A few years ago, Victory Hill was the backpacking hub of Sihanoukville with enough customers to fill the sea with gold. But since then gravity has definitely moved down the hill to Ochheuteal Beach and the now-thriving Otres Beach area.
Now it’s so forsaken and run-down that even the local tuk tuk mafia at the bus station, not even a mile away, pretend not to have heard of the place – presumably because they get bigger kick-backs from businesses in Ochheuteal.
“Victory Hill,” a friend of mine said recently after getting off a bus from Phnom Penh. The tuk tuk drivers shook their heads and looked at each other, repeating the words. “Look I KNOW it exists,” he said. “I own a fucking restaurant there…”
Apart from the odd chrome chariot dropping off groups of sex tourists in money belts, Victory Hill’s trade now seems to be mainly barflies stretching out their invalidity benefits and pensions in the cheapest bars selling $0.50 handles.
Even people in Ochheuteal grumble that business is down from last year’s high season – which they moan was heavily down on previous years. And Victory Hill seems to have shouldered most of that pain. Business is so bad, some bar and guesthouse owners say that on their worst days they’ve taken just $2. And when $50 goes through the till, they think they’ve won the lottery.
They’re not helped, of course, by the clientele, and the seedy reputation that stretch of lady bars and drinking holes festers in. As one Irishman, who recently moved out of the place, put it: “It seems to be a magnet for the biggest arseholes from the four corners of the Earth.” It’s hard to argue. I’ve never seen so many alcoholics in one place, and have often wondered whether it is some warped nominative determinism that a place called Victory Hill should be so full of losers.
I honestly heard an expat holding court in the corner of a bar the other day, say: “It’s all about trading. You have the money – you have the pussy. Hey, no honey, no money. All those fucking arseholes and goddamn morons say ‘no money, no honey’. No fuck you, I have the money – that’s what you want. No honey…no money. You say ‘no’ to me, okay, I give my ten dollar to another girl…”
Slowly an exodus is beginning, with a number of bar owners seeing the light, and selling their businesses to some other mug, and opening a new venue in Ochheuteal or Otres. Those who remain either claim to have money and are running their place as a “lifestyle business”, or are presumably trying not to think too hard about how a business model based on customers with no money is ever going to work. Crunch down the gravel most nights, even now in the high season, and you’ll see the depressing sight of empty bar after empty bar, with groups of women sitting outside looking bored and discussing noodles.
There are one or two Western-owned venues still doing a trade like the Corner Bar and the Upstairs bar above it, but only the street of Khmer restaurants, identical in price and menu typos, are ever regularly more than half full. But with the cheap prices they charge, they can hardly be making more than a couple of thousand riel per customer – enough to pay the rent and give free accommodation, and a bit of spending money if you know how to live on a Cambodian wage.
As for the hobby entrepreneurs all living the dream, when they do try something new, they nearly always fail. The simple truth is there are not enough customers to support the ludicrous number of restaurants and bars in that small, seamy white ghetto that easily boasts the highest proportion of expats in Cambodia.
I once saw the owner of one bar hire a decent American three-piece covers band from Phnom Penh to try to drum up business. He’d spent tens of thousands fitting out his bar, but it was empty every night. He paid the band $150 for a two-hour set, but there were barely six customers in there. I walked back sometime later. The music was pumping, and then I turned and saw the misers lined up at a joint across the road, watching the band, but only paying $0.50 a beer.
The local business owners say it speaks volumes about Victory Hill. There is no support from anyone. And the $0.50 beers are killing everyone, they grumble. Some joke that the way things are going, the place will soon turn into the Chicken Farm, a line of huts near the port where dogs are said to fight over condoms dropped through cracks in the floorboards. Those misers watching the music for free while drinking their cheap beer had a lot in common with those dogs.