The Golden Lions Monument is the most recognizable landmark in the city of Sihanoukville in Southern Cambodia. Locally referred to as Vimean Tao Meas in Khmer, the monument is hard to miss since it is in the middle of a roundabout highway that leads to the famous Sokha, Serendipity and Ochheuteal beaches. This is a major tourism thoroughfare in this rather very tiny city. Surrounding this prominent monument are hotels, seafood restaurants, karaoke bars, and guesthouses.
Constructed in 1996, the Golden Lions Monument has a variety of meanings as told by locals, but no one is quite sure what it officially stands for. The monument is made up of two gleaming golden lions: the male lion stands proud with mouth open while his crouching lioness looks calm and benevolent. Locals say that as they look at it, they remember the violence that beset the country through the years and shaped the Khmer’s inner tranquility and calm despite the pressing national hardships.
In the 1950’s, the city was known as Kampong Som and was mostly a lush jungle. It was established as a deep-sea port city by a French-Cambodian construction team in 1964, and named Sihanoukville after King Sihanouk. Located along the southern coast of Cambodia that is blessed with beautiful pristine beaches, the port city quickly developed and became known worldwide. It became the home of the first Angkor Beer brewery and hosted Jacqueline Kennedy inside the seven-story Independence Hotel, which was a major structure in the 1960’s.
Unfortunately, King Sihanouk was unseated in 1970 and the country slumped into civil war. Sihanoukville was renamed Kompong Som. In 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and ravaged the county. The popular Independence Hotel was reduced to nothing more than target practice for a band of Khmer Rouge soldiers stationed in the area, and Kompong Som was badly damaged after it was bombed by U.S. Air Forces in response to Pol Pot’s hijacking of an American container ship. The ship and its crew were soon released after the bombing. Sihanoukville sank into depression much faster than it rose to fame. Angkor Brewery closed down in 1975, as well as other establishments such as a truck and tractor plant and St Michael’s Catholic Church (which reopened in 1993). Angkor Brewery reopened in 1991. Even after the Khmer Rouge lost power, no one bothered visiting Sihanoukville since the roads were bumpy, potholed and teeming with thieves. The beautiful beaches were left empty for years. It was a long and slow process towards rebuilding, and it is only recently, beginning in 1997, that this southern Cambodian city had began earning attention from foreign tourists yet again.
Today, other than the Golden Lions Monument, Sihanoukville is known for a number of tourist attractions, which include the old Kampong Pier Nup Lok fishing port, nearby Bamboo Island (locally known as Koh Russei), and Sihanoukville’s white sandy beaches – Victory Beach, Independence Beach, Sokha Beach, Serendipity Beach, Otres Beach (the least developed beach located along Serendipity), and Ochheuteal Beach (pronounced roughly, Oh’-chur-teal), the most popular beach that is teeming with guesthouses, restaurants, bars and local shops. Scuba diving and snorkeling are quite an experience in Sihanoukville and Bamboo Island. Off their shores are tiny islands with colorful corals and reef fishes.