Sihanoukville, Asia’s next trendsetting beach
Asia’s next trendsetting beach
Sihanoukville, also known as ‘Kompong Som’ is a coastal city in Cambodia and the capital city of Sihanoukville province, located at the tip of an elevated peninsula in the country’s south-west at the Gulf of Thailand. The city is flanked by an almost uninterrupted string of beaches along its entire coastline and coastal marshlands bordering the Ream National Park in the East. A number of thinly inhabited islands - under Sihanoukville’s administration - are in the city’s proximity, where in recent years moderate development has helped to attract a sizable portion of Asia’s individual travelers, young students and back-packers. In a land with thousands of years of history, Sihanoukville is a colourful but tragic upstart. A mere fifty years ago, a French-cambodian construction carved a camp out of the jungle and started building the first deep-sea port of a newly independent Cambodia. Named Sihanoukville in 1964 after the ruling prince of Cambodia, the booming port and its golden beaches soon drew Cambodia’s jetsetting elite, spawning the first Angkor Beer brewery and the modernist seven-story Independence Hotel which, claim locals, even played host to Jacqueline Kennedy on her whirlwind tour of Cambodia in 1967.
Alas, the party came to an abrupt end in 1970 when Sihanouk was deposed in a coup and Cambodia descended into civil war. The town – renamed Kompong Som – soon fell on hard times: the victorious Khmer Rouge used the Independence Hotel for target practice and, when they made the mistake of hijacking an American container ship, the port was bombed by the U.S. Air Force. Even after Pol Pot’s regime was driven from power, the bumpy highway to the capital was notorious for banditry and the beaches unfortunately stayed empty.
Peace returned in 1993 following the historic elections organized by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia ( UNTAC) and in the ensuing ten years Sihanoukville has been busy picking up the pieces. First visited only by a few intrepid backpackers, guidebooks still talk of walls pockmarked by bullets, but any signs of war are hard to spot in today’s Sihanoukville, whose new symbol seems to be the construction site. After 30 years of housing only ghosts, the Independence Hotel is up and running again, more and more Khmers and expats have settled down to run bars and restaurants, and the knowledge of what the New York Times dubbed “Asia’s next trendsetting beach” is starting to spread.
The small Sihanoukville Airport is located 17km to the east of town, on the edge of Ream National Park. Cambodia Angkor Air started flying to and from Siem Reap on December 14th 2011 with three flights a week.
Sokha Helicopters offers a VIP charter service between a private helipad at Sokha Beach Resort and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Charter rates start at US $1495 per flight hour plus 10% VAT & 10% SPT, with discount packages for stays at Sokha Beach Resort. Helicopters are modern, French-built Eurocopter Ecureuils with luxury leather seating for 5 passengers. Licenced pilots are from Australia and Europe. Flight time from Phnom Penh is 55 minutes and Siem Reap 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Phnom Penh Sorya Transport GST Express, and Mekong Express operate hourly services from Phnom Penh, taking 4-6 hours and costing $4.50 - $10, depending on the bus quality and the number of stops. The first bus leaves Phnom Penh at 7:00 AM; the last bus leaves at 8:00 PM.
Tickets can be booked at the bus company offices, travel agencies, and many guesthouses. It is worth reserving a day in advance to be sure of a seat. National Route 4 between
Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s best roads.
Giant Ibis and Mey Hong offer a 14-16 seat air-conditioned minibus that is aimed at tourists and never has more passengers than seats. The Tickets cost $10.
Rith Mony, Bun Thou, and Virak Buntham Express operate daily air-conditioned minibus service leaving at 8:30AM to/from the border with Thailand at Koh Kong/hat Lek, taking about 5 hours. “Local” and “Tourist” minibuses service this route; they are always jam-packed, and the trip can be uncomfortable.
“Local” service price depends on how much space you want (a whole seat, half a seat, or a space on the roof); foreigners can expect to pay $6-8. There are various company night buses running from Siem Reap. The trip takes around 12-14 hours and costs $14-17 for a sleeping 70% reclining seats bus with beds. But beware that the road is really bumpy, seats may be not like the photos in the ticket office, and you may be forced to change buses from sleeping to sitting in Phnom Penh. So make sure you have the direct bus with no changes, assigned seat and seller phone number to get what you paid for.
Distances between the beaches are a little too long to walk comfortably, but getting around is easy, as the roads are wide and bike taxis (motodop) are everywhere. The standard price is $2 per trip, although expect to haggle at night or if the distance is long. They’ll gladly pile on two people and their luggage too. For larger groups, car taxis can be called ($8 to most places around town).
There are dozens of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks around the new bus station and the accommodation areas. They are some of the most persistent and over-charging drivers in Cambodia; they have formed an “association” for price fixing - a trip to the bus station, $2 in Phnom Penh, costs $3 if your bus company pays but they
will charge $6 if you arrive at the bus station and want to go to the beach.
If you have decided where you will stay it can help to call for a pick up; even if its not free, it may save you some money.
The ride from the new bus station to Serendipity Beach should cost no more than $4 during the day. Another great choice to get around is to rent a scooter. Haggle a bit and you can get it for $16 a day or more - it depends on the season. Fuel is not very cheap (about $1.25/L) but can be bought at many roadside shacks. However, as of 2009, renting scooters to foreigners is technically illegal, and the police may stop and fine you.
The main reason to visit Sihanoukville is the beaches. They are not as crowded as many of those in Thailand, but can be cramped on weekends and holidays. Like many beaches in Southeast Asia, they are covered in a lot of rubbish, but Otres Beach is very clean.
Victory Beach, (south of the commercial port). Plenty of budget accommodation nearby on Weather Station Hill. This beach is close to the seaport.
Independence Beach. Also known as ‘7-chann beach’ after the grand seven-storey Independence Hotel.
Sokha Beach. It is owned by the Sokha Beach Resort. It’s private but you can access it by paying a couple dollars. The good thing is you won’t have many people begging here or trying to sell you something. Ochheuteal Beach is a long and narrow strip of white sand beach located in Sangkat No 4. The northern section has now become known as Serendipity Beach. This is a popular beach with western tourists, noted for small guesthouse rooms right on the beach.
There are around 30 beach huts serving good value meals and a wide selection of drinks, and a cluster of mid-range hotels and restaurants in the middle. Grass umbrellas, rentable beach chairs and little drink huts line the beach from one end to the other. Further south, a number of budget traveler/backpacker oriented bar/restaurant/ beach hangouts have sprung up offering umbrellas, drinks and a great atmosphere.
Serendipity Beach. Lots of guesthouses and bar/restaurants right on the beach, open until the early hours. This beach seems to be the most popular and typically has the greatest number of people on the beach. Serendipity Beach is connected to Ochheuteal beach.
Otres Beach, (South-east of Serendipity and Ochheuteal Beaches). Amazing 4 km long stretch of clean, white sand. Less crowded and more relaxed than other beaches in Sihanoukville. It starts with a strip of beach bars and guesthouses called Otres 1 followed by a 1km long public beach that ends at Otres 2 – another (smaller) strip of beach bars and guesthouses. Tourists will find nice rooms or bungalows ranging from $10 - 50 per night.
Otres Beach is a great place for lazy sunbathing, partying, and other activities such as catamarans, windsurfing, kayaks, various boat trips, buggy cars, bicycles and jet skis. The beach bars of both strips have sun beds and a local food / western food menu. Most of them also feature lovely bungalows or just simple rooms.
Famous places and activities on the beach:
Rent a kayak and row it to one of the mini islands that are close to the beach, or up the small river to a temple.
Windsurfing school – managed by a French expat who is also the teacher. The flat sea makes it an easy place to start surfing. Lessons costs around $30 and windsurfers are priced at $8-$12 / hour. There’s a party boat in Otres Beach with music, water slides and beerbongs. This is very similar to the “tourist boat tours” that are common to beaches around the world.
Otres Market. The preferred way to spend your evenings at Otres beach is the late night market. A big happening with live music, food stalls and probably all the tourists in the area. This goes on from 18:00 to early morning. Getting to the market is a $3 tuk tuk drive from Otres Beach.
Other Fun Spots
Ream National Park.
A wonderful mangrove nature reserve about 30 minutes drive from Sihanoukville. Take a moto to park headquarters for $12. From there, park rangers offer walking tours for $5 or boat tours for $20 (4 people). It is best to call in advance. The organised trips can be disappointing, as they sometimes fail to supply a proper guide and the food can be a bit dodgy.
Buddy Land Water Park.
This park is the first unique water park in Sihanoukville. It has a 12 meter high water slide and a large pool. Besides, they have a small souvenir shop selling different traditional souvenirs such as hats, bags, jewelries and scarfs. Coming soon: indoor playground for kids and BBQ stand.
White Sand Palace Hotel Water Park.
And then for something a bit different, just beside the White Sand Palace Hotel, there is a new water park that seriously looks like the most fun we can imagine having with some of our clothes still on. It will be closed until about August/september 2015, but after that will be $3 or $5 for children and $5 or $8 for adults, depending on the time of day, afternoon being more expensive.
Sihanoukville Beach at sunset
Cruise ship at the port of Sihanoukville
Golden Lion Statue
Mirax private resort
The Party Boat
Sokha Beach Hotel
Credit: Wikitravel.org, Travelfish.org
White Sand Palace Hotel Water Park