As you may notice in your travels, Sihanoukville has a different look and feel than most Cambodian towns. There is no Colonial architecture or ancient pagodas. Constructed as a port city in the late 1950s, the town is much newer, more urban and cosmopolitan than most Cambodian provincial cities. The history of Sihanoukville goes back only as far as 1955 when the area was known as Kampong Som. In August of that year, a French/Cambodian construction team cut a base camp into the unoccupied jungle in the area that is now known as ‘Hawaii Beach.’ They laid the groundwork for the construction of the new Port of Kampong Som.
Prior to 1954, Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was a single political unit under French jurisdiction. During this period, Cambodia maintained international sea trade via the Mekong River. But the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954 meant the Mekong delta reverted to the control of Vietnam. Seeking unfettered access to the ocean, plans were made to construct a new ocean port. Kampong Som was selected for water depth and ease of access.
Construction of the port and Route 4 (the road to Phnom Penh) was carried out from 1955-1960. Most of the funds for construction of the port came from France, and the road was financed primarily by the USA. The town began as housing for construction workers in the area just southeast of the current port. Upon completion, the town was renamed Sihanoukville in honor of the King.
Sihanoukville’s heyday came in the 1960s. Although Kep was more popular as a holiday destination, the commercial success of the port led to a flurry of construction and expansion including the construction of the Independence Hotel, the original Angkor Brewery (closed in 1975 and reopened in 1991), a Truck & Tractor Plant, Wat Chotynieng (aka Wat Leu), St Michael’s Catholic Church (constructed in 1960, closed in 1975 and reopened in 1993), dozens of villas on Ochheuteal Beach (destroyed in the 1980s) and other structures. There was also a second phase of port construction, which began in 1965 and halted with the Lon Nol coup d’etat of 1970.
Sihanoukville entered the history of the American/ Vietnamese conflict when, during the late 1960’s and early 70’s, it served as a transit point for weapons bound for both sides in Vietnam. The town’s most direct involvement came on May 13, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge captured the S.S. Mayaguez, a U.S. container ship. Attempting to release the ship and its crew, the U.S. engaged KR forces at Koh Tang, an island near Sihanoukville. They met fierce resistance and suffered heavy losses. American bombers struck the naval base at Ream (north of Sihanoukville), warehouses at the Port, the airfield, the train yard and the oil refinery north of town. The ship and its crew were released May 15, during the battle. This engagement is considered to be, from the American perspective, the last battle of the Vietnam War. Check out http://www.usmm.org/mayaguez.html for more information.
During the UN sponsored elections in 1992 and 1993, Sihanoukville played host to the Australian, Belgian and French contingents of UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia). After the elections, American aid paid to repair National Route 4 between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh (1994-95) and foreign tourists began trickling into Sihanoukville for the first time in two decades. But tourism came to an abrupt halt with the tragic 1994 Khmer Rouge murders of 3 backpackers taken from a train on the way to Sihanoukville, and of 3 expatriates taken from a taxi on Route 4. The road was finally secured and regularly scheduled buses started to ply the route between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh in 1996. Tourism to Sihanoukville increased steadily but slowly until the early 2000s, when the increase became significantly more rapid.
History Picture #1 – Kampong Som base camp, 1955
History Picture #2 – Kampong Som during port construction, August 1957
History Picture #3 – US Defense Department map of oil refinery bombed in Mayaguez incident. May, 1975
Legend of Ya Mao
At the crest of the Pich Nil Pass on Route 4 dozens of spirit houses line the road. Many of the houses are maintained for Ya-Mao, the deity who oversees the southern coastal region of Cambodia. When traveling Rte 4 people often display bananas on their dashboard and offer the the bananas, incense and a little money to Ya-Mao at Pich Nil. The offerings are usually made with the prayer for safe travels. There seem to be no two identical tellings of the legend. In one telling, Ya-Mao was the wife of a village chief in the area of Ream.
Her husband was forced by work to spend months away from her in Koh Kong. One rainy season she grew lonely for him and took a Koh Kong bound boat to meet him. On the way the boat was swept away in a storm, drowning everybody, including Ya-Mao. But her spirit was powerful and through dreams and spirit possessions she made it known that she was overseeing the southern coast and protecting the fishermen and villagers. She required only their good behavior and occasional offerings of phallic symbols.
The main spirit house at Pich Nil is adorned with phallic symbols but why Ya-Mao makes this demand is a matter of debate. Some people say that she was seeking this in her ill-fated trip and so still desires it. Others say that she is angry at men because she died trying to get to her husband and wants a symbol of a severed phallus. Sidestepping the debate some more conservative members of the community think that Ya-Mao is now too old for phallic symbols and requires only bananas.
Phallic symbol offerings can still be seen on the beaches near fishing villages, usually in the form of a stick and incense stuck in the sand under a tree. Wat Khrom in Sihanoukville maintains a small but significant temple for Ya-Mao.