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
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."