Sihanoukville, Cambodia: the trashy truth behind the perfect vacay photos

Dream destination or trash filled, plastic strangled construction site?

Here at HoneyKids we like to think we’re a pretty well travelled bunch, and we’re definitely all about #havekidswilltravel. We’ve scaled mountains in Myanmar, we’ve rafted down rivers in rubber rings in Yogyakarta and we’ve lazed on stunning beaches in Fiji. We love trying new places, so we were definitely excited to tick another one off the bucket list recently by heading to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Imagine our devastation, therefore, when we realised that it’s actually a far cry from the picture perfect shots you may have seen on Instagram.

This is a town filled not with happy holiday moments, but with trash as far as the eye can see, mange-ridden puppies, ghastly construction sites and beaches choked with plastic and dead fish. Sihanoukville is not a place you ever want on your vacay radar, and here’s why…

The trash

sad truth of sihanoukville

The ‘view’ from the top of the Wat Krom. Beyond the trash is a sea of construction. Photography: Tracy Tristram

We all know that a getaway in Asia comes with its share of smells and less than squeaky clean pavements: we’re spoilt here in pristine Singapore for sure. But imagine, if you will, a destination that is literally a festering rubbish dump, with trash strewn in every scrap of once green land, clogging up every water way, every road and every pavement. There are literally piles and piles of plastic and rotting garbage as far as the eye can see in Sihanoukville.

These are real environmental issues, but nobody seems to care, or even notice. We went on a ‘highlights of Sihanoukville’ trip… we would hate to see the lowlights. We saw nothing but stricken landscapes, grubby, naked children, poorly puppies and waterfalls choked with rubbish. Everything that may once have been beautiful in this part of the world, has been destroyed by trash. It is, without a doubt, the saddest place we have ever been.

The beach

sad truth of sihanoukville

Plastic and dead things: the beach at Sihanoukville was not the stuff of dreams but more of nightmares. Photography: Tracy Tristram

Sihanoukville had been on our holiday bucket list for quite some time. We loved Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on previous Cambodian jollies, so had high hopes for its most famous beach areas. Having already been put in a state of suspicious alert on the bus journey from the port to the coast and the trash sights that were bestowed upon us along the way, we were more than a little worried. And rightly so. At first glimpse the beach looked stunning: a long arc of golden sand with the blue ocean lapping on the shore… but once we got a little closer and it became apparent pretty darn quick that the shore is clogged with piles of plastic waste, dead puffer fish and general trash. This is not somewhere you would ever want your children to bathe or play.

Meanwhile, the authorities are blaming this huge problem not only on Sihanoukville’s vast development, but also on its people for having poor awareness on how to dispose of waste. It’s proving a dangerous and unsanitary combo, and no one is taking responsibility in order to fix it.

The construction

sad truth of sihanoukville

Construction and rubbish: that’s pretty much all Sihanoukville has to offer.

What was once a coastal town in south-western Cambodia, popular with backpackers for its pretty beaches and laid back charm, has been eclipsed in the past few years by a surge of around 40 Chinese-run casinos popping up, with a whopping 70 more under construction. China’s Belt and Road initiative has taken hold of this city and is literally choking it with construction in a bid to make it a casino hub for Chinese tourists. Everywhere you look (if you’re not too distracted by the mountains of rubbish clogging every inch of the land), you’ll find construction lorries, building sites and green areas cleared for ugly monstrosities erected with the sole aim of luring in Chinese money. All while damning local opinion and living conditions.

Ironically, Cambodians are not allowed to enter Sihanoukville’s casinos unless they are employed in them.

The poverty

the sad truth of sihanoukville

These desperately poorly and utterly miserable puppies summed up our sad trip to Sihanoukville. Photography: Tracy Tristram

Our tour guide, Than, was a lovely, lovely man. He was also a man in despair at the wretched destruction of his city during the past few years. He told us that hundreds and hundreds of family-owned businesses have been forced to shut shop because the plan for Sihanoukville is so focused on Chinese casino tourism, and these Chinese tourists do not want to eat, shop or visit locally owned businesses. But what of tourists from other places besides China? Than told us that they’re simply not coming to Sihanoukville anymore because of the state in which the city has befallen. It’s a double edged sword and Cambodians are losing out.

the sad truth of sihanoukville

Believe it or not this is a fishing village. Would you want to eat fish out of that water? Photography: Tracy Tristram

Many of his friends had been evicted from homes because Chinese businessmen were willing and happy to pay up to five times the market rental prices. The fishing village, which has been in the area for hundreds of years, is due to be relocated to make way for a bigger port and yet more construction. He is also worried for his own job as a tour guide because there is now so little to tour, and people who want to sightsee are giving Sihanoukville a wide berth.

It’s a sad, sorry situation for sure, and we really have know idea what the future holds for this beach resort in crisis.

Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:

10 ways we can help teach our kids about the environment
The shocking facts of plastic waste
Easy ways we can help conserve water
Straw free Singapore: the businesses doing their bit

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