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Kompong Som: Resort Dream Or Development Quagmire?

Kompong Som: Resort Dream Or Development Quagmire?

KOMPONG SOM-Sitting on a flat rock, looking out across the least-spoilt bay in the

Gulf of Thailand, Tong Chew contemplates the day when his prime real estate will

earn him a $150,000 check from Korean property developers.

On his narrow peninsula of sand and rock, Tong has grown potatoes and corn for the

past six years. From here, the view resembles an Atlantic coastline with high waves

washing against the shore. Instead of palm trees, sea-pines bend in the steady breeze.

These days he is no longer surprised at the steady stream of visitors who come here

to look over his land. He expects to see a tall hotel standing here, with rooms looking

out to sea in three directions.

Kompong Som, or Sihanouk-ville, is a tourist destination waiting to happen. For now,

the grass is left to grow tall around the garish-colored statues of women and crocodiles

that line the quaint boulevard between the sea and the fresh-water lake that supplies

the town's drinking water.

On weekends, wealthy Cambodians drive down from Phnom Penh to drink chilled beer

and eat fish cakes beside the waves. There are few places to stop and quench a thirst

here, just one restaurant hastily assembled down on the narrow white sand beach,

while another is being constructed further up the shore. In truth, besides the waves,

rocks and sand, there is very little for the tourist in Kompong Som today. And this,

surely, is its charm.

There is also an air of lawlessness here. French UNTAC troops tread the boardwalks

with sidearms strapped to their belts, while a public address system beside the small

central market beats out a steady litany of anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda, warning

of danger in the countryside.

Even the journey down from Phnom Penh has its risks. On the three- hour drive we

were stopped by armed bandits on three separate occasions, and each time they demanded

money and cigarettes from the driver, but with no threat of violence. In one instance,

when our car suffered a punctured tire immediately after one hold-up, the bandits

put down their AK-47s to help jack up the car.

Approaching the town, from what must be the best-constructed highway in Cambodia,

Kompong Som gives the appearance of a tiny island settlement, rather than the country's

third largest city.

The sea surrounds the area on three sides, and the high hills offer stunning views

of a rocky seascape. Groups of houses are scattered all around, both traditional

wooden in yellows and blues and more modern French villas in the art-deco style.

Although dozens of small hotels are under construction, within town few are actually

up and running, and none, so far, have received official permission for the much

sought-after beachfront.

Of the existing hotels, the Independence, which stands at the opposite end of the

bay to Tong's potato patch, dominates the skyline with its seven stories of stained

concrete. Although some rooms do have doors, there is no electricity and the only

water available is stained red with rust. The deluxe rooms have windows with glass

and cost U.S. $15 a night.

Over in the next bay to the south, the Sokar Motel offers a commanding view over

a long expanse of white sand beach with bungalow accommodation at U.S. $40 a night.

Unfortunately, it cannot offer any rooms, as all have been taken over by UNTAC for

the foreseeable future.

The only other option, aside from pitching a tent, is to seek out a room in town

for around U.S. $5 a night. And while Kompong Som is noted for its seafood, the number

of restaurants offering both international menus and good hygiene are currently limited.

Although other Cambodian cities, such as Phnom Penh and Battambang, are expanding

rapidly, there seems little danger that Kompong Som will change appreciably in the

near future. Considerable confusion over land rights is preventing the local administration

from issuing licenses to property developers keen to expand on the area's natural


"We want to encourage tourism here," says Sun Heng, vice president of the

local People's Committee. "But, for now, the only land we can offer for development

is far from the sea." He points to the map, where Tong has his plot of land,

and says that many people claim this area as their own, including the local government.

Few of the people who live in Kompong Som today were born here, most having arrived

from other provinces after the Vietnamese invasion. And while many have had little

difficulty obtaining rights to the houses they settled six or seven years ago, the

same cannot be said for the desirable beachfront.

When Tong Chew arrived in 1985 from Kompot he staked a claim to his tiny plot of

land. He even has a piece of paper saying the land is his.

"But everytime I go to get the official land documents, I am told to go away,"

says Tong with an air of bewilderment. "I have had many offers for my land and

I want to sell so I can give the money to my sons."


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