Photo: Tides are changing.

Introduction

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After beginning life as an obscure fishing village, situated on the country’s south coast with Koh Kong to the west and Kampot to the east, Sihanoukville is now Cambodia’s most important (and only) port and its preeminent beach resort as well as being the gateway to a small but delightful archipelago of popular off-shore islands.



Technically the province is Preah Sihanouk and the capital is Sihanoukville though Khmers more often than not employ the old name, Kompong Som, while foreign visitors simply refer to both as Sihanoukville. In a surprisingly short lifespan, the town has already displayed a bewildering number of different incarnations and even the briefest of visits will confirm that it hasn’t finished yet.

Beach time. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Nicky Sullivan.

Beach time. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

After an early existence as a tiny fishing and trading port—and even for a brief period a pirate base—development of port facilities only began after independence in 1954 and so, unlike Kampot or Kep, very little evidence of the French colonial period can be seen here. As Cambodia’s only deep-water port it served as a conduit for US aid to the Lon Nol regime in the early 70s, Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge during the late 70s and Soviet aid to the Vietnamese backed regime during the 80s. The first adventurous tourists began to arrive in the late 90s after which Sihanoukville gained backpacker popularity as a cute, chilled-out beach destination.

Unfortunately perhaps as restrictions tightened and beer prices increased in neighbouring Thailand a sleazier girly bar scene also rapidly developed with Sihanoukville gaining an unwelcome reputation as a kind of Pattaya reject’s destination. Things then went from bad to worse as Russian gangster elements were the next to home-in on the poor old town and for a while news reports from Sihanoukville were largely restricted to either gangland killings or paedophile apprehensions.

Wet season can be ... wet. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Wet season can be ... wet. Photo: Mark Ord

The good news in recent times though, is that the Russian mafia have largely been cleared out and the picturesque offshore islands have seen much-improved transport links and a boom in accommodation choices. The bad news is that Sihanoukville’s latest incarnation is that of a tacky Chinese gambling Mecca and that the picturesque offshore islands have seen said boom in accommodation choices. Certain previously undeveloped islands now have up-market resorts under construction and Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are increasingly dotted with resorts. However, with frequent ownership debates and tycoons waiting behind every palm tree, their futures are uncertain.

Beachfront land as far as Ream has been purchased for huge casino and resort complexes and a golf course, plus a casino and giant hotel, are being built at Otres. An associated hotel with a minimum of 30 rooms is a requirement for obtaining a casino license and so mid-size hotels in town are also being hastily converted while smaller establishments are being gobbled up by developers in order to house their overseas workers and staff.

BBQ delivery. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

BBQ delivery. Photo: Mark Ord

Voracious tuk-tuk drivers aside, we found locals to be friendly and welcoming and indeed possessed with an inevitable siege mentality, as much of their town gets sold off to foreign developers and money launderers. Low-key western visitors are logical allies.

For now, while much of the town and coast are construction sites, busy Ochheuteal Beach still has something of a fun Khmer family atmosphere, especially at weekends; much of quieter Otres is still worthy of a dip or stroll, tiny Otres 2 remains an outpost of cuteness and the last “barang” beach bastion and up and coming Otres Riverside offers some decent accommodation and eatery options. Heaven knows what the place will look like in five years’ time though!

Popular attractions in Sihanoukville

A selection of some of our favourite sights and activities around Sihanoukville.





Best places to stay in Sihanoukville

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Sihanoukville.


Orientation
Sihanoukville is situated on a hilly outcrop jutting into the sea between the Gulf of Thailand to the south and Kompong Som Bay to the north. The picturesque resort islands of Ko Rong and Ko Rong Samloem lie off-shore to the west. Beaches fan out from Sihanoukville town with, in an anti-clockwise direction; Victory Beach just south of the rapidly expanding deep-water commercial port, Independence Beach, Sokha Beach, Ochheuteal and Otres 1 and tiny Otres 2. East of Otres is the international airport beyond which are the mangroves of scenic Ream National Park. To the east and landward side of town a range of low, still largely forested, hills overlooks National Highway 4 while at Veal Renh, around the 40-kilometre mark, Highway 3 turns off to Kampot and Kep. Phnom Penh is some 220 kilometres to the northeast and the neighbouring provincial capital of Koh Kong a similar distance northwest.

Be sure to swing by Otres. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Be sure to swing by Otres. Photo: Mark Ord

Most mainland tourist facilities—accommodation and cafes—are these days located in Otres and Ochheuteal with Sokha maintaining its exclusivity due to the eponymously named beach resort and Independence and Victory Beaches resembling vast building sites.

The sprawling, untidy and ultimately charmless town of Sihanoukville itself is the provincial capital as well as service hub for the surrounding beaches and islands and houses the administrative facilities as well as main police station, post office, municipal hospital plus private clinics. Banks have offices dotted along Ekareach Road, the main through axis and ATMs scattered along Serendipity Beach Road and Otres Beach.

Ream National Park is well worth a look. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Ream National Park is well worth a look. Photo: Mark Ord

There’s no longer a central bus station since the old one was demolished but a strip of vacant land to the west of Makara Street—formerly the site of the municipal market—serves as a provisional one. Transport company offices are also located along Ekareach while the town’s railway station is on the north side towards Sihanoukville’s port facilities.

The new main market—Phsar Leu is on the opposite side of Makara Street, (see shopping) while the town’s principal religious sites are hill-top Wat Leu and Wat Krom towards the Victory Hill section of town.

Safety
Extreme poverty, mass tourism, copious cheap alcohol and somewhat dubious policing don’t make good bedfellows and you are well advised to exercise more care than usual while sojourning in Sihanoukville.

Cheap dorms. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Cheap dorms. Photo: Mark Ord

Petty crime such as bag snatching, pick-pocketing and mugging is, unfortunately, more prevalent than in most Southeast Asian destinations and can occur while sitting in a tuk-tuk, riding a scooter, walking down the street in broad daylight or taking a midnight stroll along the beach. Snatching phones or cameras from cafe tables is also sadly not uncommon, even while you’re sitting there, and take special care where you leave your belongings if you’re taking a dip in the sea. Leave anything non-essential in your room safe or guesthouse locker and make sure bag and camera straps take in your neck as well as just a shoulder.

Sexual assaults and rapes are not unheard of either so do not wander into badly lit areas or spots where you can’t see any other tourists and essentially keep your wits about you if you’re a bit inebriated. Try also to use tuk-tuk or moto-dop drivers who are known to you or to whichever hotel or restaurant you may be at.

Note that potential perpetrators of any of the above are not restricted to Khmers and could also include for example the construction worker who’s just lost all his dough in a casino, a brain-addled tourist or slimy expat. The Russian mafia turf fights and even shoot-outs seem to be a thing of the past but during our last visit, there was a mass brawl at the Golden Lion roundabout between Chinese workers and locals. Any sign of trouble do not get your camera out or gawp as many will do but head as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

Police
Being cynical you could suggest that Sihanoukville constabulary’s main activity seems to be extorting fines from scooter-riding tourists. Riding without a helmet is a no-brainer but you will also be expected to be in possession of either a Khmer or International driving license. Unlike for example Thailand or Laos a valid license from your own country is not sufficient. The official fine is, we reckon, around $1.50-2 but when faced with a tourist committing an infraction police’s starting price may be as high as $50-60. If you’re a good negotiator then reportedly you may get away with $20 but arguing with cops is always a tricky process wherever you are. (See also our motorbike renting section. If you are planning on renting a scooter, please read this page regarding scooter rental and travel insurance.)

If conversely, you wish to report any crime or incident to the police then a service charge is expected and is open to negotiation. (For example, a friend paid $20 in order to receive a police report for a stolen iPad insurance claim.)

Emergency police T: 117
Main police station Ekareach St, approximately halfway between the town centre and Independence Monument. T: (034) 657 9888; (011) 683 307; (097) 725 5543
Sihanoukville Tourist Police T: (097) 778 0008; (011) 683 307

Hospitals
Sihanoukville International clinic has some Western doctors, takes credit cards and will assist with insurance claims but does charge private clinic prices. If you’re not loaded with dollars and don’t have insurance then good luck at the municipal referrals hospital on Ekareach.

Emergency ambulance T: 119
Sihanoukville International Clinic Ekareach St, near the town centre T: (092) 911 911
Sihanoukville Referral Hospital Ekareach St, between the town centre and the Golden Lion Roundabout T: (034) 936 666;(088) 588 6666;(081) 886 666

Post
Postal services are no more reliable than they are anywhere else in Cambodia but this is a useful address for its transport facilities. (See transport.)

Central post office 100 Ekareach St, close to the Independence Monument T: (086) 586 9679 Open Mo–Sa 07:30–12:00 & 14:00–17:00

Embassies
The only consulate we could find at the time of writing was a Vietnamese one and there is as yet no Thai consulate.

Vietnamese consulate 310 Ekareach St, between downtown and the Independence Monument T: (034) 933 669 https://vnconsulate-shihanoukville.mofa.gov.vn/en-us/Pages/default.aspx Open Mo–Fr 08:30–19:30

Climate
Preah Sihanouk Province, along with neighbouring Koh Kong, possesses a narrow coastal strip sandwiched between mountains and the Gulf of Thailand and so falls into the tropical monsoon zone. As such it has a considerably higher all round rainfall than inland provinces such as Phnom Penh, Battambang or Siem Reap. Indeed according to the graph we checked, Ream district has just about the highest precipitation of anywhere in Cambodia. Rains generally begin in late April lasting until October though annual variations are common. Drier months are November to April. Temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year with slightly lower temperatures occurring during December and January and higher ones from March to April.

Wet season can be a little muddy. Photo taken in or around Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Wet season can be a little muddy. Photo: Mark Ord

When to go
As usual, the optimum moment to go depends largely on what you intend to do once there. If you’re hoping to make the most of the diving and snorkelling opportunities—or just benefit as much as possible from the beaches and scenic off-shore islands—then climate factors point you to the November to April period. If you just want to relax a few days with a few plates of cheap seafood and deckchair drinks then any month is good.

Needless to say, the dry season is the most popular time of the year for foreign visitors though weekends and public holidays at any time of the year will also be very busy with local tourists and expats. Worth bearing in mind if you don’t like crowds and inevitably availability will be more of an issue during such periods plus prices will be higher too.

As we mentioned Sihanoukville is one of the wettest parts of the country but that’s not to say you can’t be lucky during monsoon months so it could be worth a risk. All things considered we’d plump for either end of the high season—November or March—which have less chance of rain but lack full-on peak period crowds and prices if we’re looking at beach and island stuff and any time of the year for just hanging out in Otres or Ochheuteal where the beaches aren’t that spectacular at the best of times anyway and there are myriad bars and restaurants to weather whatever the skies throw at you.

Resources
Aside from the myriad tour operators and travel agents liberally strewn around town, Otres and Ochheuteal you’ll find an official, (well that’s what they say), tourist information centre at the corner of Mithona and Serendipity Beach Roads. They certainly covered pretty much most transport options we could think of and had plenty of English language info and maps plus a helpful staff member. Boat, bus, flight ticketing and hotel and tour reservations available.

Otherwise, you can check out some travel sites we came across listed below plus there’s a trio of free, mini-guides that you can pick up at any reception desk or cafe counter and all of which have corresponding web addresses.

Coastal Magazine http://www.coastal-cambodia.com
The Sihanoukville Advertiser http://www.sihanoukvilleadvertiser.com/
The Sihanouk Ville, Visitors Guide http://www.canbypublications.com
Tourist Information Centre Corner of Mithona and Serendipity Beach Rds, Ochheuteal T: (016) 635 599;(010) 637 196 Open Mo–Su 07:00–22:00

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Sihanoukville.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Sihanoukville.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Sihanoukville.
 Read up on how to get to Sihanoukville, or book your transport online with Camboticket.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Sihanoukville? Please read this.





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