Thursday, November 13, 2014


Lion Circle in beach town of Sihanoukville
Two giant golden lions, stand atop a great red pedestal, looking to the horizon. They are rather unique looking cats, with oblong shapes. Strangely, the male lion has a ball in his mouth, and wears large eyelashes, while the female lion next to him has none.

This is Lion Circle, a main traffic roundabout in Sihanoukville on Cambodia's south coast. A drunk Canadian recently crashed his scooter into this roundabout. He suffered serious head injuries, and lost a toes. Like other foreign tourists, he came here to enjoy the beaches, as Cambodia has few other beach town options. 

An odd thing about Sihanoukville is that it isn’t one town, it’s really four or five villages on a peninsula that have grown together. Too distant to visit on foot, I decide to rent a motorbike, strap on a helmet, and rev off to cruise the streets and beaches. 

Motoring around town, I notice there are few of the decaying French colonial homes like I'd seen in Phnom Penh. As Sihanoukville isn't an old town, most buildings were built recently. It wasn't always called Sihanoukville either; before the 1950's it was known as Kompong Som, then renamed after their beloved King Sihanouk. After he was kicked out of power in a coup, it was changed back to to Kompong Som. Then in the 1990’s, it was re-re-named Sihanoukville again. That's Cambodia.

Why does the male lion have eyelashes, and not the female?
Cruising the west end of town, I head along the coast. Passing a few small restaurants, I slow as I come to the port. Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only deep water port, first built in 1960 with French aid. Since the wars the port has gone through modernization. In the distance I can see large orange cargo cranes on the docks, though only two ships are docked today. This little port isn't much by global shipping standards, but Sihanoukville gave the US government major headaches during the Vietnam War era.

It was not well known at the time, but back in the 1960's, Sihanoukville played a key role in the communist war effort. Although publicly claiming neutrality, Sihanouk made a secret deal with North Vietnam. Starting in 1966, he allowed cargoes of communist weapons into this port. The weapons were then sent overland across the border to the Viet Cong, for use against American troops in South Vietnam. This route became known as the Sihanouk Trail, and by 1970 about 80% of the weapons for communist rebels in South Vietnam were passing through here. So much for Sihanouk's claim of neutrality. 

Aside from communist bribes, I wondered why Sihanouk agreed to allow this weapons pipeline. An accusation I heard from a bitter old Cambodian fighter that I met may explain it. He told me that Sihanouk cut a secret deal with Ho Chi Minh. Sihanouk agreed to allow North Vietnam to send troops and weapons across Cambodian soil, to infiltrate South Vietnam. In return, Ho Chi Minh promised Sihanouk that after North Vietnam had won the war in South Vietnam, he would give the Mekong Delta back to Cambodia. Years later, when Uncle Ho was on his deathbed, he told his comrades that after Vietnam was reunited, no matter what happened, they should never follow through on his promise. 
Port of Sihanoukville, former center of weapons smuggling (photo: Wikipedia)

This sleepy port of Sihanoukville was the scene of a rare 20th century act of piracy, and this also involved the USA. Today we tend to think of modern pirates as being from Somalia, but in this case, it was two American pirates! Even more surprising, is that the two hijacked an American ship!

March 14th of 1970 may have been the date for the world’s first known act of protest piracy. Two leftist American protesters who were against the Vietnam War, hijacked a 7,500 ton US freighter called the Columbia Eagle. The ship's cargo was $10 million in aircraft bombs, headed to a Thailand port. These bombs would later be sent onward to US bases, to be dropped on communist targets in Southeast Asia.

The Columbia Eagle, once hijacked by 2 American protest pirates. (Viet Arch photo)
The two hijackers were crewmen on the ship; Clyde McKay and Alvin Glatkowski, a pair of radicals from California. Using a bogus bomb threat to trick most of the crew onto lifeboats in the Gulf of Thailand (they were picked up later), they forced the captain at gunpoint to sail for Sihanoukville. On arrival, they asked for political asylum.

The plan of the pirate pair was quickly foiled, and the two radicals were jailed. Cambodian authorities allowed the ship to disembark soon after, with its lethal cargo intact. Later that year McKay, and a US Army deserter jailed with him named Larry Humphrey, managed to escape confinement in Phnom Penh. Then they disappeared. Some said that McKay ran away to join the Khmer Rouge, while others said that he settled as a farmer in eastern Cambodia.
Alvin Glatkowski's mugshot (photo: SDPD)

It would be many years before the outside world found out what happened to the ex-pirate and the deserter. Nearly two decades later, some of their buried teeth and fillings were recovered, by a mission team that was searching for the remains of missing US journalist Sean Flynn. Both McKay and Humphrey had been executed in 1971 by the Khmer Rouge, in the town of Boi Met. Given the violence of the Khmer Rouge era, their fate was predictable.

For Glatkowski’s part, he had his own ordeal to survive. He spent time in a Cambodian mental institution. He asked the Soviet Union for political asylum, but was denied. With nowhere else to go, he turned himself in to the US Embassy. He was flown back to the US, where he spent five years in prison. 

His story was no 'Pirates of the Caribbean' fable, but at least he lived to tell the tale.


  1. You don't give an option to email, but I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your blog. Originally, I found your blog with an inquiry about Long Tieng.

    Thank you for your blog. It's kept me company this morning in the village of Khun Yuam, Thailand.


  2. Thank you Gaonou! I'm glad you appreciate my blog. Have a great trip in Thailand.

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