Saturday, January 15, 2011

The state of Otres Beach

Umbrellas on Otres Beach Sihanoukville
The near end of Otres Beach, last week
Otres has long been my favorite Sihanoukville beach. Twin sister of Ochheuteal Beach (the next beach south, a 3 kilometer crescent of white sand facing southwest) but much more relaxed and far less touristed than Ochheuteal, largely because it is completely undeveloped and a bit difficult to get to. Comparatively close as the crow flies, it still something of a small project to get there. It was only recently (a few years ago) that the road over the headland from Ochheuteal was opened, and that only to motorcycles. And the back way using the city roads requires traversing 2.5 kilometers of broken pavement. The roads have limited the tourists to only those who really want to be there.

The beach itself is wonderfully primitive and laid back. There are no hotels, spas or shops, not even any running water or, until just last year, regular electricity. Until mid-2010, thatch covered beach bars dotted the full length of Otres, but much more sparsely than Ochheuteal. There were a few basic bungalows on the sand and a couple of places offering kayaks and Hobies. Even the roaming beach vendors (massage and trinkets) were much fewer and far less aggressive than their Ochheuteal counterparts. Otres was (and still is) a place that you can fall asleep in your beach chair unperturbed by crowds, beggar kids and hawkers. The only real drawback to Otres was that it is difficult (and even dangerous) to get back to the main town area come evening. The road is long, lonely and dark, and robberies of those trying to make their way back in the evening are not unknown. Better to come back either before sundown or stay the night at Otres.

Sign with map of Otres Beach Sihanoukville
Map of Otres showing the project area
But such idyllic simplicity in 'Cambodia's premier beach town' could not last. Otres is prime beachfront real estate begging by its very nature to be developed into some sort of 5-star moneymaker. Since the first couple of beach bars showed up on Otres a half a decade back it has been known to most that the government would eventually take it all back for development - that the oceanside beach bars and bungalows were temporary, allowed to exist only in the interim until that development began.

Early last year, it seemed the end was nigh. The on and off talk of development began to concretize. The government delivered notice that all businesses were to clear the beach in a month to make way for a planned development. After negotiations, the government seemed to relent, demanding only that people stop laying permanent foundations on the beach. And offering even greater hope at the time, the city connected the Otres area to the regular electrical grid and allowed the beach businesses to hook in, bringing Otres its first 24/7 power. 

Sign with redition of future Otres Beach Sihanoukville
The development project
But the good feelings were short lived. Within a couple of months, government officials were back delivering marching orders to the beach businesses - 'out and out now.' There were more negotiations and a few small payouts to some of the places to get them move. And then that was it. In July 2010 the bulldozers showed up and started leveling some of the beach bars. The talk turned very dark. The end of Otres had come, it was said. I saw internet postings on forums like Lonely Planet Thorn Tree that "Otres is gone." In fact, just last week a tourist on Ochheuteal told me that Otres was no more. But rumors of her death are greatly exaggerated.

Inside the development area, last week
The Otres development project sits behind long green tin fences, marking its boundaries and blocking the beachfront road. A single sign stands near the entrance, displaying the envisioned future. The beach within the project area has been cleared of all but a thin row of trees, revealing a vast expanse of fine white sand. Not even beach grass remains. For the businesses that were destroyed, the loss was total. But, it turned out that this stage of the project took up only the middle section of the Otres - about 1.2km - to be developed into a park (and renamed "Long Beach"?) All of the businesses in the first kilometer at the near end of Otres were left unscathed, as was another kilometer and its smattering of places at the far end. And a few of the lost businesses from the middle section picked up and moved to either end of the beach. After a nasty punch in the gut, Otres collected itself and began to carry on something like usual.

At the near end, the atmosphere has changed very little from the old Otres. If you don't walk up the beach too far you won't even know the development project is there. Relaxed little beach bars and BBQ shacks still ply their trade. Many of the beach bungalows are now gone, but not all, and little guesthouses have begun to pop up on the other side of the road, off the sand but still only 20 meters from the
Squatter shack on Otres Beach Road Sihanoukville
Evicted villager's huts
water's edge, and presumably safer from city demands to stop laying foundations on the beach. And the far end of the beach became even more secluded as the development cut it off from the main beachfront road. The far end is an island of sorts now, perhaps even enhancing that forgotten tropical beach feel that Otres has long enjoyed.

How long will it last? God and the government only know. There are still rumors of an expanded development project that will take out the remaining businesses at the near end, but no sign or official word of it yet. There is still the very grim reminder of Otres development on the entry road - the sad remnants of the Otres community, local people violently evicted from their village by a land deal back in 2007, now living in a string of squatter huts along the roadside. But for beach goers, for now, Otres is not gone. In fact, save the middle section, it is much the same as before.

Otres Beach Sihanoukville
Otres Beach, 2006

Eviction of Otres village

DAS: Otres evictions, update, February 12, 2008

PPP: Band bids Otres beach bars farewell, February 12, 2010

PPP: Otres eviction talks set for today, July 5, 2010

July 2010, Otres Beach 2010: What does the future hold???

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