Sihanoukville: Beaches, the New Macao
The town of Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som, is a coastal destination south of Phnom Penh: it is also known as “Snooky”. While this dusty and hilly place won’t win any beautiful-town competitions with its excessive and often unwanted development and dozens of casinos, it does have one draw card. Also, the centre of town itself doesn’t offer much to see. On the upside, the edge of town has the Otres Marina situated on the Ou Tro Jet river mangrove swamp and Otres temple can be visited. But the jewel in the crown and the best attraction is that it has most of Cambodia’s best beaches. It is also a great place to kick back and spend some time from the heat of the interior.
Cambodia, a Short Story
In a country with a rich history, Sihanoukville has had a rather short and checkered track record. Fifty or so years ago, a French-Cambodian construction company cleared the jungle and swamp then built a camp. It soon started building the first deep-water port in the country. Named after the prince, Sihanoukville quickly become a destination for Cambodia’s elite who enjoyed the beaches. It also became home to Angkor Beer brewery “My Country My Beer”, and the seven-story Independence Hotel was thrown up there; local legend has it that Jaqueline Kennedy stayed there when she visited Cambodia in 1967.
Then in 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a coup and Cambodia descended into civil war. To add insult to injury, the Lon Nol government renamed the town Kompong Som and dark days descended on the place. The Khmer Rouge soon took over and the beaches became a ghost town. Even after the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the road from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville was a dangerous place and notorious for kidnappings, hold ups and Khmer Rouge activity.
It took time for people to return to Sihanoukville. But after the Vietnamese occupation, UNTAC engineered election in 1993, and the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, the town has slowly come to life. More and more visitors now go to Sihanoukville. In recent years, Chinese businesses and tourists have flooded in.
The main draw card is the beaches. Except for Serendipity, they are not nearly as crowded as those in nearby Thailand. However, crowds flock here on weekends and holidays.
To start with, there are two beaches south of the commercial port; Victory and Independence Beaches. The first, Victory beach, has plenty of budget accommodation on nearby Weather Station Hill. A bit further south is Independence Beach. It is also known as “7-chann beach” after the seven-storey Independence Hotel found here.
Continuing south you’ll find Sokha Beach. The beach is owned by Sokha Beach Resort. It is possible to use the beach but be prepared to pay a few dollars if a staff member spots you. This beach is maintained and kept clean and being private you won’t have people begging or trying to sell you something. There is a smaller beach next to Sokha which is public and rarely used. It is just next to the road as it goes up the hill to town and the main beaches.
The most popular and developed tourist beach is Ochheuteal. Chnay Occheuteal is a long and narrow strip of white sand beach. The northern end is misleadingly called Serendipity Beach. Why it has a separate name is unclear as the reality is that it is all the same beach. In fact, there are three main areas: the beach itself, the road running parallel to the beach and the road running perpendicular from the dock at Serendipity Beach up to a huge traffic circle. Ferries use the dock to go to the nearby islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. The boats several times per day from the dock. You can take a slow boat, speed ferry or make a day out and go on a tour boat.
At Ochheutal there are numerous hotels, guest houses, beach huts, minimarts and a vibrant nightlife. So, it gets crowded during the day, night and into the wee hours of the morning. In the daytime people hire the deckchairs that carpet the beach then soak up the sun and water. Here there are many food stalls and restaurants serving grilled meat, chicken and seafood with chips/fries and a beer for US$3-4. Unfortunately, the water is not so good in this area and theft is a problem on the beach, so do not leave any valuables unattended.
At night, the many restaurants lining the beachfront are crowded with people trying the huge variety of seafood places. In fact, there are many good restaurants in town as well. Sihanoukville has a surprisingly diverse set of cuisines.
Hotels and Casinos
Ochheutal has also seen a hive of activity in the construction of hotels and casinos which like to cater to Chinese tourists. There are officially 42 casinos, but it is believed there is closer to 85. Cambodians are refused entry and westerners are a rare sight. This development is a closed economic loop in which Chinese tourists patronise only Chinese-owned businesses who prefer Chinese workers which means locals are being cut out of the action and squeezed out of their own town.
As you go south along Ochheuteal Beach the restaurants, chairs and other amenities thin out. Eventually, it is a beach with few people on it. There is the occasional store where food and drink can be bought. A great area to escape the mob.
At the southern end of Ochheuteal Beach, there is a small hill and on the other side is Otres Beach, actually Otres 1 and 2. This amazing four-kilometre stretch of white sand and clear water is less crowded and much more relaxed than other beaches.
Along Otres beach are dotted bars, restaurants and guest houses. It is a great place to laze about soaking up the sun or enjoy a swim. The water here is wonderful. The southern end of this beach is Otres 2 and ends at the marina which provides boats and charters for the river and the sea. Otres 2 is famed for its sunsets and mangroves on the Ou Trojak Jet river. If you’re feeling adventurous, on the other side of the river is Otres 3.
Distances between the beaches are a little too long to walk comfortably but getting around is easy. A fantastic way to visit the beaches is by bicycle. The more ambitious can take cycling trips up into the hilly outskirts of town or in town: Sihanoukville is quite bumpy. Of course, there is an abundance of motorcycle taxis and tuk tuks. Taxis can also be hired.
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of places such as Phnom Penh or the mostly hot and dusty places in Cambodia, then Sihanoukville is just the place.