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Koh Sdach (King's Island) : A Socioeconomic Survey

KK II socioeconomic team


Figure 1: The island of Koh Sdach is the long narrow one near the centre of the image.
\epsfig{file=kohsdachpic.eps} \end{center}\end{figure}

Koh Sdach is a Cambodian fishing village situated on an island just off the Cambodian coast and is midway between the port of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong on the Thai-Cambodian border. The village is young having started only after the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime of Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot) in 1979. Before this date, only seven families occupied the island. The people in the village mostly consist of immigrants largely from Kampot province and from Kampuchea Krom in southern Vietnam. The current population is estimated to be around four thousand. The village does not seem to have been seriously affected by the civil war in the eighties and nineties. This is not surprising as the neighbouring backers of the Khmer Rouge, KPNLF and other rebels (Thailand and other ASEAN countries) had significant economic interests in the region, mainly illegal fishing and timber smuggling.1

To collect information about the village, we supplanted observations with interviews of the local villagers and reference material available from books and online sources[1]. A brief review of the interviews that we conducted is given in the appendix to this report.

In this report, we will outline the developmental and economic status as well as the social organization of the island. We will also outline what we consider to be the main developmental issues for the island and its possible future.

Economic Conditions in the Village

As in most of Cambodia, the government is largely nonfunctional even to the extent that the de facto currency is the Thai baht. A large portion of the economy is of a subsistence nature with a large reliance on fishing. Roughly 70% of the working population are fishermen with most of the rest being farmers or small time bussinessmen. Most of the fish that is caught is sold to Thailand.

The government has built a main road through the island and a school in the peaceful periods over the last decade. There are a surprising number of shops in the village with several pharmacies, provision shops, eating houses, karaoke joints, pool houses and even a brothel. The extent of this economic activity can be explained by the fact that the village is on an important trade route from Thailand to Cambodia and that it has abundant exploitable resources of fish and timber. Global Witness claims that significant timber smuggling from Koh Sdach took place in the 1990s[2]. The value of the timber exported illegally annually from Koh Kong province is estimated to be in the region of US$150,000,000 which is a significant portion of the economy. It was not possible to determine how much of this trade was from Koh Sdach.

The main industries in the island seem to be the sawmills and the ice factory. The sawmills process timber for export and for the local construction industry (virtually all houses in Koh Sdach are made from wood). The ice factory produces ice for the fishermen to aid in keeping the catch fresh besides supplying the island's electricity from its generator. The ice factory is owned by Mr. Panya, a Thai immigrant from Trat.

Due to the relatively low presence of government, most services including electricity and water supplies are provided by the private sector. The electricity and water supply in the village are both controlled by Mr. Panya. They are both very expensive with prices of around US$0.40/kWh for electricity and as much as US$7/$\mathrm{m}^3$ for water. There does not seem to be any public distribution system as all the shops seem to be private. Most of the goods in the shops seem to be imported from Thailand. The local goods comprise seafood, bananas and coconuts.

The service sector seems to be a large component of the economy, especially for a small village. There are a large number of eateries, pool houses, karaoke joints and video houses. There is even a brothel. This is compatible with the relatively large share (42%) of services in the Cambodian economy[3].

The average income of the fishermen seems to be about US$3 per day. Absolute poverty as defined by the UNDP (less than PPP $1 (about $0.20) per day) seems to be virtually nonexistent. This compares very favourably with a national poverty rate of 36%. The rapid economic growth of Cambodia after the end of the civil war seems to have benefitted this village as well. The small impact of the war on Koh Sdach also meant that it has had a longer time to develop and grow.

The Social Conditions at Koh Sdach


The island has a primary school which seems to be reasonably well equipped. The school has basic facilities such as a concrete building, blackboards and stationery. Instruction is in the Khmer language. Children will have to go to Sihanoukville for secondary education while university education is only available in the capital Phnom Penh. We noticed that several children were not enrolled in the school. The enrollment ratio for Koh Sdach is not known.


Koh Sdach has a hospital but it seems to be used more as a venue for volleyball practice than for medical treatment. According to information from one local resident, the doctors in the hospital have set up private practice and all patients are forced to visit them in this capacity. However, another resident claims that the medical services in the hospital are inexpensive and of reasonable standard. Access to clean water is marginal as the water was supplied to the houses was not particularly clean. Sanitary facilities do not exist in many houses and where they do, the sewage seems to be directly released into the sea. Spotting fecal matter in the sea around the island was hardly unusual.

Surprisingly, there are seven pharmacies on this island. This abundance of pharmacies is also seen in Phnom Penh and seems to indicate the poor allocation of resources in the medical services.

There is also a dentist in Koh Sdach. His clinic also doubles as a pharmacy and was undergoing renovation when we were in the village.

AIDS is a serious concern in Cambodia with estimates of its occurence as high as 4%. We did not directly encounter any AIDS cases in Koh Sdach. The manager of the brothel claims that he mandates the use of condoms.


Most of the houses are made of wood and have tiled roofs. A few concrete houses also exist and seem to be owned by the wealthier members of the community. Interestingly, Mr. Panya, one of the most prominent locals, lives in a wooden house (though one which is large and adjoins the jetty). The land for a wooden house costs US$8,000 to US$10,000 with the materials and workmanship costing another US$1,000 and represents a very significant investment for a local family.


There is one main road and several walking trails on the island. A few people have motorcycles and we even saw one or two pick up trucks. Almost all the locals have boats, mostly wooden fishing ones. Several people also own speedboats and some of the prominent fishermen have trawlers as well. A normal fishing boat costs US$300 to US$400 which is also the cost of a motorcycle. The mainland is only a few minutes away by boat and is visited often by the locals. A ferry service connects Koh Sdach to Koh Kong and Sihanoukville. The ferry takes two hours to go either to Koh Kong or to Sihanoukville and it runs once a day.


The chief entertainment seems to consist of watching videos, eating out, singing karaoke and playing pool. Several eateries and roadside stalls can be found from morning to night. Many of the eateries double as video houses during the night. Food costs are moderate with a meal costing around US$0.50. Many karaoke joints are to be found on the side of the island opposite to the main area of habitation. Many pool houses are there on the main street and charge around US$0.70 per hour. Most of the locals seem to combine playing cards and pool.

There is a brothel on the main street which was started five years ago. Since prostitution is technically illegal, the brothel masquerades as a ``guest house''. Most of the girls come from the poorer surrounding areas and work for a few months in the village. The brother mainly serves the locals. The cost ranges from US$2.50 for a short time to US$10 for a night. The manager of the brothel claims that police and other government officials use the services but do not pay.

Social Conventions

The island is still traditional but progressive in its outlook. Many of the young people go to Phnom Penh for university education but return after their education is done. Most marriages are not arranged and are by choice. Over the last three years, about one third of the population has converted to Christianity. Most of the rest are Buddhist and follow the Theravada school. There is a church and a Buddhist temple in the village.

The Future of the Economy

The mainstay of the economy is fishing and any effect on it is sure to reverberate throughout the entire economy of the village. Most villagers admit to sharply diminishing fish yields due to overfishing. This has resulted in economic problems and pessimism among most of the locals about the long term future of Koh Sdach. Several of the immigrants are planning to leave if the situation does not improve over the next few years. The rapid growth in the number of shops has also resulted in increased competition and smaller profit margins over the last few years. In other words, the economy of the island seems to be firmly in recession and has long term problems if the overfishing problem cannot be controlled.

Controlling overfishing is likely to be difficult as the main culprits are illegal trawlers from Thailand which do not practise environmentally friendly fishing techniques.

We also saw many forest fires in the surrounding islands. This area was well known for illegal logging and export of timber to Thailand and other ASEAN countries during the civil war but we were not able to find out if this is still the case today. In any case, the forest seems to have significantly reduced in size and it is unlikely that timber will be able to sustain the local economy.

If the government is able to implement plans for a marine park and resort, the economy can still have a bright future as the area still has significant amounts of marine life and many kilometres of empty beaches. The government has been taking steps in the right direction in this regard by inviting teams from Singapore and Australia to do studies on this. If it is not able to succeed with this plans, it could spell economic chaos for Koh Sdach.


I would like to thank Ms.Mellisa, Ms.Athena and Mr.Voon for helping me with the interviews. I would also like to thank Mr.Khoot without whose translation services it would have been impossible to conduct the interviews. I would also like to thank the other members of the team for their support.


We interviewed the following people


Phnom Penh Post, Vol 10 Issue 15, July - August 2, 2001.


The World Bank Group (URL :

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Koh Sdach (King's Island) : A Socioeconomic Survey

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Marakani Srikant 2002-02-06