Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Spotlight on Cambodia: The beaches of Sihanoukville (photos)

White sand. Crystal clear water. The widespread use of English. Located just 115 miles from the capital city.

On paper, the beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia seem to have all the characteristics of an upscale resort community.

In reality, this growing city is unlike anything most travelers have experienced before.

An isolated stretch of Independence beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, in 2008.


The main beach, Serendipity, is lined with family-run restaurants and is popular with foreign tourists.

But it's nearly impossible to finish a beachfront meal without confronting the outstretched hand of a begging man or woman, usually missing limbs and often with a toddler in tow.

Children who should be in elementary school comb the beach selling food, souvenirs and just about any service you can imagine.

The entrance to Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville is crowded with tuk tuks and touts.
Retired men from Europe and Australia walk hand in hand with young Cambodian women.

The government has cracked down on child sex tourism and billboards warn of penalties for sex offenders.

Restaurants promote "happy" dishes sprinkled with weed-- a popular option for backpackers and expats alike.

Restaurant/bars line the sand at Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville.

Traveler's dilemma

Sihanoukville is a melting pot for a diverse collection of people-- handicapped beggars, child vendors, local business owners, older expats and globetrotting backpackers.

It's nearly impossible to spend time in Sihanoukville without reflecting on social inequalities, poverty, and the impact of tourism on Cambodian society. On a more personal level, you'll be forced to question your own attitudes and behavior towards the less fortunate.

For a thoughtful analysis of this "traveler's dilemma," check out the article "Compassion In Cambodia" on The Expeditioner website (Twitter: @TheExpeditioner).

Otres beach was much more relaxed than Serendipity beach, at least when visited in 2008.
Laid back

Sihanoukville takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. In fact, after spending a few days in this laid-back beach town you may find it hard to leave!

It's easy to spend an entire day on the beach using a restaurant as home base. You can lounge in a wicker chair, swim in the ocean and alternate between drinking fresh fruit shakes and beer.

You'll come to know the proprietors and their families. It doesn't take long to become a regular here.

In 2008, large swaths of Otres beach were undeveloped.

Low prices

While Sihanoukville lacks the comforts of an upscale beach community, it's also much less expensive.

You can dine on a platter of fresh seafood for US $3, right on the beach. The vegetable amok-- the main vegetarian dish served throughout town-- is delicious and hearty.

And for $20 you can stay in a clean a room with AC and cable TV-- in a brand new hotel.

Fishing boats mark the horizon during a Sihanoukville sunset.

Off the beaten path

By renting a moped it's possible to get off the tourist trail and discover less crowded beaches and hidden attractions.

My boyfriend (now husband) Jake and I visited Sihanoukville in November 2008.  We stayed in a hotel near town and rode a motorbike to Otres beach.

Unlike Serendipity beach, Otres beach was just starting to develop its tourist offerings. A smattering of bungalows and restaurants dotted this long stretch of white sand. Fewer tourists meant fewer touts, and it was possible to enjoy a day at the beach with only minor interruptions.

Another local attraction, Independence beach, was completely deserted during our visit. It was apparently closed to make way for the development of a private resort.

We ventured into a sculpture garden near Independence beach and spotted the deity Hanuman among the decaying statues.

Statue of Hanuman in Sihanoukville's decaying sculpture garden.

Rapid development

In 2008, it was clear that the once 'hidden gem' of Sihanoukville was firmly on the backpacker trail.

There were still some stunning stretches of untouched coastline, but new hotels and resorts were being constructed throughout the beach areas. Over-development loomed on the horizon.

How has Sihanoukville changed in the last two years?

I'm not sure, since I haven't been back. I'd love to know if development has continued at a frenzied pace.

>> Have you been to the Cambodian coast recently? Feel free to share your experience by leaving a comment below.

@LeslieTravel relaxing on Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville, 2008.

Recommended reads

Blogger and world traveler Jiyeon Juno Kim (@RunawayJuno) is heading to Cambodia shortly. She's focusing on Siem Reap, not the beaches, but it will be interesting to see her take on the "traveler's dilemma." Stay tuned to the Runaway Juno website for Cambodia posts.

Check out the Jake and Leslie travel blog for more info on Sihanoukville and other Cambodian destinations.

Traveler Gary Arndt (@EverywhereTrip) has written about his journey to the Tonlé Sap river in Cambodia. Visit the Everything Everywhere website for stunning photos of his trip.

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  1. beautiful place.. i wanna go again! oo.. so cute the last photo.. u look contented:) gr8 post leslie!

  2. The 'over stimulation' almost reads as a poem. Never been to Cambodia, but I've been to this place before... true dilemmas do exist on the road...

    also, lovely sunset shot.

    stay adventurous, Craig

  3. Thanks Ciki and Craig! Cambodia is an amazing destination... difficult at times but rewarding. Hopefully I'll make it back soon.

  4. Kate just wrote about this same place today! Her take is quite different than yours! :)

  5. Less children and beggars around in 2010 see

  6. i am sure it was the perfect honeymoon.. so nice! ;)
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