The backpacker hub of coastal Cambodia, Sihanoukville (known locally as ‘Kampong Som’) is a fun place to hang out for a few days. Compared to the tourist mecca of South Thailand, the white sandy beaches of Cambodia are fairly undeveloped, and the atmosphere is laidback to the max. There are four main beaches: Independence, Otres, Occheuteal and Serendipity; the latter being the most popular amongst backpackers. And, just a couple of hours boat ride away, you’ll find ‘Robinson Crusoe-esque’ tropical islands just ripe for chilling in hammocks, munching on cheap seafood barbecues on the beach, and wicked nights spent partying with fellow travellers. On a more serious note, though, you do need to be careful here – violence, rape, theft and muggings have all been reported in Sihanoukville in recent times; it’s really not a good idea (for girls especially) to wander alone at night. All travellers should also keep in mind that Cambodia is still a developing country and one that is recovering from a very recent and very horrifying past; it’s certainly not Koh Phangan, and poverty can be desperate.
Places to Stay:
Occheuteal and Serendipity Beach: Originally called Occheuteal Beach, the north end of this 5km stretch of sand has become known as Serendipity Beach and is the most popular strip amongst backpackers, lined with bamboo huts, bars and restaurants serving the ubiquitous ‘seafood barbecues’. This is where you’ll find the majority of beach-front, dirt-cheap, no-frills accommodation. The infamous ‘Chiva’s Shack’ is where you can crash for $3 is the place to stay if you’re looking to meet other travellers up for a good time. It’s nothing but a mattress on the floor – but as with all dodgy digs like this, the atmosphere more than makes up for the lack of hygiene! As you walk along the beach (perhaps stopping awhile to get a manicure – or even your legs threaded – from one of the ladies who sell their wares on the beach), there are even places that advertise a free bed simply for just eating at their beach-side restaurant. What the ‘bed’ is actually like is yet to be confirmed!
Our top backpacker pick on where to stay would have been Monkey Republic, had it not burned down in an awful fire in March this year. For a similarly great backpacker vibe, we would definitely recommend Utopia. It’s a 5 minute walk to the beach, and has a garden/poolside bar, a hot tub, sauna, gym, nightclub and a food court offering 7 different types of world cuisine.
Otres Beach: Slightly more difficult to get to than the other beaches (although in real terms, it’s just a 10 minute tuk tuk/moto ride). Regardless, Otres is worth it. Although it’s started to boom lately, here you’ll find a far less developed, quieter stretch of sand so naturally beautiful that for many it’s the most beautiful beach in South East Asia – all in all, a great place to stay if what you want is to just chill the hell out! There are lots of beach-front places to stay that are a little more expensive than the Serendipity strip, but with a much nicer feel. We’ve heard lots of good reports about Mushroom Point and Wish You Were Here (both with dorm beds available as well as private rooms/bungalows). A bit more basic (but fun nonetheless!) are Richie’s Guesthouse, and Jungle Beach Bungalows (just $10 for a double at Jungle Beach!). Meanwhile, for a teensy bit more luxury (at $20 a night), we’d recommend the bungalows at Chez Paou.
Things to Do:
- Beach it: The big attraction of Sihanoukville are the beaches. Most people come here to chill out - yep, backpacking life is tough at times! Otres Beach is probably the best if you’re looking to get away from it all.
- Have dinner and watch the sunset on Victory Beach: Arguably the best place to do it. Some great hotels and restaurants here.
- Party: Choose from Serendipity or Otres. Serendipity is home to the famous backpacking party bars such as Sessions, Dolphin Shack and JJs (with these and many other places offering booze cruises and party boats as a side). Otres, despite being a lot more chilled and much less commercial, also has its pick. This includes the Market every Saturday night (where live bands and DJs play till late), and Ucha on Tuesdays for a mish-mash of dubstep, psy, and more electronica.
- Kayak or Windsurf: Fancy a change from lying on your sun towel? A spot of water sports may just be the trick! A windsurfing and kayaking school located on Otres Beach offers lessons and renting of equipment. It’s fantastic value considering prices elsewhere in Asia, and the calm seas from January to April offer excellent conditions for beginners.
- Dirt Bike Riding, Buggy Adventures & 4×4 trips: There are seemingly no limits to the tracks you can explore in this part of the world. Stray Dog Adventures on Serendipity Beach offers all sorts of excursions, from 4×4 camping trips to Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong province, to day trips on dirt bikes to Ream National Park or Bokor (near Kampot) – either on your own or with a guide. If you’re a bit of a pro, you might also want to opt for a ride over scenic terrain in the Cardamon Mountains.
- Boxing: Khmer Boxing (like Muay Thai) is very popular in Cambodia. There’s a training centre in Sihanoukville with a qualified instructor.
- Diving: Although the ‘backpacker trend’ is to learn to dive in Thailand (namely Koh Tao), the coast of Cambodia offers some great diving with a great diversity of corals and marine life. Most of the best dive sites are located 1-2 hours off-shore by boat to ensure the best quality visibility in clearer waters, and the tropical uninhabited islands make perfect bases from which to explore the amazing underwater world. The Dive Schools are located in the main town of Sihanoukville where you can have a chat with the instructors before booking your trip!
- Kbal Chhay Waterfalls: A 30-minute motorbike trip away, the Kbal Chay Waterfalls make the perfect break from a day at the beach. Rarely mentioned in guide books of the area, these are a series of tiered falls that plunge into a deep basin where you can swim, and in places, walk right under the water onto the ledge and look through the gushing waters. The scene and the lush jungle surroundings make for an impressive sight, much more so during the rainy season for obvious reasons! (May-August)
- Ream National Park: Located just 18km outside of Sihanoukville, Ream National Park can be visited either in a tour (arranged from a guest house in Sihanoukville) or independently, by motorbike or bicycle! Vast mangrove forests, desolate beaches, tropical jungles and mountains make it a worthy place to visit for any nature lover and adventurous backpacker! For any ‘twitters’ out there (the old school kind), the park also boasts an incredible variety of bird life, with over 150 species recorded. You can also hike ‘Meditation Mountain’ which is interesting for its array of medicinal plants which have been used by locals for hundreds of years to cure a multitude of illnesses.
- Island Hop: Take a boat ride from Sihanoukville to explore any one of the dozen gorgeous islands off shore. Boat trips depart every day and can be booked from many guest houses and travel agents in town. Mostly undeveloped and unspoiled (although this is set to change – and in some cases, sooner rather than later), some of the islands have very few facilities in the way of hostels or resorts (and we repeat – yet!). So, fellow backpackers, if you’re looking for a real castaway escape – now is the time to visit! Stay overnight in a bamboo hut on Bamboo Island (Koh Russei), Koh Ta Kiev, or Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island); wake up to the sound of the waves crashing on your personal desert island and you’ll feel like you have discovered paradise. Other trips include visits to Soon Nail or ‘Magic Island’, Koh Rong or the far out Koh Tang. Traditional fishing villages, beautiful beaches and some unexplored dive sites await discovery! All these islands are easily accessible from Sihanoukville and can be factored in as part of a day trip (a popular 3-island trip comprises of a short stop at two places for a spot of snorkeling, with Bamboo for lunch neatly sandwiched in the middle).
- The Full Moon Party: Yes, there’s one here, too – on Koh Rong Samloem. If you’re on Koh Rong, there’s a party boat that leaves for Samloem at 4.30pm and gets back at 8am the following day. No doubt there’s a similar trip from Sihanoukville itself.
- From Phnom Penh: (4-6 hour bus journey, depending on traffic). Most people arrive in Sihanoukville from the capital. After sight-seeing and shopping, a beach break is the perfect medicine.
Where to go next?
Phnom Penh: (A 4 hour bus journey) Chances are you’ve just come from here, but if you’re doing the backward loop, don’t miss Cambodia’s colourful, hectic capital.
Bamboo Island: (1 hour boat trip) Take a boat ride from Sihanoukville to Bamboo Island and a different world. Bag yourself a bamboo hut right on the beach at the lovely backpacker haven Koh Ru (www.koh-ru.com), listen to the waves, lie in your hammock, gaze at the bright stars at night and forget that society exists! This is real castaway stuff.
Siem Reap: (6 hours) Visit the archaeological wonder of Angkor Wat, hailed as the most magnificent piece of architecture ever created by man. Siem Reap is the perfect town to base yourself for visits to the incredible site and a great place to enjoy some great Cambodian food, hospitality and night-life.
Elsewhere on the Cambodian Coast: From Koh Kong to Kampot and Kep, you can explore quaint fishing villages, gorge on delicious seafood barbecues or just laze on deserted beaches. Navigating your way along the coast of Cambodia, you’ll feel like an explorer off the beaten track, far far away from the tourist hoards of Siem Reap. Read more about Kampot here.
Battambang: (3 hours by bus) With tree-lined streets and some beautiful colonial French architecture the city is a charming place to visit and a relaxing escape from the more touristy towns like Siem Reap. There are plenty of trips that can be taken from the city including the Khmer ruins of Ek Phnom and Phnom Banan. Read more about Battambang here.
Vietnam: It’s only a 3-hour bus ride to the border from Sihanoukvile, and a 10 hour journey from Sihanoukville to HCMC. Incidentally, Sihanoukville is probably one of the best (and quickest) places to get a Vietnamese visa. You’ll get one within a day (max) at Ana Travel in Serendipity.