|Bulldozer works on Serendipity Beach Road|
I happened to be in Sihanoukville at the time and heard of some sort of trouble up on Serendipity, so headed over to check it out. I arrived a couple of hours after the bulldozer, its destructive work already well begun. The machine was moving up the edge of the road, crushing signage and curbside decks. A dozen and a half sour looking policeman lingered in the shade of a tree in front of Utopia and business owners both foreign and Khmer milled about with crossed arms and furrowed brows.
|21 meter mark|
Much complaining, cajoling and reasoning with the authorities ensued. It all seemed first to fall on deaf ears but then, at the last day, in a seeming act of partial concession, the city reduced the clear area from 40 meters to only 21 meters, bringing the edge of the road back to the front of the main structures of the businesses. Though a couple small places near the road's edge and at the peak of the hill such as Corruption Bar were completely removed, in most cases including all of the larger places, the area lost was limited to the street side seating, garden, signage and walkway, many not even that. Business continues pretty much as usual.
None of the business owners I asked knew for sure if the reduction to 21 meters was permanent or whether there might be further widening in the future. Time will no doubt tell.
Back in the mid 90s when I first came to Sihanoukville, coconut palm trees lined the 2-lane main road (Ekareach Street) from the police station at the top of the hill, through the downtown and most of the way to the Golden Lions. The trees were a varied bunch, some picture perfect, some less so, but still, they gave the Sihanoukville character, arching over the roads, providing little islands of shade for vendors, a playground for the monkeys, and affording the town a 'sea of palms' look - ideal for a tourist beach town.
|Ekareach St., from the top of the hill, opposite the VN Embassy, Sihanoukville 1998|
|Ekareach St., from the same place at the top of the hill, last week|
One weekend in 1999 I came down for a couple of days and the first night turned into a late one. I stumbled out of the Moonshine Bar 4:30ish and then up the street to my downtown hotel, The Kampong Som.
At about 6am the 'next morning,' (an hour and a half later,) I was woken by the fitful drone of a distant chainsaw. My head was pounding. I took a swig of water, consoled myself with the idea that whatever they were cutting wouldn't take long, put the pillow over my head and tried to sleep. What seemed about an hour later the chainsaw was still whining, now even louder and closer. I cursed the hotel for its thin walls and cheap windows. 'This is what I get for $10 a night,' I thought. My head still hurt. I drank some more water, stuffed toilet paper in my ears, sandwiched my head between pillows and tried to sleep. But there was no let up in the noise...well...in fact, it would stop intermittently for a minute or two, offering hope, but would flare again as sure as a bad tooth. About 10am I admitted defeat. Between the headache, the noise and my general annoyance, I was up and out. I decided to get something to eat to try to quell the hangover. As I stepped into the hall I ran into a Vietnamese taxi girl from the bar the night before, Mai, a friend. She had just finished her shift so to speak and was on her way to breakfast. We joined up and headed out for a street side noodle stand that sat a few doors away from the hotel.
Stepping out the front door I was assaulted by an uncharacteristically bright hot sun. As my eyes adjusted I was struck near dumb by the scene. The palm trees, and all the shade and shield they provided, were gone...all of them! Well, not gone, but no longer standing. Dozens and dozens lay on the ground along the main street. Sawdust filled the air. The whir of the chainsaw was still audible a couple of blocks away. Every single palm along the road had been felled, exposing a painfully intense sky and rows of monotonous blocky white buildings.
Aghast, I bounded toward the destruction sputtering "What the fuck?!? What the fuck is this??? What have they done???" The place had gone from a picturesque little beach town to a communist-era cinder block city in a matter of hours. Mai walked up behind me, put her hands on her hips and surveyed the street, slowly turning her head back and forth to take in the whole scene. She nodded approvingly. "Very good, very neat, very clean, very good control." Shocked again, I looked at her and blurted "What?!? But the beautiful trees...It took years for those trees to grow...And now look, it's just dust and concrete," to which she calmly responded, "This city, not jungle. This very clean, very good control. See all the buildings. Good order." I was speechless. "Yes, very good. Clean! But..." she continued while shading her eyes from the intense tropical sun, "very hot here. Sun very strong. Come back, go inside, eat breakfast." I looked down the street. The noodle stand was gone. I went back inside.
Later that day I heard that the tree removal was the first stage of a road widening development plan. It took a long time after the trees were removed before the new road actually went in. Years, in fact. At first I was skeptical that it would ever happen. But the two lanes were eventually repaired. A couple of years on, it was improved to four lanes, then a couple years after that, widened to six lanes.