We love beaches and are always searching for the holy grail: pristine white sand, calm water, no crowds and affordable lodging. Unfortunately we’re not alone in this quest and, more often than not, the beaches we find are teeming with other travelers. Once in a while, though, we do find a beach area that is still affordable and not too overrun with tourists.
One destination that came close is Sihanoukville, a coastal city located in the southwest corner of Cambodia. Less than four years since our 2008 visit, the area appears to be on the verge of a major tourist boom. A recent New York Times article describes the rush to develop luxury resorts, casinos, golf courses and shopping malls in the area.
Does this mean an end to Sihanoukville’s days as an affordable backpacker destination? To answer this question, we’ve gone back and reflected on our experience in Cambodia.
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We spent a week exploring the beaches of Sihanoukville in late 2008 during our round-the-world trip. This Gulf of Thailand destination was already popular with backpackers and was undergoing rapid development at that time.
The beach closest to the city, Serendipity, was crammed with family-owned restaurants serving ridiculously cheap beer and curry dishes to travelers.
However, with access to a moped we were able to visit a few off-the-beaten track locations with pristine beaches. These nearly-deserted beaches didn’t have bathroom facilities or abundant food options but were perfect for swimming.
Each day we drove our moped through the countryside and over a steep hill to reach Otres beach, an undeveloped stretch of white sand with a few rustic bungalows and only a handful of travelers. It was a refreshing change from Serendipity beach, which was crammed with touts and tourists.
A visit to Trip Advisor suggests that four years after our visit, Otres beach is still less crowded than the beaches in neighboring Thailand but may have succumbed to some pitfalls of development: foreign-owned restaurants, jetski rentals and vendors hawking “$1.50 joints.”
The most beautiful beach we visited in Sihanoukville was not on any tourism map and was officially closed in preparation for a new development project. It was located on a chained-off road; we discovered it by accident after stopping to snap pictures of a sculpture garden. Aside from a few locals who were fishing at the beach, we were the only visitors. It was discouraging to discover that this ‘paradise’ was in fact a construction zone.
In 2008, large international hotels were already starting to replace small guest houses. It seemed like backpackers would soon be pushed out in favor of high-end package tourists.
While the Sihanoukville beaches were relatively undeveloped just four years ago, a recent New York Times article, “Cambodia’s Sweet Spot,” highlights how this coastal region is developing at a rapid pace:
“First come the backpackers, lured by tales of simple coastal villages and untouched island beaches. Next come the pioneering hoteliers, establishing in-the-know outposts of taste and luxury. Finally the big money arrives and, with it, the big plans.”
During our stay in Sihanoukville it was clear that the area was on the cusp of a major tourism boom.
A sanitized experience
While Sihanoukville is cheap and not too crowded, like much of Cambodia it is still a bit rough around the edges. As a constant reminder of the horrible Khmer Rouge regime from the 1970s and the current problem with landmines, many disabled beggars walk the beaches asking for money. In addition, many of the back areas behind the beaches are in disarray, with trash littered everywhere.
While this adds to the “authenticity” of the experience for backpackers, these are not qualities that package or high-end tourists look for in a destination.
It comes as no surprise that much of the construction we witnessed near Sihanoukville in 2008 appeared to be centered on the outskirts, where large hotels were opening as self-contained resorts. Presumably, tourists will be shuttled from the airport to these luxury properties and might only venture into town on organized excursions. Disabled beggars and vendors will no doubt be barred from these high-end resorts.
A divided city?
In the future, it seems likely that your impressions of Sihanoukville will depend on your travel budget.
You may see it as an paradise where “no one tried to sell us souvenirs or offer to guide us around town” (the experience of the NY Times writer, who stayed in a boutique hotel in Kep), or as an affordable beach destination where you have to deal with some gritty elements (rustic accommodations, touts and beggars) in order to get a great value.
If you’d like to experience the affordable beaches of Sihanoukville, you might want to plan your visit now– before it becomes a high-end resort destination.
View Sihanoukville in a larger map
The province is served by Sihanoukville International Airport, about 10 miles from downtown, but commercial flights there are still limited. The most common way to get to Sihanoukville is via bus (about $6 per person) from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, about 115 miles to the northeast.
There are plenty of guesthouses available along the main beach area. Most are small and locally operated, and run from about $10 for a rustic bungalow to about $20 for more modern accommodations with air conditioning and cable television. Motorbikes are available everywhere for about $5 per day and are a necessity if you’d like to explore beyond the main beach.
What do you think of Sihanoukville’s development?
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