The Fall Of Victory Hill

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.

Alex Watts

Alex writes the excellent Chef Sandwich blog and is on Twitter. He is also author of the best-selling food book ‘Down and Out In Padstow and London’ available via Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones.

24 thoughts on “The Fall Of Victory Hill

  1. Wil Reply

    “Where dogs are said to fight over condoms dropped through cracks in the floorboards”. Not a line I will ever forget. Good read.

  2. Dave Marini Reply

    I remember when Victory Hill was pretty much the only place in Kompong Som to stay (apart from right in town) in the mid to late 90s. There was nothing down at Serendipity and Otres was totally your own if you wanted it. An English guy called Vic used to run a bunch of little bungalows there with his Khmer wife Sam and it was a wonderful place with wonderful people. I didn’t get back for a visit until many years later and felt sick to see what Victory Hill had become. I was politely asked by the owner of the guesthouse that I unfortunately stayed in for one night NOT to speak in Khmer to his staff. He felt worried that I would be talking shit about him without him understanding. I searched around for Vic, only to learn that he had died a few years earlier. Sam had remarried another Western guy who promptly chased me off his property for talking to Sam.

    What a shame on all fronts.

    PS If anyone reading this happened to know Vic, I would like to hear what actually happened…

    • Visser Reply

      Think its the same guy that later (early ’00) had the balcony restaurant in the middle of what is now the barstrip.
      Not sure what happened to him after that.

    • Rick Rougehat Reply

      Well Mr Marini, I am the fella that came over to Camboland in 2002.That would have been about a year after Vic was escorted back to the U.K. with the aid of the British Consul, mainly because of visa overstay problems.(at this point Sir, I have to apologise if you thought I’d chased you off the premises for chatting to my wife Sam.I certainly have no recollection of such an episode). Mrs Sam was never invited by Vic to get married, as he’d become a bit of a heavy ‘toker’ by then. Mrs Sam would often relate how Vic managed to make his UNTAC pay off of $8K last so long. But when the money was gone, well that was more or less the end for Vic in Cambodia.
      The bungalows that you speak of would have been on rented land where the present Sakal bungalows are situated.
      If I’m not mistaken, there’s a bar tab still waiting to be picked up by a young English teacher, who went on to establish Cambodia’s long running ex-pat, and tourist info monthly magazine.
      After being there for a while she moved (believe it or not) to rented land in front of the now massive Mealy Chenda premises.
      Soon after, she purchased for $300, a piece of land where she built Sam’s restaurant, where the current Tropicana girly bar is situated. Which is about when I arrived on the scene.

      Vic was assigned to live in a hostel in Gt. Yarmouth U.K. on arrival in U.K. where he eventually passed away(probably of a broken life). Vic’s remaining distant relatives in the U.K. contacted Sam through the Consul, to ask, if she wanted Vic’s ashes sent over from the U.K. This she declined, as she felt that at the end, they were pretty well washed up with each other.
      That bit of the story should serve as a cautionary tale for any ex-pat thinking of ending his/her days here in the Kingdom of Wonder.
      So to bring your most welcome enquiry to a conclusion. Mrs Sam and I have a wonderful son of 8.5 years. Living with us in her 9 bedroom mansion are her mother, and 3 orphan nephews.
      She also has one of the most impressive properties, pretty well situated midway between her two old addresses( Sakal Bungalows & Mealy Chenda).
      So now you know,(almost from the horses mouth), pretty much what happened to Vic.
      Mrs Sam and I are still going strong after 11 years. Not much about it has been plain sailing. But because I know how it ended for Vic, I’m pretty sure that his experience will only happen to me OVER MY DEAD BODY.
      I must thank Ken Svay for pointing out the article on Khmer 440 to which you refer. I reckon I’ve just received enough inspiration for a other 11 years.
      Rick Rougehat

  3. Sean Reply

    Gosh, I’m really sorry to hear the news. I remember back in the day staying at Mealy Chenda’s on Victory Hill. Now I wonder if the same plight has affected business there as well?

    • Matej Reply

      well I am working at Mealy Chenda right now trying to get some people in. but there are no customers left at Victory Hill. the only thing that seems to be working well here is sex tourism. I see mostly older men around chasing some girls but hardly some people who would come to listen to good music or taste some nice food. everybody seems to be chasing prices here.

  4. Ken say Reply

    Khmers call it o-doh nee yum.Many motos and tuktuks dont know it as victory hill.

  5. Snap Crackle Pop Reply

    Barflies stetching out their invalidity benefits and pensions in the cheapesr bars offering 50 cent handles ….. no money, no honey……cheap people not paying to see live entertainment….a magnet for the biggest arseholes from the four corners of the world……..
    I’m confused. It this article about Victory Hill or Phnom Penh ?

  6. Jeff Reply

    I am a tee totaller and do not take any drugs these days and have only lived on Victory Hill for 5 years. I like it here because of the great rooms with views, lovely balmy breezes and the fantastic family I live with. I have seen through non bleary eyes the influx of derelict human flotsam which arrived in small swarms (I am told) as a consequence of visa law changes in Thailand and India. Apparently, there are quite a few Barang refugees from the cesspit of Pattaya and Goa…? I find the behaviour of someone paying big money for a band on Victory Hill expecting to make money quite bizarre and delusional. Also, it appears that paying 50 cents for a beer instead of $1.50, not having music that is way too loud and not being harrassed by the poor bar girls for ladies drinks is a personal choice and common sense. But I do appreciate that the higher priced beer is totally justified and is good value for those that want to enjoy the privilige of nice decor, ambience and the alluring company of the Khmer girls. Each to their own…. Whilst some of the guesthouses are getting more long term regular customers and are doing ok on ‘Dero Hill’, competition keeps the margins thin for restaurants, and it ‘appears’ there are way too many bars for the smaller amount of sex tourists that frequent the area. Face it, mostly only reasonably well off Expats and sex tourists that are ‘blowing through’ are going to throw money away at girly bars, not retirees and lifestylers. Lastly, believe it or not!, I am not a ‘wowser’, I was ‘in the trenches’ as a binge drinker and smoked pot for 30 years, albeit whilst working full time. I got sick n tired of being sick n tired…hehe

    • Sean Reply

      Jeff- I’m encouraged by your post. Best Wishes for a continued upstream (flow of life) amidst the downstream. May Year~2013 (& you) be good to youself!

  7. Henry Morgan Reply

    The Mealy Chenda is a delight!

    Was Conor the Irishman who left Victory Hill?

    Where is his new billet?

    Is the Frog and Whatever still running? One hopes so!

  8. Mike Reply

    Alex Watts, you seem to take great pleasure in writing about ‘seedy’ westerners – and not just in this article.

    Does it make you feel superior?

    Are you another one of these seedy westerners? Just a bit better disguised? Why do you regularly frequent these places?

    I know your type.

  9. Bangkok Frank Reply

    actually sounds like an interesting area with a lot of potential…

  10. chris Reply

    I was in Victory hill before Retox. It was better back then, simpler, and friendlier. Then more girlie bars and stuff happened, and these new people arrived on the scene with brainwave ideas that weren’t gonna be lasting moneymakers. I guess they must be happy that they ‘tried’, did what seemed like a good idea at the time.

    I guess many must be kicking themselves now, as Serendipity, etc have now become the big draw leaving Victory hill with a very much tight fisted legion of so called ‘losers’ lol!

  11. theebz Reply

    interesting article and so many comments. i was persuaded by a khmer relative (in-law) to build a new bar at the top of vic hill. this new western influenced, khmer operated bar opened early 2012. we had a great year last year, paid off everything and we make a nice little profit every month. 2013 wet season business is down a lot, yes, financially tight, but we have never run into the red. there is always enough to pay everything and everyone. having said that, i don’t participate in the operation and have a real job and disposable income from outside cambodia. bars should be kept just for fun!

  12. Geofflorimer Reply

    Henry, I remember Connor and his brother in law, they had a bar each although often only one was open.
    The frog and shamrock, later whiskey bar parted company with the hill couple year ago although is still there under another guise. Johnny Walker bar next door and Chillaxn to other side still there I believe but not the busiest of areas. Off the strip if you know what I mean.
    I have to agree with most comments I have read on this thread but doesn’t men you can not live happily on the hill just ticking over. Ex pat bars in PP make fuck all so what chance the hill. I still enjoy visiting and call at corner bar among others. My couple of days a year aren’t going to make anyone rich. As for the girls, my wife put that little avenue of pleasure off limits long ago.

  13. tim1539 Reply

    It is sad to see the puritanism of the Western world, countries like Great Britain and the United States, seep into South East Asia. I believe Alex Watts is no more than a mouthpiece for Western women. In fact I do not think he is a man at all. I believe he has a vagina. Yes, in reality he is a woman. I live in one of the wealthiest suburbs of the United States, Marin County, CA. Marin County could easily be replaced by any American suburb. It is a place without much life. A place without Friday night parties, Saturday afternoon B.B.Q’s or Sunday wine and cheese parties on someones beautiful lawn. A place where men and women spend Saturday nights home alone in their house or apartment playing with their IPhone or “tablet”. Do I want, or we want, Cambodian culture to turn out the same way? DUI “checkpoints” and child support payments for casual sex do not create a living, breathing culture. A beating heart, a human life, is a very important thing. But so is the beating heart of the underlying culture. Let us hope Alex Watts and Cambodia never lose sight of this!

  14. gavinmac Reply

    Yeah, making men take financial responsibility for children they father is one of the absolute worst things about Western society. It’s right up there with mandatory schooling and those pesky drunk driving laws.

  15. tim1539 Reply

    The problem with American culture is that it has become boring. Frightened American men (particularly those from Texas) spend their nights home alone with one hand on their penis an the other hand on their laptop spewing out scared neurotic puritanical rants, rather than going up to Victory Hill, drinking three martinis, and having sex with wild beautiful women. British, American, Kiwi, and Aussie men are afraid of, and completely controlled by their frightened wives and girlfriends. The type of women that jump at every shadow and see the boogieman in every alley and bush. Men like Alex Watts and Gavinmac are scared. There is no doubt about that. Since they are far too afraid to get in a actual physical fight they publish photographs of bloody men. The same men that while they cower behind their silly computers, and overly moralistic articles they secretly wish they could be. Grow up, stop being afraid and stop listening to your girlfriends. Strong men take risks, weak men do what Western women tell them to do.

  16. stevie Reply

    Ye, i am here regularly and victory hill is definitely going down very Kwik.Its not nice to look at, especially for he beach, which is dirtier than ever, the road conditions are very poor and development for greed is clearly the cause of the rot.
    It does seem true that most people who frequent the place are losers, although I take my hat off to those who chance a bar as a business and those who try to do something different.
    Russian and Chinese money are the ruining factor,that is, the greed And selfishness of the place and although these are root causes.
    When I leave here again, I don’t think I will be coming back and I have heard this a few times now.Modern victory hill- who wants it? I don’t.

  17. Tom Nicholson Reply

    I have no desire to take any pot-shots at the author of this piece but only to relate my recent experience of having stayed one month at Independence Beach just a short walk up the hill to ” The Hill”. It was my second visit having been there for a short visit of only several days about ten years ago. A random offering of thoughts only rather than something a bit more coherent and lengthy.
    I found this place to be particularly chilled out. There are some particularly nice small restaurants with delightful food from a wide variety of cuisines at very reasonable prices. Pleasures of the flesh are many and varied and almost invariably offered by people who are pretty damned nice about it all and good company to boot.If you want real trouble you can find that also. I did not find it a seedy place and I have been living in, and moving around, S-E Asia on and off for over 40 years. I met a lot amicable,articulate and friendly expats on Victory Hill. It’s nice to have some smoko out in the open these days and you can do that there. Why not? And as far as that goes everybody knows about it and guess who is probably supplying it anyway? No worries. From what I could tell unless you were really asking for trouble or being utterly disrespectful to people it was all sweet. Other stuff is there too of course,which I don’t particularly like, and that’s just the way it is which is much the same as most places these days anyway.
    For what it is worth I have an Arts degree with Majors in Indonesian and Malaysian Studies and English Literature and Language as well as a Grad. Dip. in Applied Science from Sydney University. I have enjoyed extended stays on Java,in Malaysia, in Chiangmai, Pattaya, Phuket, Bangkok, Central Thailand as well as in Laos and Danang in Vietnam. I found Victory Hill to be one of the friendliest, most interesting and enjoyable places I’ve ever been. Independence Beach is not a great beach by any standard but I found it to be a pleasant place for a swim and did not suffer any consequent infections – pristine it is not to be sure but depending on the rainfall a reasonably clean place for a swim.

  18. [email protected] Reply

    Well written, especially the excerpt below. So well observed. How many times do you think he’s made this spiel?:

    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…”

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