To reach heaven one must pass through hell
The Cambodian coastal city of Sihanoukville, for as long as we’ve been in the region, had a decidedly sketchy vibe to it. It still had its fans though, drawn to the long beaches, and, in places, pretty nature—no more.
Over the last few years Sihanoukville has grown from a medium sized coastal town to a sprawling city, almost entirely off the back of a Chinese driven casino and building boom. The results have been an absolute disaster, and while passing through the city is a requirement to reach the Cambodian islands, our advice is to arrange your travels to spend the absolute bare minimum of time in Sihanoukville. As of late 2019 we’d describe it as a destination virtually entirely bereft of appeal.
Much has been written over the last few years about the boom the town has seen off the back of Chinese casino tourism. We’d read the stories and it would be fair to say we had low expectations, but it was still staggering to experience firsthand how bad it is.
Areas like Occheutual, Serendipity, Otres, Independence, Victory Hill and Sokha are unrecognisable. Generally low-scale development has been replaced by tower after tower and casino after casino. Littering many areas are the ruined shells of backpacker stalwarts. Rubbish, some from construction but much of it not, piles high by the roadsides.
Many backpacker bars are in ruins. “For rent” and “For sale” signs are everywhere. A business still hanging on had “Move out!” spray-painted on an exterior wall. Many businesses, especially restaurants, carry Chinese-only signage—not even anything in Khmer (just as bad as backpacker haunts in English-only!).
We hired a motorbike driver for the day and rode around old haunts. The change was mind blowing. Almost three-quarters of the businesses we listed when we last visited two years ago were gone. Not changed hands, but gone, or in ruins. Where did those jobs go? Locals are paying severely in social and environmental costs. The racket from heavy construction is everywhere, just like the dust.
Yes, everywhere changes. Places develop over time and sometimes not in the best way. In the case of Sihanoukville, it feels like a decade of development has been jammed into two years and there is no end in sight. Active construction sites, many vast in size, mar almost every beach.
Cambodia’s despot leader Hun Sen recently banned online gambling. Talk is that as a result of this, Chinese tourism to Sihanoukville is falling. Who will stay in these hotels, apartments and shitty casinos blighting the landscape? Not the backpackers who have underpinned Sihanoukville’s tourism scene since the late 1990s.
While we know it had its fans, Sihanoukville in fact has never been close to our heart. But that is just us—different horses for different courses and all that. Before the islands took off, it made for a relaxing and affordable beach break for Cambodians as well as backpackers. Not anymore.
If you want to assist an organisation doing work with those most in need in Sihanoukville, M’lop Tapang is a long running organisation based in the town. As they say on their website:
“Today we work with over 5,000 children, youth and families in the Sihanoukville area. M’Lop Tapang provides disadvantaged children and families access to the learning tools, specialised services, resources, and opportunities they need to build a better future. We offer regular meals, safe temporary shelter, medical care, education and training, counselling, family support / reintegration and protection from all types of abuse as well as increasing community awareness about issues relative to child safety and child rights.”
Where to stay in Sihanoukville
Despite the city being an absolute disaster area, there are still a few decent places to stay ... for now. The following were all still in operation as of late 2019. Also please bear in mind that while the following properties are all reasonable, more often than not the areas they sit in are just vile.
How to spend as little time as possible in Sihanoukville
Because of the time required to get to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh (four to nine hours depending on traffic if travelling by road), when heading to the islands, more often than not you’ll need to overnight in the city as you may miss the last ferry. Leaving however, getting a same day bus or taxi connection out of dodge is straightforward.
Travelfish partner BookMeBus offers private taxi services from Phnom Penh (including the airport) for US$60. If there are three or four of you, this is very good value.
If you prefer to travel by bus, you can book your ticket here.
Sihanoukville has an airport (IATA: KOS) and Cambodia Angkor Air have daily flights to both Siem Reap (1 hour) and Phnom Penh (40 minutes). AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur (2 hours) from Sihanoukville. Be sure to allow enough time to get to the airport as both traffic and the condition of the roads can easily turn it into a one hour plus trip. Also, be wary of booking flights to close to your ferry arrival time as ferries can frequently be delayed due to sea conditions.
You can also approach Sihanoukville by train, but the passenger train only runs Friday to Monday. The trip takes around eight hours, goes via Kampot, and by all reports is comfortable and scenic.
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