Cambodia is a country with a tragic past that’s working hard to rebuild itself. As a result, its tourism industry is growing at an alarming rate. Many of these changes are positive, as they provide employment and fund the struggling economy. The trouble comes when overeager developers take over an area and turn it from an idyllic beach resort into a seedy hub of crime and obtrusive nightlife.
Sadly, this is what has happened in parts of Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s south coast. Not all hope is lost, though. Plenty of other beaches in the area are making themselves known as tourist hotspots and, for now at least, they’ve managed to retain their natural charm.
Your decision on where to stay will probably come down to how keen you are to meet other travellers, the level of luxury you require, and your willingness to travel a bit further afield. The main options are Koh Rong Island, Serendipity or Otres Beach.
Serendipity is a classic example of a popular destination that’s outgrown itself. Most expats and return travellers will suggest you pick another beach, unless your sole reason for staying is to use it as an access point for the islands.
The beach is overcrowded and backed along its entire length with noisy establishments. It’s impossible to walk five steps without being hassled by beggars, touts, restaurant staff and boisterous westerners promoting bar crawls and happy hours.
Tales of drink spiking, robbery and even rape are not uncommon, and hostels warn you not to carry valuables with you after dark.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There’s a huge range of accommodation, from basic hostels to upmarket resorts, many of which have swimming pools and a really fun nightlife. On the main strip from the lion roundabout to the beach, Monkey Republic, the Big Easy and Utopia offer comfortable accommodation, fantastic food and plenty of opportunities to socialise with other travellers.
Serendipity is also the closest part of town to the ferry piers that service nearby Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem.
Plenty of people still get sucked in by Serendipity, and while it may have lost its charm it’s certainly never boring. If you’d prefer to avoid the hassle, though, you might be better off with Otres or Koh Rong.
It’s clear that Otres Beach is still finding its legs. Located about 20 minutes from Serendipity, this long sandy beach is serviced by a potholed dirt road that collects huge puddles every time it rains. The beachfront is lined with unobtrusive bamboo shack-style guesthouses, bars and restaurants, with a few wooden loungers and rope swings out the front. Behind the dirt road, a few sturdier resorts have started to pop up but, for the time being, Otres retains its ‘castaway’ feel.
If you choose to stay on Otres Beach, you have the option of Otres 1, at the end nearer Serendipity, or Otres 2, which is more remote. They’re currently separated by a stretch of beach backed only by palm trees, making for a nice stroll between the two. Otres is also perfectly situated for spectacular sunsets.
The downside to Otres Beach is that it feels a bit like a ghost town. There’s a sense that Otres is the ‘next big thing’, but it hasn’t quite got there yet. So many budding guesthouse owners have staked their claim on a portion of the beach that competition for business is fierce. In low season, the bars are soulless and empty, but at least it drives room prices down and it’s great if you’re looking for solitude.
Beware of the beach touts here too. There aren’t as many as in Serendipity, but if you try to relax for more than a few minutes on the beach, you will be offered all manner of beauty treatments, from threading and waxing to foot files and massages. They have charisma and are exceptionally good at convincing you to part with your cash.
You have been warned.
For the most rewarding beach experience in the Sihanoukville area, it’s probably worth giving one of the islands a go. The most popular is Koh Rong. There’s also an island nearby called Koh Rong Samloem, which generally caters for couples and those seeking solitude, although a Mad Monkey hostel has just opened on its own private beach.
Speed ferries will ship you over to either island for $20 to $25 return, and you can use your return ticket whenever you like by getting it stamped on the island the day before departure.
Although guidebooks suggest that there’s limited electricity and absolutely no WiFi on the islands, this is no longer the case. Most accommodation has electricity 24/7 and you’re never far from a bar or restaurant that can connect you to the web. Buffalo and Skybar are two of the best.
A dorm bed costs around $5 and a private $10, with fancier ensuite bungalows breaking the bank at $30 to $80. This is not the place to splash out, as rooms really don’t vary all that much and even the higher-end ones are quite basic fan-cooled huts. If you need home comforts in your life, Koh Rong might not be the place for you, but if you can battle through the cold water showers and sandfly bites, it blows the mainland beaches out of the water. Bong’s is a spacious guesthouse with a sociable bar that often hosts open mic nights.
There’s plenty to do on the island, including scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, fishing and tours to see bioluminescent plankton. There’s always somewhere hosting a party, and if you coincide your visit with full moon, you get to experience the treacherous footpath to Police Beach, where a small-scale version of the infamous Koh Phangan party takes place.
Finally, at least once during your stay you should either stay up all night or get up before dawn, because the sunrise on Tui Beach is even more striking than the sunset at Otres.