Cambodia's south coast has tremendous potential, yet despite it clawing its way onto the backpacker trail, this potential remains largely unrealised. While better infrastructure and an excellent road connection to Phnom Penh have brought tourists and weekenders alike, issues such as corruption and unclear land titles are holding back all but the most well-connected or risk-taking developers.
The focal point of the Cambodian beach scene is Sihanoukville, a relatively new town, carved out of the coast during the Indochinese wars to give Cambodia a deep-water port. Named after King Sihanouk, the area was originally known as Kompong Som, and most Khmers continue to refer to it by this name. Today the port is one of Cambodia's main windows to overseas trade and, as the road has improved, so the containers have moved from train to truck.
Freight aside, tourism and gambling are the big money-spinners in Sihanoukville. Casinos, luxury hotels and a great collection of guesthouses are all complemented by a selection of attractive beaches and a fun but low-key nightlife. Most beaches have at least some accommodation -- on some you can stay for free, while on others you can pay over US$100 a night -- there is something for most budgets.
East of Sihanoukville lies Kampot and Kep, two true Cambodian gems in our opinion. Kampot is the launching point for the spectacular Bokor National Park, where you can waltz on the bombed-out veranda of the 1920s-era Bokor casino. The town can also be used to explore nearby salt farms, caves and for taking a boat trip along the river that runs through rown. A sleepy destination, Kampot is a refreshing breath of sea air.
Further along the coast, Kep is the archetypal Cambodian beach resort, where the emphasis is on watching the sun go down, eating fresh crab for $1 a bucket and drinking. You'll find a bunch of great little traveller hideaways and while the beach is very ordinary, Kep remains nevertheless a fine destination -- take a few good books with you.
Southern Cambodia's handful of islands are finally catching on, providing solid alternatives for those who feel the Thai islands have become too touristy or developed. Many beach bums end up on the gorgeous Koh Rong, but you'll also find some lesser-known islands where it's easy to lose a week or three beneath the swaying palms.