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History of Sihanouk Ville

As you may notice in your travels, Sihanouk Ville 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 Sihanouk Ville 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. 
Prior 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 Sihanouk Ville in honor of the King. 
Sihanouk Ville’s heyday came in the 1960s. Although Kep was more popular as a holiday destination in those days, the commercial success of the Port in Sihanouk Ville led to a flurry of construction including the Independence Hotel, a brewery and an oil depot. Cambodia’s well-to-do built beach front villas along Ochheuteal Beach. A second phase of port construction was begun in 1965 but halted in 1970 after the Lon Nol coup d’etat. 
Sihanouk Ville 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 pro and anti-Communist 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. Attempting to release the ship and its crew, the U.S engaged KR forces at Koh Tang, an island near Sihanouk Ville. They met fierce resistance and suffered heavy losses. American bombers struck the naval base at Ream (north of Sihanouk Ville), warehouses at the Port of Sihanouk Ville, 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. 
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