Sihanoukville beaches lure expats

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First published 14th March, 2005

Dozens of Western tourists ambling through Cambodia's Sihanoukville are tossing aside travel plans to relocate to this sleepy resort town, drawn by sparkling seas and a no-frills lifestyle.


Entrepreneurial backpackers are setting up businesses catering to their cohorts ranging from guesthouses to pizza parlours, while some are simply shocked by war-torn Cambodia's stark poverty and feel compelled to help out.

American Will Capel was among the early crowd of sunseekers, arriving three years ago as Sihanoukville was being added to itineraries of backpackers intrepid enough to battle the bad roads or overloaded boats to get here.

"Initially it was the beach culture," Capel says of why he stayed.

"A lot of the development hadn't started yet -- a lot of the development had started as well, but you could go out onto Ochheuteal beach and you were just alone, and it was like wow, this is great."

A tangle of cheap restaurants serving up fresh seafood feasts now line half of Sihanoukville's most popular beach, along with a handful of bars pumping out music, while at the other end a 9-hole golf course is under development.

Capel, a liberal arts graduate and record clerk, spent three weeks running a cocktail bar once he'd decided to stay and eventually opened a second-hand bookstore.

"I do want to go back, go to school -- at the same time if you don't know what you want then it's a pretty good place to be in a holding pattern and try to figure out what you want."

He estimates that 30 businesses run by foreigners were operational in the 1950s-founded port town a year ago, a figure that has soared to around 50.

While Sihanoukville was popular among Cambodia's elite in the 1960s, their carefree days were brought to a tragic end with the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1975 and bloody conflict that persisted until six years ago.

Today the town, nestled among green hills and the centrepoint between an array of whitesand beaches, is blossoming into life but it remains largely undeveloped, thanks to a national economy crippled by poverty and corruption.

Julia McGarvey, 34, and her husband sold their English home and were supposed to be on an around-the-world backpacking trip, but Cambodia seduced them into abandoning it partway through.

They opened a six-bungalow guesthouse and bar by the beach here in February.

"We expected it to be difficult and it was," says Julia, who had already tossed in her job as a local government data analyst with a view to escaping the Western rat race.

Although she can now put in 18 hour days and hassles have ranged from unnavigable bureaucracy to sometimes hostile locals, the rewards are worth it, she says.

"I have a great view from my office window -- I didn't even have an office window before," she says, gesturing to the lapping waters and sunchairs just outside the bar.

"To me it's a better lifestyle than in England, which involves working stupidly long hours and coming home, being too tired to do anything... So yeah, I'm working, but it's just not the same."

Cambodian Pech Arunn welcomes the presence of foreign businesspeople in his hometown, arguing that they are teaching locals what they need to do to earn money from the burgeoning tourism trade, or are at least providing jobs.

"Westerners have the techniques, the know-how to attract Westerners. Cambodians who want to compete can see what they should do," he says, adding that he runs a year-old 25-bungalow operation. "I'm local, but I can compete. I've learned from them about European style, how to follow them, what sort of service and techniques to offer." For some such as Chris Reid, a 26-year-old American architect travelling through Southeast Asia with his wife before they based themselves here, it's the challenges Sihanoukville is facing that made it appealing.

"I find it interesting because life is so raw here. What really drew us to it through was the extreme poverty and the lack of real services for people that were actually helping them," he says.

The couple now works for an organisation helping street children, a growing problem here due to the languishing economy, family violence -- and the potential money the increasing flood of tourists might give to beggars.

"I like the work that I do, for me it's much more satisfying. Even though I'm not doing things that I wouldn't excel in necessarily, they're things I really enjoy... It's more rewarding because I see direct results."

The downside of freewheeling Sihanoukville's beaches, charm and cheap living however, is its appeal to Western sex tourists, with the resort building a dubious reputation as a destination for paedophiles.

"If you do a sample of expatriates who live in Sihanoukville, there's a lot of younger people doing good work... at the same time there's a lot of creepy old beer-drinking, past-their-prime guys too," says bookstore owner Capel.

"There's definitely the Pattaya contingent that's moving in," he adds, referring to the Thai seaside resort town infamous for its illicit offerings.

We'd like to dedicate this story to the memory of Will Capel RIP who passed away on August 3, 2004.


About the author:
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.


Read 4 comment(s)

  • Great article, my interest is definitely piqued. When was this written? Dates of writing would be super helpful, especially when making references like X years ago. Just a thought :)

    Posted by beekalove on 27th August, 2009

  • I am here now - i would not recommend anyone coming to Sihaoukville....

    If crowded Majorca like beaches, effluent pumping into the sea, ant crawling bars and dealing with high as a kite would be ibiza - ens is your thing.. then Sihanoukville is your place. Seriously, if youare going to come here, leave as soon as you arrive on a boat to Koh Ta kiev... we have just been there and it was a world away from commercial, seedy, dirty, crowded Sihanoukville. I have found all guide books and sites including this one to be seriously out of date.. almost like they went to some place else? if you read Footprints guide to Cambodia.. even the 2008 version will tell you the truth about sihanoukville and its undeground seediness.... and now the pretty place is being replaced with this thing we call development... mass tourism and environmental nightmares.

    Posted by jojow25 on 23rd November, 2009

  • sorry if thats too ranty but i am just trying to help a fellow traveller not to have high hopes like i did about this place and i am so upset about how tourism destroys nature i feel amost guilty for being here!

    Posted by jojow25 on 23rd November, 2009

  • Any new updates?

    Posted by Sihanoukville on 26th April, 2010

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