In Shell of a City, Locals Pick Through a Spiritless Recovery for Work

4 min read
Workers’ kitchens and living quarters are visible from the windows of an under-construction building in Sihanoukville on December 2, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

SIHANOUKVILLE — A tuk-tuk driver picks styrofoam, coconut shells and used masks from a dried patch of grass behind Independence Beach. The area used to be full of vendors, selling to a sea of tourists, but both are mostly gone.

“I love the environment. I do this almost every day,” the tuk-tuk driver says. “I have the free time to help.”

It’s a difficult time for people because of Covid-19 and the changes that churn through Sihanoukville, the tuk-tuk driver says.

The Cambodian workers left in the city are attempting to unearth some work again after the double punch of an online gambling ban and the pandemic-driven recession slowed Cambodia’s boomtown to a near halt. The recovery may not be as quick as its rise, as citizens say life in the city is more difficult than before.

In December, Sihanoukville appears stripped to its components: Bright blue sky streaks through the metal and concrete frames of half-built, abandoned skyscrapers, and scraggly trees and grasses take hold of empty lots marked by for-sale signs.

The stilled construction projects have started showing their age. But the opalescent sidewalks gleam. Sihanoukville is close to completing a road and sidewalk renovation project, a $300-million city project that uprooted old-growth trees but employed some construction workers during the brunt of Covid-19 closures.

Dust is already closing in on the new sidewalks; earth and trash pile along them, and spill onto roads as pedestrians and motorbikes pass by.

Kim Srey, a vendor selling boiled crab and giant fried prawns stacked on a metal tray, is not impressed by the sidewalks. The lack of tourists has been hard, but business is even worse now that authorities are trying to stop vendors from selling on the beach.

The city evicted a majority of tourist stalls in a campaign to clean the beaches and repackage them for future developers.

“I’d have a table for customers, but they would take that too,” she says from the new sidewalk at Ochheuteal Beach, upon which she placed her tray of shellfish and crabs to take a rest.

Srey says she was once stopped by police who took her wares from her, costing her a day’s profit. She asked them what law she was violating, but they did not reply, she says.

“They say they’re clearing the sidewalk for tourists to walk, but when they walk they want food and drinks too,” she says.

A wooden hut sits in an empty plot of land overlooking Sihanoukville's skyline-in-progress on December 2, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
A wooden hut sits on an empty plot of land, with Sihanoukville’s skyline-in-progress behind it, on December 2, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Vendors park their roving carts to sell clothes, shoes and snacks near a construction site in Sihanoukville on December 2, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Vendors park their roving carts to sell clothes, shoes and snacks near a construction site in Sihanoukville on December 2, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

A half-dozen casino workers tell VOD that their wages were cut, sometimes almost halved, when they returned to work. Some say they were able to return to the same casino, while others found jobs at a new location. Some also have started splitting shifts, working half a month and allowing another worker to serve in the second half, in order to share the wealth. But while they were previously receiving between $400 and $500, now wages are not above $280, three workers say.

Kang Rith, 30, a roving sugarcane juice vendor who travels between inner-city construction sites and the beaches, says many workers have slowly returned to work, but the riches in the city are not what they once were.

Construction workers tell him their daily wages dropped to 20,000-30,000 riel ($5-$7.5), so most workers sleep at the construction site and try to find employers who will cover their meals.

There’s little space for affordable brick-and-mortar shops in between the big buildings in the city center, so most of the casino and construction workers wait for motorized carts like Rith’s for food.

The sugarcane juice vendor, with a crisp ironed white button-down shirt and thoroughly cleaned cart, says he’s also had a hard time with fewer thirsty customers in the city. In one day, he used to be able to pack his cart with sugarcane and sell everything in his cart’s glass storage box, and then refill the cart and sell out again, but many days this month he only sells out half of his glass-encased stock. He says he’s seen many newcomers unable to make it in the slump.

“It’s a little bit better than before Covid, but only about 10 percent of people are back,” he estimates. “Some people come to sell their goods, and they cannot sell much, so they go back.”

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