If the Cambodian judiciary were as rabid as Thailand’s about enforcing lèse majesté laws, just about every Westerner on Ochheuteal Beach would be rounded up with cattle prods and shipped off to Prey Sar as living, breathing affronts to the town bearing the King Father’s name.
Back during the French Protectorate, colonial officers and functionaries, burnt out from the duties of empire, retreated down to Kep and Kampot for a weekend respite. Both of these places retain their bucolic legacy – remnants of the elegant mix of colonial and post-independence architecture, agricultural and fishing traditions, quiet after dark serenity.
That they retain this character largely because Ochheuteal acts as a stronger magnet for the type of backpacker who treats a Southeast Asian jaunt as a perpetual journey from beach to beach, sunning themselves on the sands by day and fortifying themselves for an evening of debauchery at the imminent full moon party, new moon party, or one-sixteenth moon party that night.
Ochheuteal is why the rest of Sihanoukville is unfairly tarnished as the creeping Pattaya of Cambodia. Built virtually from scratch after independence as a deep water port, the city’s construction followed the same urban planning principles being put into practice in the capital by an entire generation of innovative bureaucrats and architects.
The rows of buildings are rendered in quintessentially Cambodian style, the town’s main boulevards are wide and ambling to accommodate the port traffic, and a giant monument of two golden lions, constructed in the mid-nineties, sits in a traffic circle – the male’s prominently exposed bollocks no doubt included by their sculptor as a symbol of a resurgent nation’s newfound vitality.
Walking down towards the beach terminus of Serendipity Road, the northern entrance to Ochheuteal, the visitor can perceive the sudden recession of what occasional grandeur Sihanoukville does possess.
At the top of the incline, in the morning, French cafés serve croissants and coffees to groups of inert tourists, without exception clad in knockoff Ray-Bans and propping up their foreheads with their hands, lest they all pass out in unison and knock out their two front teeth on the table.
At the road’s end, in the evening, sheets of paper with drink specials to some of the beachfront bars are handed out by a clutch of fresh-faced westerners who, if they were hanging out at a train station back in their home countries, would be asked by the local constabulary why they were skiving off school for the day.
The bars themselves are a non-descript crescent of open air concrete, wood and thatch; almost without exception they all have the same interior and the same drinks menu. The only thing that distinguishes them is the music, each bar seemingly picking a playlist at random and blasting it at full volume day and night to drown out the similarly overheating stereo speakers from the adjoining venues.
Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing will be succeeded by the latest Skrillex Macbook monstrosity without either staff or patrons batting an eyelid; standing in the sea it’s possible to hear, say, The Stone Roses’ timeless, maudlin classic I Wanna Be Adored in an uneasy symbiosis with the three different electro-beat tracks coming from opposing corners like one of Girl Talk’s aneurysm-inducing “mashup” plagiarisms.
In Phnom Penh, child touts at least offer potential customers books. At Ochheuteal they sell fireworks, five for four dollars to the uninitiated, which are stuck into the sand and fired at the gulf like a bacchanalian 21 gun salute.
One of the bars on the northern end, owned and mostly operated by Westerners, stays open until dawn for whatever drunken revellers have the fortitude to make an entire night of it and blanketing the surrounding guesthouses in a cacophony of house music and hoodlum shouts.
Those that pass out on the bar’s beachside furniture are sometimes gently shaken awake and offered cocaine by fellow travellers. This is what passes for a benevolent gesture at Ochheuteal.
Living in Phnom Penh, an environment where even in the best neighbourhoods the poverty is perceptible, it’s nonetheless an inevitability that expats will begin to forget about the disparity between their opportunities and those of the people whose country they have embedded themselves in.
Though even the most lowly-remunerated English teacher earns substantially more than Cambodian average monthly wage, this won’t stop them launching a tirade against their threadbare clothes and empty pockets in a western-owned bar at some point between their fifth and sixth Angkor beer (the manufacture of which is one of Sihanoukville’s many redeeming features).
If someone can eat at Street 240 cafés with predictable regularity, hire maids to do their laundry, regularly piss away $40 on a night on the town and still cry poor, it goes without saying that he or she is in dire need of some perspective.
If Ochheuteal can be said to have any merit at all, it is as an avenue for providing perspective of exactly this sort. The way that this patch of land has been colonised to feed the hedonistic whims of the most privileged people in the world serves as a stark, ear-splitting, drug-addled reminder of exactly how good we’ve got it.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]