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.
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.
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
Hotel, the original
Angkor Brewery (closed in 1975 and
reopened in 1991), a Truck & Tractor Plant, Wat Chotynieng (aka Wat
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
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
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, 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
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
Legend of Ya Mao
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.