If Sihanoukville was being tended with care it would occupy a lovely site on a small peninsula whose knobbly head juts out into the Gulf of Thailand. The first-rate beaches, clean waters, trees and invigorating breezes are slowly being replaced with human effluvia, piles of rubbish and nasty flophouses. Cambodia's beaches could be comparable to those in Thailand but are slowly being horribly degraded. Most people head for beaches close to the town which, starting from the north, are Victory, Independence, Sokha, Ochheauteal and, a little further out, Otres. Sihanoukville's layout is unusual, with the 'town' itself, acting as a satellite to the roughly equidistant three beaches. The urban area is pretty scattered and has the distinct feel of a place developing on an ad hoc basis.
Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som as it is called during the periods the king is in exile or otherwise 'out of office', was founded in 1964 by Prince Sihanouk to be the nation's sole deep-water port. It is also the country's prime seaside resort. In its short history it has crammed in as much excitement as most seaside towns see in a century - but not of the sort that resorts tend to encourage. Sihanoukville was used as a strategic transit point for weapons used in fighting the USA, during the Vietnam War. In 1975, the US bombed the town when the Khmer Rouge seized the container ship
Sihanoukville has now turned a corner, however, and with rapid development has firmly secured its place in Cambodia's 'tourism triangle', alongside Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat. Not much of this development is sustainable and incredibly tacky and overpriced resorts have already being built. While a liberal attitude towards the smoking of marijuana attracts a youthful crowd, no amount of intoxicants can cover up the fact that Sihanoukville is rapidly becoming an environmental stain on this already horribly scarred country. If it all becomes too much there is the coastal Preah Sihanouk 'Ream' National Park close by.
Preah Sihanouk 'Ream' National Park
is a thin, 2-km-long beach on the north of the peninsula, just down from the port, and at its extremes offers reasonably secluded beaches. Beach hawkers are everywhere and outnumber tourists at a ratio of about three to one. The area does afford a good sunset view, however.
was at one time the sole preserve of the once bombed and charred - and now beautifully restored -
. The location of the hotel is magnificent and the grounds are a reminder of the place's former grandeur. With the restoration of this sleek hotel complete, its re-opening will do a lot to revive Independence Beach's fortunes.
is arguably Sihanoukville's most beautiful beach. The shore laps around a 1-km arc and even though the large
Sokha Beach Resort
has taken up residence it is very rare to see more than a handful of people on the beach. It is stunning and relatively hassle-free.
lies to the south and, bizarrely, is the most popular with hordes of backpackers. What was once a sparkling stretch of white sand has been reduced to an unending dustbin of rickety, badly planned budget bars, restaurants and accommodation. Much of this has been built directly on the beach, with concrete foundations poured into what could be a stunning waterfront. Coupled with this is a complete lack of proper sewerage and stinking waste pours straight into the sea. If all this isn't enough to put you off, then there is the unrelenting hassle you will get from hawkers and hordes of child vendors pursuing sales very aggressively. Watch your stuff as theft is also common here. The beach commonly referred to as
is at the very north end of Ochheauteal and is basically Ochheauteal-like. This little strand has gained flavour with travellers due in part to being the first beach in Sihanoukville to offer a wide range of budget accommodation. At the time of publication, the many guesthouses and restaurants lining the shore of Serendipity and the extended Ochheauteal Beach area were at the centre of a land dispute with developers hankering to clear the budget accommodation to make way for large Thai-style resorts.
This beautiful park is a short 30-minute drive from Sihanoukville, hugging the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand. It includes two islands and covers 21,000 ha of beach, mangrove swamp, offshore coral reef and the Prek Tuk Sap Estuary. Samba deer, endangered civet species, porcupines and pangolin are said to inhabit the park, as well as dolphins. To arrange a guided tour visit the park office or arrange one through a guesthouse in Sihanoukville.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF