Yes, Cambodia has temples. Yes, Cambodia has tiger filled jungles, the mighty Mekong river, and a booming metropolis. And yes, Cambodia has pristine coastline, white sand beaches, and deserted offshore islands–just not that many people know about it.
Smack dab in the center of Cambodia’s oft overlooked coastline lies the rapidly evolving town of Sihanoukville, the sprawling heart of Cambodia’s beach scene and the jumping off point for a slew of offshore islands. Stretched over a fairly large area, Sihanoukville is actually comprised of 4 or 5 different beaches, and the less than stellar city center that serves as a transportation hub, and little else. While the majority of the action is centered on Serendipity Beach and Occheutal Beach (actually the same beach with the north and south end claiming different names), the nicest overall beach is Victory Beach in terms of beach quality and availability of restaurants and accommodation.
While the beaches are surprisingly tropical, the amount of trash littering Serendipity Beach and the prevalence of begging children heavily detracts from the overall experience (see the article on Guilty Beach). For anyone looking to drink the night away while in town,the main hotspots are Utopia, Chivas Shack, and the Airport, where an entire retired airline jet is crammed inside the building. It is not uncommon for many places to serve $.50 beers, food that is knowingly laced with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and offer “free accomodation” to those who decide to take a chemically induced nap. While that sounds like a party and all, the clubs aren’t exactly the safest place to find yourself. To cite an example, outside of one club, there is a prominent sign displaying the inability to possess firearms, knives, or grenades inside the premises. GRENADES. It was rumored that someone was shot at the place during our stay there.
Seeing as eating laced pizza and getting blown up wasn’t on our agenda, we instead decided to head out to the islands for a day for some snorkeling and beachcombing on Koh Russei, otherwise known as “Bamboo Island”. While the bungalows and resorts on the island are currently incredibly rustic, the Cambodian Islands as a whole are poised to explode in terms of popularity and development. It was a surreal reality to be able to walk down a white sand beach that was flanked by original wilderness and not a resort in sight–though we all know that will soon change. Apparently all the nice beachfront has been gobbled up by foreign investors and it’s only a matter of time. It’s a healthy time to jump in the market here however. Talking with one British expat on the boat ride back to town, bars are currently selling for around $10,000 on average, with the majority of those establishments recovering those costs in the first couple of months if managed properly. If you can handle living in third world Cambodia and the lifestyle change, Sihanoukville and the islands have dollar signs written all over them. The only detractors of course are the rampant government corruption, stifling violent crime, and the occassional offshore piracy. Oh, and the off chance of grenades, but that’s cool right?
Aside from the inevitable bout of sadness and despair that is felt nearly everywhere in Cambodia due to rampant poverty and its horrific history, Sihanoukville really impressed me as a legitimate beach destination that I think has its best days ahead of it. It is only a 4.5 hour bus ride from the capital of Pnomh Phen, and it is even set to open up a brand new international airport. With all of the foreign dollars flowing into the region, it can only serve to help the wartorn region, which quite frankly, needs it a lot more than most.