For an area so small, Ochheuteal has a surprising array of personality traits. Even the three-kilometre long beach from which the area takes its name changes character as you stroll or stagger along it, depending on your fancy. The area includes Serendipity beach, which is tacked like an arthritic knuckle on to the top of the long straight finger of Ochheuteal beach; Serendipity Beach Road with its rowdy array of bars and cheapo guesthouses; and the three 1.5 kilometre streets that run from Serendipity Beach Road and the gloriously tacky Golden Lions Traffic Circle in parallel with Ochheuteal beach itself.
And even within that small area, roughly two square kilometres, much is undeveloped scrubland waiting for the latest gleaming monstrous carbuncle to be plonked down.
Even the beach itself has multiple personalities. The rambunctious strip of beach bars at the top northern end segues into an almost equally noisy — thanks to those pissant fireworks of which so many seem so inordinately fond — but seedy-free section populated by gregarious Cambodian families offering endless rounds of “Chol moi!” (Khmer for “cheers”) over their dinners. Then everything quietens out for another few hundred metres of clear, tree-studded sand before breaking out into the final section which is lined with a small selection of hotels, a market and comfortable beach furniture. This part is also largely used by local families, and accordingly has a much gentler atmosphere than you’ll find at the top.
Ochheuteal’s beach bars are a law unto themselves it would seem, and the source of countless sleepless nights for anyone staying within a 200-metre radius. The parties here don’t stop until dawn, when blinking revellers toke or tap their last before reeling off to their beds, leaving behind those too poleaxed to walk/maintain consciousness. We hear more reports of female travellers being raped here than anywhere else in Cambodia.
And the opportunists come in many other forms. Theft is common along here, by means surreptitious or direct (sometimes violent). If you turn your back on your belongings, do not expect to find them when you turn around again. Scam artists operate here too, especially the “monks” selling blessings and bracelets. They are not monks, and all they are selling is hoodwinks. A simple test: if there is a female in your group, let her reach out her hand to shake his. If he touches her, he is not a monk.
Just north of the ferry pier, you’ll find the rocky stretch overlooked by a jungly hill that is Serendipity beach. Buried among the palms and banana trees are numerous wooden and bamboo bungalows built by a small number of mid-range guesthouses. The vibe here is far more relaxed than Ochheuteal, civilised even. The path that takes you there extends along the coast and around a small headland towards Sokha beach. This is part of a marine conservation area, and worthy of a short exploration, but make sure you’re wearing shoes that won’t slip on wet rocks, as it’s quite a clamber in places, and don’t bring any personal belongings. Like villainous little crabs, young kids lie in wait ready to pounce and pinch your gear, and they are reportedly unafraid to be confrontational about it.
Going back up the hill from the ferry pier, Serendipity Beach Road is flanked by bars, guesthouses and restaurants. This area has reportedly cleaned up over recent years, thanks to a police anti-drugs drive, and most of the hang-outs are pretty, and increasingly, respectable. Our particular favourites are Maybe Later and La Rhumerie, while Chochi Garden is a welcoming and excellent value for money guesthouse. Cresting the hill, backpackerville proper looms, offering plenty of cheap, sometimes free, beds and cheaper beer. That said, some of the restaurants, like Monkey Republic and Ole, attached to Reef Resort, offer very good food at great value.
Taking the first right at the top of the hill brings you down Mithona Street, which runs directly parallel to Ochheuteal beach. For the first 300 metres, this is home to a number of bars and restaurants, streetside grills, massage joints and a cinema. With regard to massages, the trick is to keep your expectations low. You will enjoy them all the more, while the cinema is a pleasant way to get past the searing midday heat. Things taper out after that, until you get to a large carpark which backs on to the section of the beach where Khmer families tend to hang out. This is also where an ugly monument to Cambodia Bay’s election as one of “the Most Beautiful Bays in the World” stands.
Down here, Bar From Home is a winner, thanks to the friendly staff and unforced sense of fun. But during high season at least, Mithona Street is still likely to be beset by the hordes, so if you want to be let alone, you could head one street further back, to 23 Tola Street.
With the construction of swank new places like OC Hotel, and the above-pictured White Sand Palace Hotel, 23 Tola Street is gentrifying. But it is still home to some busy, good value streetside grills, as well as Nyam, an excellent Khmer food restaurant.
And then for something completely different, just beside the White Sand Palace Hotel, we found a new water park that seriously looks like the most fun we can imagine having with some of our clothes still on. It will be closed until about August/September 2015, but after that will be $3 or $5 for children and $5 or $8 for adults, depending on the time of day, afternoon being more expensive.
The final parallel street was clearly once the object of some development but, like a February puppy, now has a sad, waiting-to-be abandoned feel to it. Only time will tell whether it might revive again. For the moment, it may just be too far away from the beach while there are still so many places that are closer. You get the feeling that somewhere will have to be really outstanding to entice people to stay along here, and unfortunately none of the guesthouses that rather dully string along the opening section of this road tick that box.
The last little bit of Ochheuteal isn’t really on Ochheuteal, but a little bit around the corner on 2 Thnou Street, where you’ll find the very smart and worthy Sandan, a hospitality training restaurant created by long-running NGO, Friends International, as well as Marco Polo, an excellent Italian restaurant. Fewer crowds, great food and chilled beers. What more could you ask for before diving back into the Ochheuteal melee?
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.