Swimming in Sihanoukville – Have a Weekend Getaway, Cambodian-styleAnne Merritt
Sihanoukville, also known as “Kampong Som,” is like a Florida resort town dropped oddly on Cambodia’s southern coast, on the Gulf of Thailand. Founded a mere 50 years ago as a deep-water port, Sihanoukville experienced a tourist boom in the 1960s when local and visiting beachgoers headed to the coast, looking for sand and sun without crossing into Thailand. As a result, much of the shorefront property has been scooped up by moderately luxurious resorts. Budget tourists still have plenty of options, however, with a few backpacker hotspots sandwiching the posher hotels.
Victory Beach’s charmingly weathered bungalows hearken the area’s heyday as a gathering ground for 70s hippie backpackers. The guesthouses are cosy and the people are some of Cambodia’s friendliest, though the port on the northern end of the beach makes for a mediocre swimming experience. Occheuteal Beach, nicknamed Serendipity Beach, is the newest traveller hangout, with a long stretch of restaurants and bars opening out onto beautiful turquoise waters.
There is no shortage of guesthouses on either beach, each with rooms ranging from the basic 3$ fan room to the more luxurious 10$ group-sized suites with A/C. On Occeuteal Beach, GST Guesthouse and Rega Guesthouse are two standout names, located a few paces inland on the road behind the shore. Both have clean rooms and tourist services at the front desk, where adventurous beachgoers can book diving and snorkeling trips to neighbouring islands down the coast. Down on the beach, Sunset Cafe arranges trips to the exquisitely remote Bamboo Island for about 5$.
The clean sand, shallow water, and smooth ground on the beaches makes Sihanoukville a popular holiday spot for Cambodian students and young families. Every weekend, the beaches fill up with crowds of people swimming by day and dancing by night. Unlike the party islands in Thailand or the old French resort towns in Vietnam, Sihanoukville is a unique vacation spot where Western and local tourism co-exist along the shore. Chatty restaurant staff practice their English, pick-up games of football are played out on the beach, and children sit beside groups of backpackers to build temples and chedis in the sand. Interactions aren’t all amicable, however.
With tourism as its economic backbone, the beach is a well-trodden path for vendors, encouraging visitors to buy their cold drinks, handmade jewelry, and bright sarongs. The cute-but-aggressive boys who weave bracelets for their customers speak some of the best English in Cambodia, and they’ll use it persistently to make a sale.
Pushy merchants aside, Sihanoukville invites a rare social amalgamation of Cambodian and foreign beachgoers. This is the best place to skip the pan-western menu at your guesthouse bar and head to the beach with the Cambodian vacationers for some inexpensive and fantastically fresh barbecued seafood. Tasty prawn, crab, and tuna are par for the course, but daring eaters can sample the more avant-garde local delicacies of fresh-caught shark and jellyfish.
The city itself is fairly unexceptional, offering the standard amenities of banks, post offices, and small markets. If the weather takes a turn or travellers get waterlogged from the beach, the town has some standout restaurant/bars that will revive one’s spirits. Angkor Arms is a British pub that fares well with expats. It boasts a comfortable, vibrant patio and all the draught you may be missing from home. Down the street, Dusk til Dawn is a rooftop bar whose liveliness that lives up to its name.
Back at the beach, a busy weekend means no shortage of activity along the shores of Occheuteal Beach. It may be difficult to separate the bars from the impromptu dance parties as you walk down the strip, but you will be welcome into either. At the southern end of Serendipity Beach, the Dolphin shack (look for the neon blue dolphin sign) employs some of the nicest Cambodian bartenders you’ll ever meet. Take a seat with the witty owner and let her funny, sentimental stories entertain you all night.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.