Sihanoukville, Cambodia is perhaps one of the strangest places I have ever been. I am staying in a neighborhood called Otres, a long flat stretch of land along the beach to the southeast of the old town on the hill. Once it was a sleepy fishing town, the only tourists western backpackers particularly far off the beaten track. Now it is an entire city under construction all at once.
Every long block, sometimes up to 3 or 4 streets back from the ocean, is covered in the frames of high rise hotels, jockeying with each other for the best views of the ocean. Every road is under expansion, often doubling or tripling in width. The air is filled with the clang of hammers, the fumes of backhoes and dump trucks, and the screech of cutting metal. An endless stream of construction traffic clogs the highway out of the city, bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see through the middle of nowhere.
The money, of course, is Chinese, as are the anticipated tourists. So too I imagine are the architects and civil engineers, the steel and electrical components. An investment by China in China, though nominally outside its borders.
And yet the investment is taken gladly. It is sorely needed. Cambodia is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and it certainly feels like the poorest place I have ever been. It is distressingly dirty, its waterways are choked with plastic garbage, its forests and fields riddled with landmines. A third of its children suffer from malnutrition, and it’s GDP per capita is just over half that of Laos, the next poorest country in the region (source). Tourism may not be the most noble industry but it beats the hell out of subsistence farming, and it certainly brings benefits. Electricity, roads, 4g and good plumbing are improvements that apply to locals and foreigners alike. And while Cambodia is known for corruption, I would bet that the expectation of profit and associated scrutiny does more to discourage grift than any number of government programs.
All the commerce of the city is squeezed into the small bits of land not marked for construction, perhaps one lot in three or four. Signs and menus are in Khmer and Chinese, scarcely a Latin glyph to be found (though dollars are still preferred to the local currency, and yuan not accepted). The usual apps are useless – half the restaurants on TripAdvisor are now holes in the ground, and Google Maps shows both roads that have been torn up and those that have yet to be completed. I don’t know how the tuk tuk drivers do it.
It makes me think of the book Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching. Small batches, he says, are the key to meeting tight deadlines when the stakes are high. This is just the opposite, an entire city built through waterfall. Maybe that wisdom doesn’t apply here – perhaps this is little more than an outflowing of excess industrial capacity, pocket change and hobby projects to the titans that built the glimmering east. Perhaps it has been arranged that should it fail the Cambodians will be the ones left holding the bag. Or perhaps, to the Chinese with their teeming megalopoli, this is a small batch.
What will they do, I wonder, when the seas rise? I have wondered this in many places on this trip, but here it seems an especially pressing question. The main town of Sihanoukville is on a hill, but the beaches stretch out along flatlands to the southeast, and this is where the new development is concentrated. Two meters would erase the beach entirely, a third would bring it to the steps of the hotels. What of ten, or twenty (edit: see footnote)? Will they build a wall, far out to sea, protecting their investment? Or will they allow it to sink into the waves? If the later, do they design with that in mind, buildings cheap enough to abandon after just a few short decades?
I think I would like to return, if that is in fact the case. To kayak down the avenues and marvel at the rotting carcasses of buildings that I walked between when they were but growing skeletons. It would be a humbling experience, perhaps a tourist attraction in its own right.
This is not Cambodia, really, not any more than Cabo is Mexico or Kuta is Bali. This is (or will be once its finished) a slice of China, injected here with the expectation of a full return on investment. The slice of human nature it represents is mirrored in America, in Australia, in Europe – it is the slice that seeks to extract, to use without understanding, to view a foreign people as a material resource rather than as potential friends. It is the slice that got us into this mess in the first place. Fitting, then, that it should sink beneath the waves.
But what then of the Cambodians who built it, who sweat under heavy loads in the hot sun, who set pipes with filthy water over the tops of their gum boots, who grind angles on umpteenth floors with neither harness nor goggles? Or of those who will follow, kowtowing before their Chinese customers for the chance to give their children a better life? Will they lament as the waters take this sudden metropolis? Only time will tell.
Edit: I got romantic when I wrote the post, then followed up and did my research. Even the most pessimistic climate scientists don’t predict more than 2.5 meters of sea level rise before the end of the century. Maybe I mixed up meters and feet in my memory? Or maybe it’s just easy to get caught up in your own side’s propaganda. A meter or two would leave Sihanoukville extremely vulnerable to storms, but not actually flooded. Looks like I won’t get to make my kayak trip after all. source 1 source 2
This makes me think of another recent read, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, the main thesis of which is that people, especially well-educated people and even people who are experts in relevant fields, consistently overestimate how bad things are in the world. Looks like I’m guilty as any.