A short ride from the bustling coastal hub of Sihanoukville, there is a three-kilometer long stretch of white sand, rustic bamboo bars and quirky guesthouses that hundreds of locals and expats call home. If you ask any one of the thousands of travelers and tourists who flock to this beachside haven about their favorite places in Cambodia, Otres Beach is sure to be near the top of the list. There is something special about the laid back, laissez-faire attitude, the buzzing social scene, the beautiful beach, and the unique fusion of Western and Khmer that makes it feel like a home away from home. It used to be that you could blink and a month had flown by, but these days it feels like Otres is living on borrowed time.
Cambodia’s coast remained largely undeveloped for tourism until the early 2000s, when adventurous travelers started to flock to the unspoiled beaches. It wasn’t long before holidaymakers and backpackers returned to set up businesses and, one bamboo bar at a time, the beaches around Sihanoukville evolved into a bohemian paradise. Back in 2008, when Otres was a simple backpacker paradise with beach shacks stretching from one of the beach to the other, the community were issued their first eviction notice, with the government threatening to clear a one and one-half kilometer strip in the middle in order to build a public park. In 2010, after several years of bribes and negotiations broke down, the military arrived with bulldozers and AK-47s, cleared the beach and divided Otres Beach into two.
In the years since, Otres has developed into so much more than the sleepy paradise it once was. Safe from harm’s way, guesthouses, eco-resorts and luxury hotels have sprung up on the streets behind the beach, and the hippy haven of Otres Village has evolved into an eclectic blend of shops, riverside cafes and bars. And yet, despite the whispered threats of another demolition, many business owners chose to remain on the waterfront, rebuilding their bamboo bars and bungalows on the shifting sands and gambling their futures on tourist dollars.
But now, six years later, the future of Otres hangs in the balance yet again, and one can’t help but feel that the success of the beach may have also been its downfall. With tourism to the region more than doubling, and Sihanoukville becoming the country’s top tourist attraction after Angkor Wat, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the government wants back in on the action.
In February of this year, the government issued another eviction decree to all guest houses, bars and restaurants within 50 meters of the shoreline on Otres and Ochheuteal beaches, threatening to bulldoze all remaining homes and businesses in March. After a month of campaigning, protesting and petitioning the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, Otres was granted a temporary reprieve, but the far strip of Ochheuteal was not so fortunate. Just before Khmer New Year, the military moved in and bulldozed the beach, citing environmental concerns as their main motive for demolition. But, for the locals and expats who have made Otres Beach their home, the fear is of the development of big hotels and soulless casinos, and the community is rife with rumors of multi-million dollar deals.
In fact, government officials have been working on an action plan for coastal development ever since the Kingdom’s admission to the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Beach Club‘ back in 2012. Since then, the blueprints have been on display in the local planning office, showcasing the states intent to create a ‘coastal right of way’ and earmarking specific beaches to spearhead the beautification of the area.
The tourist hotspot of Otres, famed for it’s stunning sunsets and laid back charm, was singled out to be among the first for redevelopment, with digital plans demonstrating a wide empty beach with a coastal path and landscaped trees, much like the strip that was cleared in 2010. Despite the government’s previous claims that they would work with local businesses to find a long term resolution for a more attractive and sustainable beach, with concerns ranging from legal complications regarding property ownership to erosion and pollution, the state appears to have chosen a more top-down approach to problem solving.
Although the government may feel that razing the beach is the answer to all of its problems, one just needs to look at the previously cleared strip on Otres to see the shortcomings with this plan. Whilst it may be considered more naturally beautiful, with a lack of public facilities such as toilets and refuse collection, the beach is dirty, and picnicking groups and bus-loads of tourists leave their litter strewn across the sand. Opening up the beach has also led to increased safety concerns for foreign visitors, with thefts, public indecency and even violent attacks having been reported, especially at night.
Currently the business owners on Otres 1 and 2 organize beach clean ups, advise tourists not to leave their belongings unattended or bikes unchained and recommend people do not walk along the beach alone after dark. Locals and expats fear that clearing the rest of Otres will only lead to an increase in crime and pollution, which would also have negative consequences on tourism to the region. Residents can only hope that by raising awareness of these issues government officials will be forced to put together a more all encompassing plan for redevelopment and their beach-front paradise will be safe from the bulldozers, at least for the time being.
Although there have been no official announcements since April, when Otres Beach was given a brief reprieve until after Khmer New Year, the Land Management Minister Chea Sophara recently posted on Facebook that work was soon to begin on Sihanoukville’s coastline, sharing artist mock ups of the planned improvements for Otres, Ochheuteal, Independence and Royal beaches.
The National Committee for Beach Management and Development have also revealed early stage plans for Sihanoukville’s makeover, including the construction of 16 special sea gates designed to help fight erosion and beautify the area. Ong Sothearith, Cambodia’s Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction’s head of finance and administration, says that each gate will have Khmer designs that showcase the Kingdom’s rich heritage and complement the natural beauty of the beaches, in an attempt to encourage more visitors and promote greater cultural links between the country’s top two tourist destinations.
Despite all the rumors and whispers of future plans, more than three months have passed since the scheduled demolition day, and Otres is still standing strong. On the beach business owners are gearing up for another high season, fighting the government’s wavering plans with their own blueprints for environmentally friendly redevelopment.
But, with all eyes on the Kingdom as Southeast Asia’s next beach holiday hot spot, and the future of Otres in the hands of the state, only time will tell if the beach will live to see another rainy season. For now, Otres Beach is the same laid back paradise that it has always been, and although the beach itself may not be there forever, one can always take solace in knowing that no matter what happens, the quirky, bohemian spirit of Otres will live on in the the Village and the back streets for years to come.