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 where the Hawaii
Seaview Restaurant now sits. They laid the groundwork for the
construction of the new Port of Kampong Som - a project that had been set
into motion by the 1954 dissolution of French Indochina.
to 1954, Cambodia maintained international sea trade via the Mekong. But
the end of Indochina 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.
of the port and Route 4 (the road to Phnom Penh) was carried out from
1955-1960. Funds for construction of the port came from France, and from
the USA for the road. The town began as housing for workers just south of
the port. Upon completion, the town was renamed Sihanoukville in
honor of the King.
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 (abandoned but still still exists on Independence Beach in a
dilapidated state ), 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
entered the history of the American/Vietnam conflict when, during the late
1960’s and early 70’s, it served as a transit point for weapons bound
for anti-American forces 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. As part of an attempt to release the
ship, the U.S. attacked Koh Tang, an island near Sihanoukville, and met
fierce resistance, suffering heavy losses. American bombers struck the
naval base at Ream, warehouses at the Port, the old air field, the train
yard and the oil refinery north of town. The ship and its crew were
released May 15, during the battle. Check out
for more information.
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, foreign tourists
started coming to Sihanoukville for the first time, 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. With the 1997-98 demise of the Khmer Rouge
and the political/military stability of the last couple of years, both the
road and the train are now (in 2000) considered safe, at least from any
military threat. But political and legal fallout of the murders
continue as the home countries and relatives of the victims demand
justice, and the UN and Cambodian government struggle with the political
and legal complexities of bringing the perpetrators to trial.
Picture #1 - Kampong Som base camp, 1955
Picture #2 - Kampong Som during port construction, August 1957
Picture #3 - US Defense Department map of oil refinery bombed in Mayaguez
incident. May, 1975
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.
husband was forced by work to spend months away from her in Koh Kong. One
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,
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.
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.