital in Sihanoukville. If so, there is a good chance it will be financed with Russian money so it might be a good idea for potential Sihanoukville retirees to get hold of a Russian phrasebook.
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