Sihanoukville – a city that’s hard to like

Hello from Sihanoukville!

The city is my base this week, from which I went to explore Koh Rong Samloem, an island known for its hippie accommodation offerings and quiet, unspoilt beaches.

Anyway, let’s talk about Sihanoukville first.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s only significant harbour city and the industrial centre of the country, which doesn’t say much, since Cambodia’s industry is still at its infancy. Angkor Beer (one of Cambodia’s most recognisable brands) is produced in the city. Sihanoukville is also one of the newest cities in Cambodia, with a relatively recent history that dates back to the 1950s. Therefore, it doesn’t have the long, French-style avenues of Phnom Penh or the rows of charming mustard yellow shophouses that make Siem Reap’s town centre look very charming.

To be honest, the city’s rather dreary. Hygiene is a real issue in Sihanoukville, and even the most touristic parts of the city are very unkempt, with piles of garbage taking over the limited space for pedestrians.

Two golden lion statues mark the centre of the town – right next to the statues are tourist traps like casinos, bars and souvenir shops.

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The roads in Sihanoukville aren’t as developed as those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and only main avenues are equipped with street lights, so expect the ride from your hotel to town to be quite rough, as most of the boutique-style accommodations in Sihanoukville aren’t located on the main roads.

I’m staying at Deluxx Boutique Hotel (4 star), which is an amazing oasis of calm and comfort in the middle of the chaotic and unpredictable Sihanouvkville. The hotel isn’t large – it’s a 3-storey building, with rooms orientated to face a nice pool, enveloped in a verdant little garden. I opted for the smallest room, which is actually quite large, with a really comfy queen sized bed and a sofa bed. There’s a flat screen TV, mini bar, and best of all, the bathroom works perfectly, with reliable hot shower (something that you really appreciate when you’re in Cambodia).

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There are several popular beaches in Sihanoukville – Ochheuteal, Otres and Sokha. Ochheuteal is the tackiness of Phuket’s Patpong, magnified. Also known as the Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal is anything but serene. Rows and rows of cheap bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlours line the beach. Street children walk from a table to another, selling trinkets. Stray dogs forage for food in piles and piles of garbage that are scattered around the beach area – this happened right next to where you eat.

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Backpackers and hippies frequent some of the bars nearby Ochheuteal. Monkey Republic is my favourite – it’s fairly cheap, with really nice music. There are also some decent spas too, that are doing legitimate business and not at all dodgy. These places are staffed by professionally trained therapists. The staff at Monkey Republic recommended Ocean Spa. Following their advice was a right decision; I had an amazing 60-minute full body massage for USD12. Worth every single sen.

While Ochheuteal is where most of the tourists are eating and partying, for the best traditional Khmer dining experience, head to Sandan, about 5 minutes from the Golden Lions. The restaurant is a social enterprise, which employs young Cambodians from high-risk communities. It also acts as an on-the-job training centre for underprivileged Cambodians to prepare them for jobs in the nation’s growing tourism industry.

I ordered seafood amok and a Khmer seafood salad. Both were excellent, especially the seafood salad. The ingredients were fresh;  the prawns and squids were served juicy and succulent. To wash them down, you can also try Sandan’s inventive cocktails and juices – a tomyam mojito, anyone? I ended up paying USD18 for one salad, one main and two drinks – not cheap compared to other restaurants in Cambodia, but you’re paying for the nice ambiance, great service, fair wages and nicely presented, freshly prepared local cuisine. So it was worth it.

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Safety is a main issue in Sihanoukville. The city, with its casinos and seedy bars, has a rough reputation. Make sure you don’t leave your bags unattended at Ochheuteal Beach as petty theft is rampant there. Practise common sense and general caution, especially at night. The city’s streets are really dark at night, so it probably helps to know your route first before taking a motorbike taxi or Uber – just in case.

While Sihanoukville doesn’t have much to offer, the surrounding islands off its coasts are stunning. The city is therefore an important stopover/transit point for tourists, and since Cambodia’s islands aren’t as popular as those in Thailand, tourists who come to visit are mainly adventurous backpackers or hippies.

However, Sihanoukville won’t be so much of a niche destination anymore in the future. Massive Chinese investments have created several large construction sites across Sihanoukville. New hotels and resorts are coming up. AirAsia has also started plying the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville route, putting the city on the map.

Sihanoukville’s skyline is evolving

Change is coming.

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I’ll write about my experience staying at Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, soon. Stay tuned!

Living it up, in Cambodia!

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