Southeast Asia is one of the greatest regions of the world for beaches. From the Thai islands to the Indonesian coastline, you’re never more than a couple days’ journey away from soft white sand and impossibly blue ocean. Unfortunately, Cambodia is the weak link in the region. Sihanoukville Cambodia is this country’s most popular coastal resort town — but it’s kind of awful. In this post, I’ll cover five things you should know before you book a trip to the Sihanoukville beaches.
1. The Sihanoukville beaches aren’t that nice
Sihanoukville has two main beaches near the town: Ochheuteal Beach and Otres Beach.
Ochheuteal is the most popular of the Sihanoukville beaches. Sure, it’s a long and pretty stretch of sand. But it’s also jam-packed with bars and restaurants and the accompanying lounge chairs. Touts walk up and down all day, hassling you to buy something. It’s not exactly a relaxing seaside getaway. The backpacker area at the north end known as “Serendipity Beach” is especially bad.
Furthermore, the water is filled with trash, jet skis, and giant floats for children. You can’t even swim because the risk of getting hit with a recklessly driven jet ski is so high.
Admittedly, Otres Beach is nicer. It’s relatively quiet and low-key. But it’s also 5 km out of town, and no public transportation goes to it. If you’re a budget traveler trying to enjoy the Sihanoukville beaches, the $2-each-way moto taxi ride may not be worth it.
2. You’ll get hassled constantly
If the crowds at the Sihanoukville beaches aren’t enough to discourage you, maybe the hassle factor will.
Cambodia as a whole is a low-hassle country, especially when it comes to moto taxi and tuk tuk drivers. For the most part they wait for you to approach them to ask for a ride. They barely try to overcharge you. But not in Sihanoukville. Even if you’re only walking from your guesthouse to the restaurant across the street, you’ll be accosted by several moto drivers demanding you hire them to drive you — and wanting $0.50 for the privilege. If you say no or ignore them, they honk at you, cat-call you, and otherwise find ways to get under your skin.
And then there is the phenomenon of threading legs on the Sihanoukville beaches. Not sure what threading your legs is? I’ll tell you! It’s when hawkers on the beaches in Sihanoukville Cambodia use a needle and thread to rip out your hair — essentially a replacement for waxing. It’s extremely painful. But instead of asking before they start applying this treatment to your legs, they start working on you as they’re introducing themselves — without asking permission. (“I was just showing you how it works,” they say as you howl in pain.)
3. The Sihanoukville hostel scene is the worst in Cambodia
Aside from the trash, crowds, and hassle factor of the Sihanoukville beaches, the town itself ensures your stay will be miserable.
You have a choice when picking a Sihanoukville hostel: A wildly overpriced guesthouse, or a dorm so horrible you couldn’t even picture it in your worst budget-travel nightmares.
A Sihanoukville hostel is less a place to sleep, and more a bar-with-a-dorm-attached. The clientele is 18-year-old-party-person focused. Loud music plays until 6:30 am. People drink so much that they pass out by the pool, in the bathroom, or on top of your bed.
The worst, avoid-at-all-costs hostel at the Sihanoukville beaches is Utopia. Infamous across South East Asia for its wild parties and “dorm” made up of a wooden plank with 15 mattresses squeezed in side by side, nights here get so out of control that several tourists have drowned in the pool after getting too drunk. Don’t stay at Utopia.
Only slightly better is the hostel across the street, Monkey Republic. It at least has proper beds and they turn the music off at 4 am, but it’s as disgusting as you’d expect a $3-a-night beach party hostel to be.
4. The islands off the coast are far nicer
The one redeeming quality of Sihanoukville is it’s the gateway to some beautiful islands off the coast — most famously, Koh Rong. This is where you’ll find the best beaches in Cambodia.
Koh Rong may not be the totally undiscovered backpacker paradise it once was, but it’s still pretty low-key compared to the Sihanoukville beaches.
The best way to see this island is on a dive trip that includes an overnight stay. The reason for this is most of the dive shops have access to private beaches. You can truly be one of about five people staying on your own personal stretch of beach, with just the locals to keep you company. I recommend EcoSea Divers, who charge around $25 per night, all-inclusive. The guesthouses here are far nicer than the Sihanoukville hotels.
It’s a two-hour boat trip out to the island. You have a good chance of seeing dolphins in the open ocean. The diving isn’t as good as Thailand or Malaysia, but since the reefs are in only 10-12 meters of water you get tons of bottom time.
5. Don’t worry: Not all of Cambodia is like Sihanoukville
Just a couple of hours away from Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s nice — and less-visited places. The Mekong town of Kampot is really nice, quiet, and low-key. It’s surrounded by mountains. You can trade the Sihanoukville beaches for the best scenery in Cambodia.
The people are friendlier — both locals and expats. There’s no hassle at all. It’s easy to find cheap food. There seems to be an unlimited supply of decent places to stay — try Captain Chin’s Guesthouse for a $5 room. And the amazing Epic Arts Cafe has fantastic backpacker meals served by deaf waitstaff.
All of this goes to show that, near every horrible backpacker black hole, there’s a great little town off the beaten path nearby.
Still want to go to Sihanoukville? Here’s how to get there.
If you read this and are thinking, ‘wow, I really need to go to Sihanoukville,’ well … more power to you. Find yourself a walled-off beach resort and avoid everyone else there. The good news is, you can easily reach this town from nearly everywhere in Cambodia within a day.
Buses run throughout the morning to and from Phnom Penh. Capital Tour has the cheapest tickets ($5 for a five-hour journey). It’s easier to book through your guesthouse and just pay the commission than to try and track down the bus company ticket offices.
You can also get from Battambang and (for the temples of Angkor) Siem Reap to Sihanoukville by bus, although those are longer trips — figure on 12 hours. You can do both trips by night.
Additionally, Kampot and Kep are a two-hour minivan hop away from Sihanoukville. You’ll pay $5-$8. Book in advance.
Internationally, you can get directly to Thailand and Vietnam from Sihanoukville. Ha Tien, Vietnam is a three-hour minibus ride on a partially-paved road. The border crossing is straightforward, but you must have a Vietnamese visa in advance. Ha Tien is a great jumping-off point for the Mekong Delta, or you can pick up a bus on to Ho Chi Minh City. Bangkok is a brutal 12-14-hour bus ride.
If you want to get to Koh Rong or other islands and aren’t on a dive trip, you can take a boat from the Serendipity beach area. A half-dozen companies offer different options, all for around $20 round-trip. They take 1-2 hours depending on where you get off.
Where to eat in Sihanoukville
Contributing to Sihanoukville being my least favorite place in Cambodia is the fact that good, cheap food is very hard to come by in this town. You can find some of the country’s best international cuisine, but you’ll pay a premium for it.
The night market across from Psar Leu is the best place to score a cheap street meal. Alternatively, a night market sets up around Golden Lions Roundabout, closer to the Serendipity Beach Road. But it’s more geared to tourists and the cheapest meals start around $1.50.
If you’re looking for comfort food from home, Marco Polo has the best pizza near the town center. Starfish Bakery and Cafe is a good breakfast choice, and the best coffee is at Espresso Kampuchea.
Otres Beach has more romantic-beach-dining options, but I can’t vow for any of the restaurants. You’d need to take a taxi if staying in the Serendipity Beach area.
In sum, I know this post has been really negative. But the Cambodia beaches just weren’t for me. I believe in writing honestly about the places I visit, even when I don’t have much nice to say about them. If you decide to visit the Sihanouville beaches, I hope you have a great time (and let me know if you do)!
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