Is Cambodia’s Sleepy Kampot in for a Rude Chinese Awakening?

Famous for its beautifully-preserved French colonial architecture and its wide, slow-flowing river that spills into the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia’s Kampot Province has an almost dreamy quality about it. One of the few Cambodian cities that was never bombed by American fighter jets during President Richard Nixon’s secret – and illegal war – on Vietnamese infiltrators, Kampot is the kind of laidback small town that oozes so much charm that many western foreigners are retiring (or planning to retire) there.

The town and all who love it are in for a rude awakening, Chinese-style. Four different sources have confirmed to me that 8,000 Chinese businessmen are currently scouring every inch of Kampot, buying up any and all real estate that’s for sale and even some that’s not.

China long ago overtook Japan as Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor, pouring in almost US$5 billion to the poverty-stricken country between 2011 and 2015. Cambodia has reciprocated by becoming China’s most ardent ally in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, backing Beijing particularly on its continuing takeover of islets in the South China Sea. As the country’s leader, Hun Sen, has grown more dictatorial, earning criticism of western nations, he has had China’s steadfast backing. Cambodia is becoming China’s playground.

Much of the western side of the Kampot River has already been bought up by Chinese entrepreneurs (I was told fully half of it), and they have dredged a deep-water port where they hope to bring in 1.5 million Chinese tourists a year on cruise ships and bus them up to Bokor Mountain to gamble at the new casinos and resorts on the top of the mountain, which is part of a national park.

But the east side of the river, where the old French villas are found, is in trouble too: China has designs on this languid town as well. Again, thousands (perhaps the reality is hundreds) of businessmen are combing every inch of real estate available. I was told a story (which I cannot confirm), that the Chinese offered a very popular Western-run restaurant and guest house $15,000 for the property and that they would need to vacate within three months. Apparently the Chinese were accompanied by Khmer officials who claimed they could easily find violations on the property and have it closed down in short order, so it was best to accept the paltry sum and clear out. And that is exactly what is happening.

Further downriver, closer to the Gulf, Chinese companies are already destroying mangrove forests and causing other ecological problems. New resorts are going up, and many are questioning just how beneficial all this Chinese investment will be for Cambodia. The Chinese have already essentially taken over Sihanoukville province, turning the entire Cambodian coast of that area into a new Macau for gambling and a Hainan of golf courses and huge hotels (not to mention a secretive deep-water port in what used to be Botum Sakor National Park where rumor has it nuclear submarines are lurking). It looks like something similar will be happening to lovely Kampot in the not too distant future.

Sihanoukville was once a hippie enclave, perhaps the detritus of Pattaya expats who could no longer afford the rising costs of Thailand. Those Sihanoukville expats are now washing up in Kampot, but with the arrival of the Chinese in their thousands (and millions of tourists) they may soon find themselves being pushed farther inland, perhaps as far north as Kratie or even Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province.

Whatever the case, big (Chinese) changes are in the works for sleepy Kampot province. And you can call me a romantic, but when those old villas get bulldozed and the town begins looking more like Guandong or Shanghai it will be a sad day indeed. And it’s coming.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, Assistant Professor at Chang Gung University in Taiwan, and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He has wildlife survey projects in both Cambodia and Sumatra and you can make a small donation here to help out!