In a nutshell
Stay beachside and relax! Cambodia's backpacker magnet and top beach destination offers cheap food and accommodation arched along a peninsula, although not quite to the standard of Thailand. Avoid town: it's seedy. Ream National Park is a worthy diversion.
A peninsula ringed by pretty whiteish-sand beaches and surrounded by a smattering of very attractive islands, Sihanoukville is Cambodia's premier beach location. Do its beaches rival those that lure the hordes to neighbouring Thailand? We reckon they do.
Sihanoukville town is Cambodia's youngest city. It sprang to life in 1955 when a construction team arrived at what was then known as Kompong Som to begin work on Cambodia's first (and only) deep water port. When the port was finished in 1960 the area was renamed Sihanoukville (in honour of then King Sihanouk) but many Cambodians continue to refer to it as Kompong Som.
The Khmer Rouge kept Sihanoukville largely off-limits to all but the most intrepid travellers for years. But today, with a good road from Phnom Penh and an airport where regular flights operate (finally!), Sihanoukville is drawing a steady stream of backpackers along with expatriates down from Phnom Penh for lazy weekends.
But, to be honest, most people are no longer coming for Sihanoukville town itself, but rather its islands offshore. Yes, you can relax on the mainland beaches, but you'll be selling yourself short if you don't visit at least one of the islands. Which one is right for you?
The first time we visited Sihanoukville way back when, we loved it, the second time less so; each time after that less so again, as its seediness started to outshine the prettiness. Despite its newfound popularity, the town has a somewhat abandoned feel to it, amplified by the number of half-built or deserted plots of land marked out by high and imposing fences — plots often "owned" by business people with sometimes dubious land titles and an eye for a fast buck. As Thailand slowly tightened its visa regulations, it seemed there was a commensurate influx to Sihanoukville of crusty, sex-tourist types who have certainly contributed to the rising number of dodgy bars. Sihanoukville also has a long-running problem with foreign and local paedophiles.
And though it's a beach town, it's not the most relaxing place. Plenty of construction projects in all parts of the town make sleeping in a luxury and time spent on many of the beaches is punctuated by repeated requests from street children and local vendors to buy bracelets, make donations or have massages.
Ochheuteal beach was Sihanoukville's most popular, but it still retains a bit of a caravan-park feel to it and the motodops here are among the most dodgy in Cambodia. It may be difficult to pronounce, but the name certainly hasn't put people off the longest and most popular beach in Sihanoukville. Many actually know Ochheuteal beach as Serendipity, which actually refers to the western patch of sand.
Much of the beach is dedicated to food stalls and small bamboo bars, but the southern stretch is largely deserted. While Serendipity has the bulk of the beach hotels and guesthouses, the restaurants and bars stretch for much more of the full length of the beach, with the far end playing host to the on-again off-again joints that offer free accommodation in the low season (you're expected to either eat and drink at the place frequently or help them distribute flyers in return).
The seas can get rough here and drownings are not uncommon, so exercise care when swimming — the waves may not look big, but the currents are deceptive. And, without wanting to sound too much like your mother, swimming when under the influence (of whatever) isn't a particularly intelligent thing to do.
Ochheuteal also has more than its fair share of con-men, dodgy moto drivers and other lowlife, so exercise care at night. Staggering down the beach in the early hours of the morning stoned or drunk is not recommended. Rapes, stabbings and muggings have all been reported here, both at the rocky end near Serendipity, but also along the other end of the beach.
Further to the south, over the headland, you'll find the rather tempting Otres Beach -- the better, if lesser known, of Sihanoukville's beaches with its whitish sand and calm tides. Fewer beggars and children are around selling bracelets and the beach has a far more relaxed vibe than Ochheuteal beach.
Thanks to low-rise zoning restrictions and some creative architecture, Otres Beach enjoys a chilled out vibe -- for now, anyway -- so chilled out that in low season Otres Beach is even quieter than the rest of Sihanoukville and many places do close up shop. With so few people, so much sand and the sprawling sea, this could be the deserted island you've been searching for ... and you don't even have to leave the mainland -- fancy that.
In the opposite direction from Otres on the other side of Ochheuteal is a radiant stretch of almost white sand and clear shallow waters: Sokha Beach wins our vote for the most eye-pleasing and relaxing beach in Sihanoukville.
The beach is backed by the huge Sokha Beach Resort, the first — though no doubt, not the last — truly flash hotel to plunk down in Sihanoukville. Although it's a shame to see one resort dominate the sand, at least they look after it well: the beach is near-always clean and the water sparkling. There is a very shallow drop off here, so you can wander a long way out into the water before it gets deep, making it ideal for those with young children.
Off the beach and in town, an array of places to stay dot Sihanoukville town, where most touring Cambodians have long chosen to base themselves. For foreign visitors however, the town doesn't have anything much of interest to offer aside from way too many foreigner-run bars. Should you decide to stay here rather than head to one of the beaches, Sihanoukville has no shortage of hotels and a couple of good guesthouses all within a pretty easy walk of the market and share-taxi stand area of town. The bars are strongly focused on the single male traveller.
Ream national park
Registered in 1995, Ream National Park is one of the Cambodian coast's main crowd pleasers. Sitting predominantly on the mainland, much of the park is easily accessible from Sihanoukville town as a day trip, though the islands of Koh Thmei and Koh Ses also fall within the boundary of this bountiful natural playground. Most of the mangroves, wildlife and beaches are in pristine condition, with landscapes for everyone: mangrove forests, a mountainside waterfall and miles of beaches unmarked by footprints. Nearly 200 bird species live within the park, including herons and cranes. King cobras and pythons have been spotted too, so be vigilant on hiking trails!
Yes they're gorgeous and yes there are quite a few to choose from. Start with our
Five special hotels in Cambodia
Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past
Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
Which Cambodian island is right for you?
Why you should go to Cambodia
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Text and/or map last updated on 25th March, 2015.
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