In an attempt to avoid going stir-crazy in Phnom Penh, you can take a bus to Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s only deep-sea port and leading beach resort area on the Gulf of Thailand.
The French named it Sihanoukville, the Cambodians Kampong Som. Some expats refer to it as “Snooky” and others, largely Anglophiles, refer to it as the Costa del Cambodia. Overly ambitious developers would like to think of it as an Indochinese Riviera.
Cambodia doesn’t really “do” beaches. To the east is Viet Nam, one long beach. To the west is Thailand famed for its beaches. Comparatively, Cambodia’s coastline is short (500km) and it has but a handful of small offshore islands; pretty but not spectacular. Cambodia’s restricted maritime footprint was the result of French colonial rule, a hangover of which is the vexed issue of sovereignty with its larger, more powerful neighbours. A sticky situation now much heightened with offshore oil and gas deposits being claimed by all three nations.
The port of Sihanoukville was built by the French who named it for the former regent, Norodom Sihanouk. The French also built the railway to Phnom Penh. Years of warfare and neglect saw this infrastructure fall into disrepair. Today the rail line has been resurrected with foreign aid monies. Freight trains now run twice weekly to and from Phnom Penh’s art deco railway station near Monivong Boulevard.
Tourism started to take off in the 1990s when personnel from UNTAC, then the largest UN operation ever launched, descended on Sihanoukville for R’n’R after clearing out the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge. It was UN personnel who were largely responsible for introducing HIV/Aids to Cambodia, with prior screening an oversight. Later tourists came looking for sun, sea, cheap beers and the darker sides of tourism; drugs and sex, in various forms.
The journey to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh takes about 5 hours. For a couple of dollars more than the regular bus (cheaper for Khmers) some services, such as Golden Bayon Express, boast they do it in four hours. True, I did it there and back.
Despite the aid dollars, not all freight travels by rail and the road to Sihanoukville is dominated by trucks carrying containers, poorly secured loads of gravel and the delivery fleet of Angkor Breweries. By comparison with the usual motley collection of heavy vehicles found on local roads, the red beer trucks of Cambodia’s favourite brew appear positively pristine.
Sihanoukville is found at the end of National Route Four beyond the province of Kampong Speu. Picturesque sugar palms dominate the landscape extending across the rice paddies dotted with lotus flowers, and can make for a great sunset. Cambodians say there are more palm trees there than in any other province in the country. Beyond the eponymous capital of Kampong Speu the road passes the “Magic Mountain” National Park, Kirirom; Cambodia’s first designated national park, popular with day trippers from Phnom Penh.
Nearer the coast there are large palm oil plantations, now a major employer, where rows of trees stretched off to the distant foothills from the roadside. Much of recent developments in Cambodia are subject to land disputes, with instances of land grabbing, evictions and other dubious practices commonplace, especially if land is considered prime real estate.
Sihanoukville itself is surrounded by palm-fringed sandy beaches and tropical islands, most of which are easily within reach by day trips. From a distance it looks idyllic, but up close it’s less inspiring. The town consists roughly of three sections; beaches, port and downtown with a central market. For a small town, it’s very spread out with seemingly little thought given over to planning, and sadly has little charm. Little advantage has been made of the rolling hills that overlook a tree-lined coast with white sand beaches. Further development will unlikely improve the situation, especially with regard to care of the environment.
Beaches here lie from north to south, namely: Victory, Hawaii, Independence, Sokha, Serendipity, Occheteal and further south, Otres, the quiet beach. Some of these Sihanoukville beaches are crowded with beach chairs, umbrellas, bars, and people. Some are just filled with sand. A few beaches are rocky, and nice to look at, but not for swimming.
Sokha beach is privately owned and was the first luxury beach hotel in Cambodia. It boasts the Sokha Vegas Casino, where gambling is for foreign passport holders only. Independence Beach is located next to Sokha Beach. The beach was named after the old Independence Hotel. Victory Beach was the original backpacker beach and still popular with budget travelers. Further south of Victory beach is another small strand of sand called Lamherkey beach. It is the place where a French and Cambodian construction team laid groundwork for the construction of the new Port of Kampong Som during 1950s.
Sihanoukville is popular with cashed-up Khmers; backpackers doing the Lonely Planet shuffle, and a number of expats of varied background and dispositions. Other tourists are making their way there in greater numbers; often Eastern Europeans. Diving and sailing are popular pastimes, along with the various tourist cottage beach industries of every description. Trips are also available to nearby Ream National Park, which has so far achieved a rare feat; thanks to vigilant, apparently uncorrupt rangers, they've managed to keep most of the mangroves, wildlife and beaches in pristine condition. From most Cambodia beaches, you can take trips to the islands, and rent boats for snorkeling and fishing.
When I first visited Sihanoukville in 2006 I stayed on the main thoroughfare, Ekareach Street. The Anchor Arms resembled a traditional English pub but was owned by a Frenchman. One of the characters often found in these parts, he’d driven to Cambodia in a Range Rover via Siberia. The vehicle survived and was still in town. I asked him why he had chosen that way to travel and he replied there was less chance of being arrested. The alternative route via Iran and Pakistan, held less appeal.
I last visited there in 2014. The plaque on Occheteal Beach declares this to be one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Behind are gaudy hotel developments. Once empty save for a few deck chairs now there are sun umbrellas and hawkers densely packed. Lean-to restaurants have given way to more permanent structures, their owners moved on. The walkway is paved and the cows have gone. At least the rubbish has been cleaned up; development being a double-edged sword.
Like Thailand, Cambodia is experiencing an influx of Russians, though not in anything like the waves descending into Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. Some are unwelcome anywhere like the convicted paedophile, Alexander Trofimov, former head of Snake Island Developments resort project at Koh Pous. Trofimov has since been arrested, jailed, pardoned (inexplicably) and now deported, leaving behind a dubious legacy, which NGOs say reflects badly on Cambodian authorities.
There are more than a dozen islands off the coast of Sihanoukville for tourists to hop around. Aside from Snake Island development is progressing apace, spurred by the Royal Group, Cambodia’s biggest conglomerate, and keen to see this sleepy town hit the heights, or lows, of beach resorts the region over. There’s Rong Island, Aun Island, and Bong Island under development, and other islands granted approval were awaiting the start of construction. Meanwhile, Daek Koul Island, located on the coast of Preah Sihanouk province, is finished and beginning to receive visitors.
In Cambodia’s burgeoning tourism industry, Sihanoukville is seen as the country’s missing link. Figures reveal barely 10 percent of foreign tourists visit Cambodia’s beaches. Cambodia now sees a golden opportunity to develop tourism along its relatively untouched coast with much of the future seen at the high end of the market. In the Koh Rong archipelago, Song Saa Private Island development was completed in late 2011.
Sihanoukville caters for most wallets. Rooms can be had for US$20 a night, even at high season, and others stretching to four figures. Cambodia is still finding its way, having started from a fairly low baseline. Like most things in this country, it pays have some patience, and a smile will get you through.
The vagaries of Sihanoukville for tourists extend to motorcycle hire. Be warned, local moto riders can conspire with police to keep you off the road or fine you for being on it. My last visit prompted a ticket from police for not having a Cambodian driver’s licence. “Who does?” would be the usual response. “In your country no licence you pay fine” explained the policeman. This is true but as I explained in my country this would also mean getting a ticket. To my astonishment, the policeman duly wrote me a ticket for my $1 fine. But he forgot to fine me for having my headlight on during daytime. I felt a small victory.
Travel wise, you can also get to Sihanoukville by air and by sea. Sihanoukville’s airport is international in name only. In 2007, a plane crash at the newly opened airport put a dampener on Cambodia's already shaky aviation history. A fast ferry runs from Koh Kong near the Thai border. Back in 2007 when I used it, I would’ve described this service as a floating death trap; only for the desperate, the curious, those who don’t know better, or anyone with a devil-may-care attitude. It does provide an interesting insight into the life for Cambodians along isolated parts of the coastline as it stops briefly at several isolated communities.
If you want a break from Phnom Penh or just some time away you can spend a quiet time in Sihanoukville. The Riviera it is not, but that’s okay, and you wouldn’t want it to be in any case; it’s just Cambodia by the sea.