The business end of Sihanoukville

Entrance to Sihanoukville Autonomous Port

Entrance to Sihanoukville Autonomous Port

When I came to Sihanoukville in September of 2006, there were no stoplights, no traffic police and no traffic. The house we built in 2007 was the largest and most modern on our block and there was virtually no traffic at all on the roughly paved road that leads to our dirt cul de sac. Now there’s a big school, a number of new houses and four apartment blocks going up in our village. While Western economies have been flat since 2008, Cambodia’s economy has been steadily growing at an average pace of nearly 7% per annum. Sihanoukville has been a big contributor to that growth, but the tourist industry isn’t entirely responsible for the growth.

When I came here to stay in January of 2007, Sihanoukville wasn’t even a province. Kampong Som (agreeable port) was just there — part of Cambodia, but that was about all. After Sihanouk became a province, land titles were sorted out and plans for Sihanoukville’s future, many of them made in the late 1990s, were finally able to be carried out.

I was reminded of all this just the other day when the power went out for the first time in about six months. What happened? The new power station is finally operational. Work on moving from our old-fashioned generator to a modern power plant took about six years. Last year and the year before, our old generators were put to the test trying to generate electricity for the port, the Airport and Sihanoukville’s burgeoning population. They were put to the test and largely failed. Last dry season we had power outages of up to 4 hours a day. The outage I experienced the other day turned out to be a local one only, so as far as I know, there hasn’t even been one city-wide outage since about May of 2013.

new power grid in Steung Hau

New power plant near Steung Hau

Even without the power that is so necessary for economic growth, Sihanoukville has shown remarkable progress in the past 7 years. The port has been improved and the two economic zones, one opposite the port and the other near the airport, have been growing steadily. I just ran across these two news releases the other day:

  • Crown Holdings, a major manufacturer of food and beverage cans, opened a factory in Sihanoukville on 1st November, according to industry magazine, Packaging Europe News.
  • Maritime magazine Carbon Positive reports that cargo shipments to Sihanoukville Autonomous Port increased by 12% in the first 11 months of 2013.

Those two recent reports just scratch the surface of what’s happening on the business end of Sihanoukville. A bank manager we know is run off his feet processing business loans. Cambodians are scrambling to open businesses here and its not just guesthouses and hotels, either. One of the biggest loans he was processing last time I talked with him was for a man who imports heavy equipment for the building industry. Six years ago, bucket brigades poured concrete slabs. Today, the concrete is pumped from trucks equipped with cranes that can reach four or five stories high.

Sihanoukville master plan

Sihanoukville Master Plan. For more information, read Sihanoukville Master Plan Revealed

Even poor Cambodians are cashing in on the building boom. On our street, we used to get ice, cold drinks and snacks from just one house-front stall. Now there are about half a dozen that cater to the locals, builders and students at the big new school. There’s a guy at the end of our block who makes his living collecting and selling cans. About 35 years old, he has the mind of a 10 year old. Everybody on the block has looked after his welfare since his mother died four or five years ago, but he still works for a living. Last year, he saved up and bought a bicycle because he needed it to collect all the cans he finds every day when he makes his rounds.

On the right is a picture of how they poured cement when building our house in 2007. On the left is how they're pouring it 2 doors down today, almost exactly 6 years later

On the right is a picture of how they poured cement when building our house in 2007. On the left is how they’re pouring it 2 doors down today, almost exactly 6 years later

Frankly, I don’t know what I think about all this progress. One thing I have always loved about Cambodia has been the lack of centralisation. In my village, everyone takes care of the village first and only turn to the police or other officials when they can’t take care of a problem themselves. Last year, for instance, everybody pitched in and paid for crushed bitumen to surface our road and this was the first rainy season we got through without having to ride through mud and puddles. We wouldn’t have been able to do that in Australia without going through a lot of red tape.

While all this growth is providing jobs, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction in the country. Wages are low and workers want more rights. Hun Sen gets the blame for this, but really, it’s what happens in every developing country. For example, “land grabs” are usually arrangements made between the government and private overseas companies. Not long ago, an Australian company leased a large swathe of land for agricultural use and a number of small landholders were forced off their property. They were given jobs, but they have to work much harder for less money than they made growing their own rice and other crops.

In my ideal world, power would be localised from the village level up rather than from the top down. It’s a world that doesn’t exist in the West and with globalisation, it’s disappearing everywhere. We’re all suffering the consequences now, as power and wealth become more concentrated in the hands of a few and the rest of us are left footing the bill.

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I just met a man the other day who came here and opened a restaurant because after 35 years of full employment in Italy, he could no longer find a job. Rather than see his life savings dwindle away there, he brought what he had here to make a fresh start. Isn’t it interesting how a little “agreeable port” city in Cambodia can become the land of opportunity? Let’s hope it remains so, for everybody.

About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.
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