By Andrew Kolasinski
After my afternoon swim off the Sihanoukville shore I was drying off and enjoying a cocktail on the beach. Lost in thought, I looked up from my stir stick to see three little faces. Thin reed-like voices urged me to see and to buy. A group of children, a pair of small brothers led by their big sister was showing me their selection of fireworks.
My hesitation to buy firecrackers, Roman candles, flares, sparklers, and mini rockets didn’t disappoint the kids very much.
“Too bad for you, but more for us,” said the girl.
An hour later after the sun set, the first stars were eclipsed by bursts of color and a barrage of explosions. There was laughter and shrieks of joy. Along with groups of tourists and locals, I saw the three little vendors down on the beach firing off their unsold wares.
Despite the lack of supervision, of site assessment or safety standards, no one was injured and no buildings were torched by the pyrotechnic revelry. This beach party town celebrates the arrival of the darkness with fireworks almost every night.
Fireworks have a long history in Cambodia. It’s not surprising considering the long association of the Khmer nation with China where explosive dynamite was invented.
Marco Polo may have first witnessed the use of fireworks to frighten animals, but the description in his 1299 “Book of the Marvels of the World” is uncertain and vague. Decades earlier in 1267 Roger Bacon wrote about gunpowder and its uses for fireworks, so it’s unclear if the first European to see fireworks may have been a previous explorer. What is clear is that the Chinese used pyrotechnics to celebrate events like coronations, royal weddings and military victories as well as in military uses, to frighten the enemy’s horses and to shoot flames at fortresses.
The Chinese influence on Cambodia goes back to the expanding Han Dynasty of the second century B.C. Throughout the millennia an exchange of cultures spread the technology of gunpowder throughout Southeast Asia and fireworks became a part of every big celebration.
In Sihanoukville the origin of fireworks likely goes back to the creation of the nation’s only deep water port in this once tiny fishing village. Completed and inaugurated in 1960 the port facility was celebrated with speeches, music and of course fireworks. After the Khmer Rouge regime and the war of liberation the city developed into Cambodia’s main beach resort. Nightly fireworks have now become routine among the locals, tourists and ex-pats.
Vendors, often just children, pick up a few dollars selling fireworks along the beach every night, but on New Year’s Eve (the western calendar) the festivities are truly explosive.
Most revelers wait for the actual count-down moment of the New Year but the fireworks go off all night along the shores of this city of 200,000.
Sihanoukville’s most accessible and most popular beach, Serendipity, will be blasting with explosive fun for its five kilometers of shore. The New Year’s party always peaks at Oechetal beach further past the center of town, and even distant Otres beach will ring with the sounds of firecrackers, missiles, whistlers, ground spinners, and flares.
If pyrotechnic fun is your idea of a good time then Sihanoukville’s shores will be your paradise any night of the year.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, experts in adventure tours to Cambodia and all over Southeast Asia.
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