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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.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia's premier beach location, a peninsula ringed by pretty whiteish-sand beaches and surrounded by a smattering of tiny islands. Debate rages over whether its beaches will ever seriously rival those that lure the hordes to neighbouring Thailand, but given international tourism's insatiable appetite for new places, we think they will ... eventually ... one day ... maybe; at least, the international developers who have snapped up many of the islands on long-term leases are hoping so.

Cambodia's youngest city, Sihanoukville town 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 on-again, off-again airport where regular flights may one day become a reality, Sihanoukville is drawing a steady stream of backpackers along with expatriates down from Phnom Penh for lazy weekends.

The first time we visited Sihanoukville 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 businesspeople with sometimes dubious land titles and an eye for a fast buck.

And though it's a beach town, it's not the most relaxing place. Endless 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, Sihanoukville's most popular, has a bit of a caravan-park feel to it and the motodops here are among the most dodgy in Cambodia. Over the last few years, Thailand has slowly tightened its visa regulations and it seems there's been 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.

It isn't all bad news though. Sihanoukville's beaches are sprawling and pretty, though perhaps not as postcard-perfect as many of Thailand's. The sand is generally grainier and more yellow-grey in colour and many are lined with ramshackle food vendors. On weekends, Khmer and barang hordes converge particularly on Ochheuteal, and accommodation prices rise accordingly. It's a fun place, and the unusual mix of Khmers and barang relaxing side-by-side is something you don't see in Thailand, nor in fact in the rest of Cambodia, that often.

If you're looking for white sand beaches and turquoise waters, you'll have to head offshore to one of the many islands around Sihanoukville.

The province is also home to Ream National Park, which is well worth a visit.

If you're arriving in Sihanoukville by bus or share-taxi from Phnom Penh, you'll arrive in Sihanoukville town, from where Ochheuteal Beach, Independence Beach, Victory Hill & Beach and Sokha Beach and much more are but a motodop ride away.

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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.

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