Sihanoukville, CambodiaApril 6, 2011
Kampong Som (as it was called originally) or Sihanoukville (as it was renamed in honour of King Norodom Sihanouk) is home to a multitude of Western expats, the first choice for Phnom Penh residents who want to get away from the capitals rat-race, and a tropical utopia for travellers who just want to relax or stay up all night in bacchanalian celebrations.
The appeal that Sihanoukville has for such a wide spectrum of people is a reflection of the range of things to see and do there: from sunbathing and swimming, to snorkelling and SCUBA diving, to boat trips and jungle hikes, to fishing and water-sports, to fine dining and heavy drinking, Sihanoukvilles got it all.
While Siem Reap is the center for Cambodian history, Sihanoukville is where travelers go to enjoy the present, taking advantage of unspoiled beaches, delicious seafood, exotic islands, and hopping nightlife.
There are no ancient ruins in Sihanoukville. The town isnt that old. The oldest building worth seeing is probably the recently renovated Independence Hotel, built in the 1960s, which stood haunted for years until recent renovations.
Work did not begin on the site until 1955, when a French and Khmer construction team hacked their camp out of the virgin jungle near present day Hawaii Beach in order to lay the groundwork for Cambodias first and only deep-water ocean port.
The decision to set up shop here was a result of Indochinese politics. When the French withdrew from their colonies after the Second World War, they handed over sovereignty of the Mekong River Delta to Vietnam.
Facing the prospect of a centuries long rival controlling its access to the ocean, Cambodia sought a new location for its main shipping facilities. Other places were considered, including Ream to the east and Koh Kong to the west, but geographical conditions made Sihanoukville the best option.
Ocean traffic first entered the port in 1956, but it was not until 1960 that construction was completed. The town developed around accommodation for the employees of the port. So Sihanoukville was born as a rough port town rather than a decadent beach resort.
The ongoing commercial success of the port lead to a boom in construction in the 1960s. This is the era of the Independence Hotel, the landmark structure perched atop the rocky headland of Independence or 7-Chann Beach, but the coming of the Khmer Rouge put an end to further development for a decade.
While Sihanoukvilles name does not figure prominently in the history of the Vietnam War, it was an important route through which weapons were transported to Americas enemies across the border, and the last official battle of the war was fought off its shores on the island of Koh Tang.
Following the war, Sihanoukville hosted UNTAC forces from a number of nationalities. The tourism potential of the area was finally recognised, and through the investment of a few major international corporations, it began to develop into the town we know today.
These days, Sihanoukville is a center for commerce and tourism. The port is undergoing major upgrades due to oil reserves in the Gulf of Thailand increased American presence in Cambodia, and new hotels, restaurants, and resorts spring up every year to accommodate those eager to enjoy its natural beauty and rowdy nightlife.
III. Sihanoukville Town
Part of Sihanoukville was designed by Cambodias most celebrated architect, Vann Molyvann, but his influence is scarcely in evidence today, with the predominance of scruffy looking two- and three-story shophouses, Chinese chrome-and-glass hotels, and beachside bamboo-and-thatch shacks housing hole-in-the-wall bars, restaurants, and guesthouses.
Many people speak of Sihanoukville with faint disparagement. Its commonly called the closest thing Cambodia has to a beach resort or a port town with some decent beaches. But Sihanoukvilles beaches are really top-notch stretches of golden sand, and the town is all the more attractive for its absence of high-rise condominiums, roadside vendors pushing knockoff T-shirts and watches, and throngs of hucksters working every corner with the same old tourist kitsch.
Port towns have the reputation of being rough places, and Sihanoukvilles port zone is no exception. The area around the port is known as the Chicken Farm, or Phum Thmei (New Village) in Khmer, a stretch of wooden shacks, on a muddy road, where all the brothels girls used to sit out front of their shacks on plastic chairs, under blinking red lights, and beckon passersby for rough and raw sex for a few dollars. These days, much of this but not all has been cleaned up. The port is situated in an isolated corner of town north of all the beaches and nightlife, and the only reason to visit there at night is to see the notorious Biba disco, a late night pickup joint.
But Sihanoukville is much more than a port town. While that is how it began, it has since become perhaps the most cosmopolitan provincial (though, yes, it is a municipality, not a province) town in the country, with the exception of Siem Reap, and that is a feat considering the relative merits of the places. Sihanoukville draws far fewer tourists, because beaches are common in this part of the world, while temples on the scale of Angkor are found almost nowhere else. Yet, the appeal of Sihanoukville is evident, as it has the highest ratio of resident Westerners to locals virtually anywhere in Cambodia.
First impressions capture the essence of Sihanoukville town. It is a place a wide, winding, hilly roads, with far-flung tourist areas several kilometres apart. It has massive wedding-cake-style hotels next to undeveloped plots of land where snot-nosed kids roll in the dirt beside stray dogs and grazing cows. Despite all the new buildings going up, it still has that scruffy feel that is such an integral part of Cambodias charm for many people. Finally, it boasts the whole gamut of places to eat, sleep, and bed down (as long as you dont expect much selection of the five-star variety), including national themed bars and restaurants from Ireland to India, Russia to Japan, and England to Italy.
IV. Around Sihanoukville Town
While Sihanoukville is the perfect place to just lay back on a beach chair and relax all day, theres a lot to do around town for the more active holidaymaker. With beaches, waterfalls, hilltop temples, islands, SCUBA diving, snorkelling, fishing, sailing, and jet-skiing, theres always something new to keep you coming back for more.
Most people head to Sihanoukville for just one reason: the beaches. There are five major beaches on the coast, and while people have been predicting a development boom for years, all but one remain untouched by large scale tourism. In the time it took remote backpacker campsites in Thailand to evolve into five-star resorts, with 7/11s on every corner, Sihanoukvilles beaches continue to offer the rustic charm of thatch huts and hammocks strung between palm trees.
One factor to keep in mind when planning a beach holiday in Sihanoukville is the time of year. During the monsoon season (May to October), monochrome skies and monotonous rain-showers can put a damper on most peoples idea of a tropical getaway. Spells of sunshine break through from time to time, though these can be of dubious duration, ensuring youre confined to a bar (or, God help you, your hotel!) for much of the day or night.
While motodops can ferry you around under plastic ponchos, and you can even have your own version of this elegant fashion for a few thousand riel from the local markets, some activities such as diving and fishing shut down for the monsoon season. So even if you dont mind sitting on the beach in the rain, the best time to experience all that Sihanoukville has to offer, including its blue skies and shimmering waves, is during dry season.
Its best to keep close watch on your valuables, or leave them at a trusted beachside shack, when going for a swim. There are all manner of hawkers on the beaches, especially Ochheuteal, from women barbecuing squid, to girls making bead necklaces and bracelets, to boys carrying platters of crisps and sweets on their heads, to schoolgirls chopping up fruit salads, to Chinese hippies offering herbal remedies and traditional massage, to amputees dragging themselves through the sand and shoving their stumps in your face. Some of them have been known to pilfer unattended possessions.
A final word of advice: Cambodia is a conservative society, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Khmer choice of beachwear. Both Khmer men and women (but particularly the women) tend to go into the sea wearing jeans and T-shirts. This is partly related to the high status of white skin in many Southeast Asian countries (dark skin is synonymous with working the rice fields and, therefore, with coming from poverty-stricken peasant stock) and the belief that it is somehow more beautiful. But it is also related to their inherent sense of modesty. While youre unlikely to be threatened for wearing an ultra-skimpy bikini the way you might in, say, predominantly Muslim Indonesia, you can show your respect for the local culture by choosing modest beachwear.
From north to south, the following are the best known of Sihanoukvilles beaches.
a) Victory Beach
Just south of the port, Victory Beach is a two-kilometre stretch of golden sand named after the nearby Victory Monument. After Ochheuteal and Serendipity, this is the most popular of Sihanoukvilles beaches, partly because of the beehive of backpacker accommodation atop the nearby Victory (or Weather Station) Hill. Because it faces directly west, Victory Beach is known as one of the best spots in town to watch the sunset with a strong cocktail from one of the beachside shacks.
b) Hawaii Beach
A pleasant getaway from the more popular places, Hawaii Beach is located south of the rocky point that marks the bottom of Victory Beach. During Khmer holidays, this is one place that is not fully packed out with holidaymakers, and being a predominantly Khmer place, it is free of trance music and fire-stick twirling hippies year-round.
c) Independence (or 7-Chann) Beach
The signs in town call this 7-Chann Beach, which is Khmer for seven floors, the number of floors at the old Independence Hotel. The hotel sits on the rocky hill at the northern end of the beach, in a lovely forested area, strewn with mossy boulders, and visited by Rhesus monkeys. The beach itself is one of the least frequently visited by travellers. Its more than a kilometre long, and with so few people there, its a good spot to get away from the madding crowd.
d) Sokha Beach
Only guests of the Sokha Beach Resort, the first luxury resort to open in Sihanoukville, can enjoy this beautiful beach. One kilometre long, and wider than most other beaches, Sokha is immaculate these days with a small army of Sokha staff to groom its golden shores.
e) Serendipity Beach
Not so much a separate beach as the northern tip of Ochheuteal, Serendipity has grown ever more popular with backpackers and now boasts a plethora of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars right on the sand, as well as many more clustered at the top of the hill and west of the Golden Lions. Along with Ochheuteal, and to a lesser extent Victory, this is the place to go to hang out with other travellers, listen to new music, and come for full-moon parties.
f) Ochheuteal Beach
The most popular, and perhaps the best, public beach in Sihanoukville, Ochheuteal bustles year-round with travellers and locals alike. With Serendipity at the northern end, and a golf course development at the southern end, the rest of the beach is one long crescent of virtually identical thatch shacks offering beach chairs and umbrellas, pool tables, hip music, and cheap food and drinks. Along with this popularity come the hassles of beggars and hawkers, not to mention dredlocked hippies spinning fireballs on chains until they whack themselves and leave sooty smears down their tattooed backs, but its also the place that feels most alive, with Khmer boys playing football, families lining up with their feet in the water for photos, and screaming kids racing by on inflatable tubes dragged by speed boats.
g) Otres Beach
Just past the rocky headland at the bottom of Ochheuteal Beach, Otres Beach remains seldom visited in part because of the difficulty in getting there. If youre willing to go several kilometres out of town, or take the unpaved beach road past Ochheuteal and over the steep hill to get there, you will be rewarded with over three kilometres of white sand that hardly ever sees any visitors. Once there, there are only a few options for accommodation, and similarly little in terms of food and drink, but there are plenty of wooden huts where you can unpack the seafood picnic you brought from the market, or a high-quality restaurant right at the bottom of the hill with delicious fish, wrapped in bacon, and served on a bed of fried potatoes. At the far end of the beach, there are catamarans for rent.
h) Other Beaches
There are many other beaches on the mainland, but they are seldom visited and have no services at all for travellers. If you really want to have a beach all to yourself, or perhaps share it with a few fishermen, there are several on Hun Sen Beach Drive, the road out to Stung Hau, past the port. Be sure to bring everything you need as well as arrange transportation back into town.
2) Ream National Park
a) Ream Beach
About eighteen kilometres from Sihanoukville, the highway from Phnom Penh splits, and the left fork takes you to the airport and, beyond, to the beaches of Ream National Park. This narrow, winding road leads past jungle covered hills, mouldering shacks, and stark rock outcroppings before a sharp left bend brings into view a thin strip of golden sand through palm trees.
At the end of this road is a naval base, blocked by a stone archway, a metal bar, and a military post manned by soldiers. Right next to the entrance are luxurious holiday homes with metal gates, manicured lawns, crushed stone driveways, and white gazebos on posts at the end of long bridges amidst the rolling waves.
A turn just before the naval base leads up into the hills. The road dips and swerves to a hilltop temple, where you can stop for the peaceful atmosphere and fine scenery, and then plunges onward to the petroleum companies, and finally tapers off into a scraggly dirt trail, which might lead somewhere fit for trailbike exploration.
The real attraction, though, is nestled between that first beach and the naval base. Here is a long row of thatch huts on stilts over the water. Hammocks hang inside, in Cambodian holiday style, and the proprietors will gladly serve you food while you sit on straw mats on the floor and play cards.
After a meal of fresh seafood, its customary to retire to one of the hammocks, strung just a foot off the floor, and swing gently while breathing the fresh sea air, dozing with a full stomach, and perhaps admiring the sparkling blue expanse of sea dotted with emerald green islands.
b) Ream Boat Trips
When most people think of Ream, they do not only picture a relaxing beach scene. They also envision one of Cambodias seven national parks, including a vast area of wilderness, most notably the mangrove swamps that are home to a diverse array of tropical wildlife, including several rare and endangered species.
The entrance to this part of the park is further along the highway to Phnom Penh, at a small ranger station located on the Prek Tuk Sap. Tours of this part of the park can be arranged in Kompong Som from tour outfits in town or on Victory Hill. Most charge per head, usually around fifteen dollars, including transportation, lunch, and a boat with a guide.
Independent travellers can arrange the same services on their own. If you want to go with a small private group, rather than whomever signed up at one of the partner tour outfits, or if you have enough people to fill a boat, then you can make arrangements directly with the park rangers.
This can be done at the main ranger station, just across from the airport, where a small wooden house in a circle of thick forest serves as headquarters for the rangers. Its easily recognisable by the Cambodian flag flying at its entrance.
There are several types of tours available. They range in cost from thirty-five to forty-five dollars for a full day. Most tours include a visit to one of the islands off the coast, a fishing village, or a beach on the mainland. There are also hiking trips, a dolphin station, and a few other attractions.
These fees are for a maximum of five people, but the long, flat-bottomed boats can easily accommodate larger groups. Additional passengers are charged an extra six dollars per head. This has been waived for some people bringing a group of local friends.
Its not necessary to pay in advance. In fact, it is recommended you dont pay until you reach the station from which the boats leave. The staff at the main station sometimes forget to make arrangements, and its futile to argue once theyve collected your money and dropped you at the other station.
Sometimes the rangers fail to make the agreed upon arrangements (a canopy for the boat, snorkelling gear, and so on) and the only recourse you have in that situation is to refuse to pay until everything is sorted out.
While waiting for the boat to leave, check out the maps and fact sheets posted on the walls of this ranger station. They contain extensive information about the ecology of the park, as well as its history, and the many animal species found there.
The guides vary in usefulness. Most do not speak English well. They have memorised a speech about the park, one that you can find posted on the wall of the station, and they will give this shortly after the boat disembarks. After that, they are likely to doze off, waking occasionally to point out a sea eagle.
A typical trip includes a ride down the Prek Tuk Sap. This river is broad and smooth, and mangrove trees choke its banks. Once at the mouth, there are four islands to choose from, Koh Thmei, Koh Kchang, Koh Ses, and Koh Sam Pouch. Each one offers something different: beaches, snorkelling, fishing villages.
Travel Ream: Koh Thmei
The most commonly visited island from Ream National Park is Koh Thmei. It is the largest of the group of islands off the parks shores, and it is also the nearest one to the mouth of the Prek Tuk Sap.
3) Island Trips
There are more than twenty islands off the coast of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand. A few of the nearer ones are frequent daytrip destinations for holidaymakers. Each of the islands offers something different: unspoilt beaches, jungle trails, and coral reefs. Once there, travellers can sunbathe, swim, snorkel, SCUBA dive, fish, hike, camp, or play sports in their own tropical paradise.
The islands are situated in three clusters. These are labelled as three separate groups of islands: the Kampong Som Group, the Ream Group, and the Royal Group. Visitors can reach these islands by renting a boat on the mainland, by hiring a catamaran, sea kayak, or sailboat and going it alone, or by going as part of an extended fishing or diving excursion.
a) The Kampong Som Group
The Kampong Group lies directly west of Victory Beach. The two nearest islands, and the ones most commonly visited by travellers, are Koh Pos, or Snake Island, and Koh Tas, or Koh Koang Kang. At just one and two kilometres respectively from Victory beach, Koh Pos and Koh Tas are short, inexpensive daytrips. Each one has a beach, and there are rocky reefs for snorkelling. The beaches are no better than the ones on the mainland, and there are several on the mainland that are just as deserted, but going out to these islands gives you the opportunity to enjoy the journey over sea and the feeling of really getting away from all of Sihanoukvilles bustle.
While Koh Pos and Koh Tas are quite small, the next two major islands in the Kampong Som Group are among the largest in Cambodia. Two-and-a-half hours from the mainland, and directly west of Koh Pos and Koh Tas, Koh Rong Samloens shores are dotted with virgin beaches. Visitors have also enjoyed snorkelling at rocky reefs, seeing shellfish cultivation, and visiting a lovely heart-shaped bay fringed with white sand.
There is one tiny island off Koh Rong Samloens coast, Koh Koun, but the last significant island in the group is further north yet at Koh Rong. The largest island in Sihanoukville and the second largest in Cambodia, Koh Rong is forty-five kilometres from the mainland. On the southwest coast, there is a five-kilometre long beach, taking a couple hours to walk, and ending at a rocky headland near an old Chinese temple. A fishing community thrives on the island, taking advantage of the freshwater that pours in streams from the interior and feeds mangrove forests along the coast. Between Koh Rong Samloen and Koh Rong are several isolated dive sites.
There are several more small islands further north yet, Koh Ta Team, Koh Mano, and Koh Damlung, but they are rarely visited.
b) The Ream Group
The best time to visit the Ream Group of islands is during the monsoon season. Between November and February, northerly winds pick up and can make the group more difficult to navigate. The nearest island in the group is about ninety minutes from Sihanoukville. They all dot the sea a short distance from the coast southeast of Otres Beach. Three of the nearest ones, Koh Khteah, Koh Chraloh, and Koh Ta Kiev, have snorkelling. But only two islands, Koh Russei, or Bamboo Island, and Koh Ta Kiev, are frequently visited.
Koh Russei is the site of some simple bungalows. Set on stilts, with thatch roofs, and little verandas shaded by palm trees. These are so inconspicuous as to permit the exotic feeling of being shipwrecked, or a pirate moored in secret, or refugees from a tiny vessel evading capture of bloodthirsty pirates, or whatever your sunstroked brain might fancy. The bungalows are attached to a central bar and restaurant, and there are as there are bonfires and barbecues by night, and beach sports, including snorkelling and swimming, football or volleyball, by day.
Just east of Koh Russei, Koh Ta Kiev is the larger of the two islands, with hidden coves, and turquoise waves, and coral reefs ideal for snorkelling. Like several of the islands in the area, the Cambodian navy maintains a presence here. On the far side of the island its mighty grey warships are docked, ever ready to defend the shores against imperialist invasion and slaughter the barbarous pirates who sail the high seas. (Actually, their might is disputed, and some opine that the sailors sell their fuel rations and spend their time at more enjoyable occupations than guarding Cambodias waters.) There are also good dive sites nearby.
c) The Royal Group
The islands of the Royal Group lay far southwest of the coast. The most popular are Koh Tang, followed by Koh Prins, and finally Koh Poulo Wai. At more than seven hours away, they all require a night on the boat, making them the least visited of the three groups. Nevertheless, those who have been there hail the Royal Group as the future of Cambodian SCUBA diving. The area offers exotic wildlife such as dolphins, reefs teeming with sea creatures with good visibility at forty meters, and even shipwrecks and sunken US helicopters. Much of the potential of the Royal Group has yet to be discovered.
Koh Tang: The Mayaguez Incident
The island of Koh Tang, off the coast of Cambodia, has a special place in the history of the Vietnamese War. It was here that that the last battle of the war, known as the Mayaguez Incident, was fought from May 12 to 15, 1975.
The fate of the captured troops was determined by subsequent interviews with Khmer Rouge commanders on the island. One wounded marine was captured and shot repeatedly by a shaky-handed executioner. Two others hid in the jungle for a week before being captured. They were held for another week before being bound and bludgeoned to death according the long-standing KR policy of conserving ammunition.
Several islands sit at the mouth of the Prek Tuk Sap River. These are most easily reached, not from Sihanoukville, but from Ream National Park. The two largest are Koh Thmei and Koh She. Both are destinations for travellers exploring the mangrove swamps of the Prek Tuk Sap River. See the section on Ream National Park for details.
One island that is often visited en route to or from Koh Kong is Koh S’dach, or King Island. It belongs to another group, made up of fourteen islands, and is home to much of Koh Kongs fishing fleet. The island has simple rooms to let, a quaint market, and wooden causeways connecting its different sections. There are footpaths around the island, and it can be a photogenic place to explore. The mainland can be reached by a short boat ride. There are pristine beaches there, and in the monsoon season, there is a small waterfall a short distance inland.
The trip to Koh Sdach is attractive, passing the deserted islands, rocky coastline, and jungle-covered hills of Koh Kong province. The length of time varies according to conditions, but generally takes around two hours. Simply take the ferry between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong and get off when it docks at the island or pay half-price for the ticket and make Koh Sdach a destination in its own right. While throngs of tourists climb on top of the cabin in the monsoon season for a miserable, rain-soaked ride because the LP told them it was more scenic, heading up there in the dry season can be wonderful provided youre well prepared with a hat and plenty of sunscreen.
4) Kbal Chay
One of the most popular side trips from Sihanoukville is the waterfall, Kbal Chay. It is a Khmer style resort, and a favourite of locals, who return to it time and again. Just a short ride from town, with clearly marked signs, its easy to find and enjoy.
During the dry season, the fall is reduced to a trickle, and you can clamber over boulders on the near side, climb to the bottom, and stand right under the cascade, letting it massage your neck and shoulders.
During the rainy season, the river leading to the fall is several meters wide and courses through two channels at the ledge, leaving a large middle section of jagged, geometrical ledges, making perfect places to cool off in the bracing water.
Walking around the area leads to other rapids, chutes, and shallow streams coming out of thick forest, and all are fine for a swim. The area, and the vistas from the far side of the top of the fall, features beautiful jungle scenery with rolling green hills.
On Khmer holidays, the site comes alive with a merry, festive atmosphere. The top of the fall is crowded with fully clothed Khmers wearing colourful T-shirts, boisterously splashing water at each other, and stretching out inside the thatch huts for a meal prepared in makeshift restaurants and cases of beer.
5) Diving, Sailing, Fishing, Jet-skiing
Sihanoukvilles waters are a great place to get PADI certified before going on to the more prominent destinations in the Pacific, but for experienced divers who are willing to spend a night or two on the boat, there is uncharted territory in the Royal Group of islands that is supposed to possess exciting dive possibilities.
There are now five dive operators in Sihanoukville. Two of them, EcoSea Dive and Scuba Nation, are PADI certified. While PADI remains the international standard, EcoSea are also the only company in Cambodia to offer the alternative SSI qualification. Other operators include Frogman and Chez Claude. Getting certified in Cambodia is often less costly than elsewhere. PADI courses generally cost less than $200 here.
Those who want to try their hand at sailing can rent sailboats, catamarans, and sea kayaks and head off to nearby islands. Beginners can get basic instruction, and catamarans are surprisingly simple to pilot. There is little chance of capsizing, but there is always the fear of catching a strong wind, being blown far out to see, and then wondering exactly how to get back to shore. Frogman offers all the necessities (office downtown) and these are also usually found on the far end of Otres Beach.
Brian at the Fishermens Den and Chez Claude can arrange fishing trips. Jet-skis and other water-sport equipment can be rented on Ochheuteal Beach.
a) Wat Leu
The hilltop temple of Wat Leu sits in an amenable garden setting and provides panoramic views of Sihanoukville town and the islands off the coast. The hillside is dotted with Buddhist statuary, particularly representations of Ta Eisey, a stooped, bearded, mystical hermit bearing a staff who is purported to wander Cambodias mountains and forests. Tall trees loom over the golden temples, and monkeys swing from their vines and branches. Past the temple is a clearing with white concrete benches, offering both a fantastic lookout spot and a great vantage point from which to watch the sunset. (A few kilometres outside of town past the Cambrew facility.)
b) Beach Parties
There are always fliers changing hands on the beach with details of full moon parties. While they never seem to attract the same crowd as similar parties in Thailand, the better ones can draw up to fifty people around a bonfire, with cheap cocktails, and free entertainment in the form of didgeridoo playing hippies and amateur fire-jugglers.
The empty shells of casinos dot the town, but there are still tables where you can make your fortune on the roll of the dice. Victory Palace Resort and Casino near Victory Beach offers a mid-range hotel, live music on weekends, and most importantly slots, blackjack, baccarat, and roulette.
Most of the pubs in town have free pool tables. Many guesthouses screen free movies. A few hotels, including Oceana near Hawaii Beach, have saunas. The better hotels also have gyms that you can pay to use if youre not a guest. There is a go-kart track near Ochheuteal Beach. And massage places, some where you can actually get a massage, abound downtown as well. There is one good bookshop downtown, Mr. Heinz, as well as collections of books at many gueshouses on Victory Hill and at Q&A Caf downtown. Finally, you can get CDs or download the latest music for your iPod at the Boom Boom Room on Serendipity and Victory Beaches.
Happy Days in Cambodia
For many travellers, recreational marijuana use is a part of their holiday routine. Some delight in watching the sunset on the beach whilst puffing a cone, or even floating on their backs in the sea, the sun warming their bellies, while listening to the plangent tunes of psychedelic music pouring from the beachside shacks.
With few other employment opportunities, many Sihanoukville expats are in the guesthouse business. Throw in the local competition, and a vast array of big Chinese hotels, and Sihanoukville has something for everyone when it comes time to bed down.
Its hard to spend money on accommodation in Sihanoukville. Backpackers can stay free at beachside shacks provided they eat and drink there, and even the best rooms on the most popular beaches rarely go for more than fifty dollars per night.
For five dollars, you should get a basic room with fan, cable TV, and attached washroom. For ten to fifteen dollars, you can add a mini-fridge, air-conditioning, and perhaps hot water. For a little more, its possible to get all the bells and whistles including access to a gym and swimming pool.
The cost of rooms does rise by up to fifty percent around the Khmer holidays. Stories circulate about visitors being forced to bed down on the beach at these times, but with the sheer number of hotels and guesthouses, there should always be a room available somewhere.
What follows is a few recommendations organised according to area. The cheaper places are listed first, and the more expensive ones follow.
1) Victory and Hawaii Beaches
Most of the accommodation near Victory Beach is just across the street on Victory Hill. Its a steep walk up or down at night, and the trek can be perilous when tipsy.
At the very top of the hill is Marina Hotel. Located just away from the Hills many bars and restaurants, Marina Hotel offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms, motorbike rentals, and good security.
The Blue Frog offers budget and mid-range rooms, and its tucked away on a quiet back street on the top of the Hill. The restaurant offers Scandinavian specialities in a relaxing garden setting.
Some of the rooms at the Mealy Chenda are good value after a bit of haggling. The best rooms are those on the ground floor, behind the main building, with patios looking into a garden and, beyond, the sea.
Just away from Victory Hill, near Hawaii Beach, is the Russian-run Snakehouse. Fine bungalows go for between fifteen and twenty dollars per night. A unique space, Snakehouse has a swimming pool, exercise equipment, a restaurant, and a display of exotic reptiles and amphibians.
2) Independence Beach
The only hotel in the vicinity of Independence Beach is Sea Breeze, offering standard, moderately priced rooms with air-conditioning, television, and showers. Staying in this area can be problematic, as there are sometimes no motodops loitering there, making it difficult to get a ride into town or some other area at night.
The Independence Hotel, famed as the haunted site of Khmer Rouge killings, has recently been renovated after sitting derelict for many years. It occupies a beautiful site atop the rocky headland at the north end of the beach. Mature trees, mossy boulders, and frolicsome monkeys add to the atmosphere. It may open soon.
3) Sokha Beach
Aiming to be the most exclusive resort on the south coast, the Sokha Beach Resort boasts top-notch lodgings, superior service, as well as sole access to the immaculate stretch of sand bearing the resorts name. Opened in 2003 by Sokimex, the company that runs the ticket concession at Angkor and the oil terminal in Sihanoukville, this is the place to splash out and enjoy the finest thats on offer in Sihanoukville.
4) Serendipity Beach
Just off the beach, the area west of the Golden Lions offers cheap backpacker digs, myriad bars and restaurants, and a few mid-ranges places thrown in for good measure.
Several places offer clean, simple rooms with attached showers at backpacker prices. Mick & Craig’s is a recently renovated guesthouse with twenty-four-hour security, a good restaurant, and hammocks.
Just a few doors down, Top Banana has spotless rooms behind a restaurant with small, quiet booths for a private dinner.
With super-cheap drinks, a movie room, game consoles, pool table, and hip music, the rooms at Monkey Republic are often full.
At the top of the hill are several more guesthouses, but across the road are the more private bungalows at Sun and Sand. Cheap, clean, with TV and shower.
Right on the beach, the Eden Bar has a range of rooms, some with air-conditioning, and a penthouse with fantastic sea views. The bar downstairs is a popular place to start the evening with a few cocktails before sunset.
With a bit more comfort than other places around the Golden Lions, the Reef Resort has a boutique feel, with newish rooms, a small swimming pool, and a bar with a good pool-table and flat-screen TV showing the latest sporting events.
Being Sihanoukvilles most popular beach, Ochheuteal is packed with mid-range hotels and bungalows just a short walk from the sea.
The cheapest places are the free rooms in the beachside shacks. Staying at these spartan lodgings will force you to eat and drink night and day at the attached bar and restaurant, but if your goal is to stay as long as possible, or spend as little as necessary, this may be the answer.
Starting from fifteen dollars per night, Ochheuteal Beach Side Bungalows offers spacious rooms with all the amenities directly across the road from the beach. There is also an open-air, wooden restaurant serving good Western fare to add to the relaxing garden atmosphere.
The Orchidee Guesthouse gets consistently good reviews. Most rooms are between fifteen and twenty-five dollars per night. All come with air-conditioning, fridge, and access to the swimming pool. Just minutes from the beach.
The top hotel on the strip is the Golden Sands. Rooms here start at twenty dollars per night and come with everything you would expect and a bigger than average swimming pool.
6) Otres Beach
Still isolated, Otres is the place to go to get away from it all. Getting to and from your lodgings might be difficult at night, but if you decide to stay there, you will have great views, a relaxing atmosphere, and an untouristy beach at your doorstep.
Halfway down the beach is Star Bungalows. With big windows opening onto the sea, this is the place to be right on the water. Walk out of the front door and youre on the beach.
At the top of the rocky headland separating Ochheuteal Beach from Otres Beach, the Queens Hill Resort offers simple bungalows that start at ten dollars per night. This price is all for the setting as most rooms still have no TV, hot water, or cable. But the lush tropical setting is perfect for watching the sun set over Ochheuteal or the sunrise over Otres.
The downtown is packed with inexpensive lodgings. What you lose in being away from the beach, you gain in being central, halfway between Ochheuteal Beach and Victory Hill, within easy walking distance of the downtowns many bars and restaurants.
Several of the bars and restaurants in town rent out rooms upstairs for between five and fifteen dollars per night. These include the Fishermens Den, Oasis, Gday Mate, Marlin Bar. Western owned and managed, most of these places are also good spots to get expat advice on what to do in Sihanoukville.
The Freedom Hotel, located above the late-night Freedom Bar, is right across from the bus station. Rooms are five to ten dollar, and air-conditioning, hot water, and fridge are available.
An old favourite, the King Gold Hotel provides excellent security, well-trained staff, and spacious rooms with air-conditioning, TV, fridge, and hot water for just ten dollars per night. Just up from Psar Leu.
The Anchor Inn, next to the well-known pub, offers better quality rooms in the ten to twenty dollar range and access to a gym.
VI. Drinking and Dining
There is so much variety when it comes to drinking and dining in Sihanoukville that its hard to describe it all.
For such a small town, there is a surprising array of international cuisine. Its tempting to list places according to types of food, with separate sections for French, Indian, Japanese, and Khmer.
The same could be said of the bars. With more opening all the time, it would be easy to compile a best-of list of bars for beachside cocktails, English pubs, girlie bars, and night-clubs.
But seeing as how many people choose to spend a night in one or two areas, or decide on where to stay based on its proximity to good food and cheap booze, it might be better to take it one area at a time.
1) Serendipity Beach, Golden Lions, and Ochheuteal Beach
The beachfront shacks on Ochheuteal and Serendipity are a good place to kick off a nights merrymaking with a few strong cocktails at sunset.
Located right at the bottom of the hill on Serendipity, Eden Bar is a popular choice, though a few of the shacks further down may try harder in order to attract custom.
The area west of the Golden Lions is not only a popular place to stay, but also a hive of backpacker drinking action. The restaurants have the beach feel that comes from open design, bamboo fitted walls, and sandy floors. At night, its best to peek into several of the places to find the one where everyones decided to get together for a party.
Mick and Craigs serves great English breakfasts, big pizzas, and sometimes puts on a mean barbecue. The popular restaurant has a small bar and pool table.
Good music, ultra-cheap drinks, and a pool table have made the Monkey Republic one of the busiest places for a drink near Serendipity Beach.
Other bars near the Golden Lions include Endless Summer, Top Banana and Reef Resort.
For seafood, the beachfront road on Ochheuteal Beach is dotted with restaurants. Many are attached to hotels and bungalows, but stop off at any one to give it a try.
The Anchor Arms is a popular English pub with standard pub grub such as burgers and chops. The fishermans basket is a heap of deep-fried squid, fish, and prawns on a bed of chips, and the steak and kidney pies is one of the best in Sihanoukville.
A rooftop bar, the Fishermens Den claims to have the best fish n chips in town, and the calamari n chips is tasty too. Later in the evening, some local girls come to play pool, and many enjoy a chat with Western men.
The Freedom Bar is a good choice late at night. There are often local girls hanging around there after hours. Upstairs, punters can watch dance shows while ensconced in some of the most comfortable sofas in town.
Bamboo Lights, part of a chain of Sri Lankan restaurants, with branches in Siem Reap and Kampot, offering twice-weekly buffet dinners.
Other places include Gday Mate, Oasis, Marlin Bar, and Emerald Bar for a quiet drink or a meal. The cavernous Poco Loco, located on the way to Ochheuteal, includes a dancefloor. The top dance place in town, and with plenty of female company, is Blue Storm.
3) Victory Hill
New bars and restaurants seem to open all the time on the Hill, and so many places change names as they change hands that there is something different every trip.
Whatever the names, the area retains the same feel, with restaurants of all kinds, a growing number of girlie bars, and the best street theatre in Sihanoukville.
One of the longest running of the Indian places in Sihanoukville, the Indian Curry Pot offers ground floor and first floor seating, with good balcony view of the traffic, and cheap Indian food and cold beer.
For the best sports bar in Sihanoukville try the Corner Bar. A projection screen, plus three TVs, draws big crowds for major games. The restaurant serves solid pub grub. The pizzas are fantastic, with a meat-lovers option, using the best meat to be found on a pizza in Sihanoukville, and its a contender for the best full English breakfast.
For French, La Paillote claims to be the best in town, though it seems out of place among the cheap restaurants and girlie bars on the Hill. It does make an effort with traditionally attired staff greeting you at the door (and when their shift ends at hostess bars on the Hill) and a garden pathway to a candlelit dining area. The small menu includes main courses from seven to sixteen dollars, three to five dollars for deserts and entrees, and there are also daily specials on a chalkboard and a relatively extensive wine menu. The roast duck in honey sauce is delicious.
Opened by the same enterprising Frenchman who started La Paillote, as well as many other restaurants and bars on the Hill, LAmbassade is a little gem tucked away on the small road off the main drag. With a small selection of featured meals on the chalkboard, including excellent beefsteaks in blue cheese sauce, with green beans wrapped in bacon identical to those served by La Paillote, this seems like a cheaper version of the expensive Hilltop restaurant. Careful Western management, polite and attentive staff, and a wood oven for authentic pizza.
Papagayo is a chilled out tapas restaurant playing a wide selection of electronic music. It also offers a full bar, including a selection of cocktails, a weekly pool competition, and comfortable seating all in a relaxing garden setting.
The German-run J-Bar above the Mealy Chenda restaurant is a big, expansive, well decorated place, in stark contrast to most of the hurriedly banged together bamboo and thatch shacks on the main strip. Projection screen showing movies and sports, a couple of good pool tables, and balcony seating. Its the perfect place to watch the sunset, while taking advantage of the cheap happy hour beer, or, during the monsoon season, the nighttime lightning shows over the ocean.
In terms of girlie bars, the once frenetic Crazy Rabbit set the scene with the risqu move (by Cambodian standards) of having one or two fully clothed bargirls gyrating around a chrome pole for a few minutes at a time.
Just down the street Campari is a tiny, French-run, first-floor bar with warm, welcoming hostesses. Its also a great spot to take in the street theatre.
One of the best girlie places is the recently opened Le Tropicana. The pool table downstairs is uncomfortable jammed between columns, and the dance poles and mirrors upstairs are usually abandoned, but the big team of bright and funny hostess makes this a fun stop.
Just around from the Hill and attached to the Snakehouse restaurant and bungalows, the Snakepit has thick comfortable sofas, so welcoming after the broken rattan of so many of the Hills bars, pool table, and fully clothed yet friendly hostesses spinning around chrome poles.
All on its own, down the muddy track past the port, Bibas is a frequent stop for many visitors. This Khmer style nightclub features singers belting out pop tunes when theyre not accepting strings of flowers from appreciative onlookers. Beer on ice, laser lights, and the most curious menu in the country.
The main post office is located behind the Victory Palace Resort and Casino near Victory Beach. There is a smaller office near the market in town.
The highest concentration of Internet shops are downtown and on Victory Hill. Most charge from 3000 to 4000 riel per hour. Prices are generally calculated at fifteen-minute increments (i.e. 5000 riel for seventy-five minutes). The connection is often slow. The computers are generally prehistoric. The keyboards are often malfunctioning. And service, of course, is non-existent. Be grateful for an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. At least thats acknowledgement of a problem. Take this as an inducement to stay unplugged and enjoy a laidback beach holiday.
On the upside, Internet cafes provide ultra-cheap long-distance phone calls. But then again, there is often an echo on the line, or you are out of synch with whomevers on the other end, or there is blaring static.
b) Financial Matters
The banks are all located near the downtown. Canadia, UBC, ACELEDA, CCB, and ANZ are the major players. Cash advances on credit cards are available without commission from Canadia and UBC. All of them cash travellers cheques for a small commission. International ATMs should be coming soon.
Moneychangers exist around the market. Look for the glass cases and stacks of gold and bank notes. Check that you get the right change. Count it right there in front of the vendor if he or she does not do it for you. If for some reason youre receiving American dollars, return any ripped or soiled notes (especially larger denominations) and check that everything larger than ten dollars is not counterfeit.
c) Medical Treatment
There are pharmacies and clinics located around the town. Medical care in Cambodia is notoriously poor, and this is especially true outside of Phnom Penh. Self-diagnosis is common among expats, who use the Internet to look up medications, but theres a good chance that a pharmacist wont even know the names of common drugs. If they dont know the drug, or claim that they dont have it, they will often permit you to peruse their shelves yourself.
Some people go to pharmacists for diagnosis, but they are unlikely to really understand the nature of your malady and could easily give you lozenges rather than antibiotics for a throat infection. They routinely give Khmers multi-coloured packages of pills, which consist of three varieties of paracetamol, some multi-vitamins, and maybe something that could address the underlying problem. Remember that many doctors in Cambodia bribed their way both into and through medical school and pharmacy is more of a family business than a university specialisation.
If you dont want to drive around hooked up to an intravenous drip, have hot suction cups applied to your forehead, or suffer diagonal bruises down your back the way many Khmers do when theyve been diagnosed as having too much blood or being too hot inside, youd better get back to the nations capital for serious troubles and consult one of the Western doctors there.
There are several mini-marts in town where you can get everything from sunscreen to canned sardines, confectionery to tampons, vodka to deodorant, magazines to haemorrhoid cream, and eye-drops to strawberry flavoured condoms. While there are still no 7/11s, many of these are well stocked, air-conditioned, and open late. In town, try Samudera Mart, Orange Mart, or the Star Mart attached to Caltex. There is also one mini-mart on Victory Hill, and Ocean Mart near the Golden Lions is convenient for Ochheuteal and Serendipity
While certain areas are compact enough to be covered on foot, many trips in Sihanoukville require some extra horsepower. Most people opt for motorbikes, either a motodops or a rental, but a few go for the alternatives, bicycles and cars.
Stepping off the bus or out of the taxi, your search for transportation, and the motodops Darwinistic struggle for survival, begins.
They surround you like a pack of hungry-eyed hyenas and cackle, You want moto, sir? Sir, you want moto? Confused by the swarm of bodies, the jostling of unseen elbows, the feel of hands pulling your bag, you stammer, No! No! Im fine! Im going to walk!
So you turn, waving them away, and set off in any direction. But one or two follow you, puttering alongside on their battered Daelims, Where you want to go, sir? I take you go beach? I take you go very good hotel, okay? How much you want to pay?
In sprawling Sihanoukville, you will need to hire motorised transport. Motodops are the first choice for most people, but they have earned a particularly nasty reputation in Sihanoukville as a rude, sullen, lying, sleazy bunch, who sell drugs on the side, run any scam they can, and at the same time pretend to be your best friend and tell you poor hardluck stories.
The hassle starts at the bus station because motodops generally make a commission for taking you to hotels and guesthouses. Even when you already know where you want to stay, they have been known to spin yarns about close long time already or no good, very dirty to get you to follow them.
Once youve got a room, the motodops will be waiting for you on the street. One tourist earns them twice as much as any Khmer. They have no qualms about overcharging. They lie about distances. They change their minds about prices upon arrived at their destinations. More than a few are hyped up on ya ma, cheap methamphetamine pills, and the resulting aggression has been blamed for a number of latenight assaults on tourists and expats alike.
In Phnom Penh, most people jump on a motodop, pay the standard fare at the end, and simply walk away if he asks for more. Some people say that in Sihanoukville, you should always agree on a price beforehand. Others say that it just leads to the unnecessary hassle of prolonged negotiations. The decision is yours. But unless youre sure of the fair price, meaning youve been taking motodops for some time, then its probably best to ask first.
With the sharp increase in fuel prices (from 2500 riel per litre in 2003 to almost 4000 riel per litre in 2006), the motodops are getting cheeky and asking for silly sums. Standard is now to ask for a dollar to anywhere. Thats reasonable for long journeys such as between Victory Hill and Ochheuteal Beach, and the price rises by approximately fifty percent for latenight journeys, but half that should be more than enough around town in the day.
While motodops have given a lot of people a rough time, theyre not all that bad. The best thing to do is maintain a sense of humour. When youre being gouged, dont lose your temper, raise your voice, or throw the money on the ground. Thats certain to only make the situation worse. Smile. Then try to work out a compromise, and remember that its only a matter of a few cents.
Another tip is to take motodops who can be vouched for by Western owned businesses. Some of the more established bars and hotels in town have a group of regular motodops who wait out front. Most of the time, motodops wont mind waiting around for you. You can also arrange to have one pick you up at a certain time. If you find a good one, you can avoid some hassle by taking him regularly.
With the number of long trips many people make in Sihanoukville and the prevalence of overcharging, it makes a lot of sense to hire your own bike. For three to four dollars a day, you can get a serviceable 110cc or 125cc scooter (or twice that for a rarer 250cc) and rip from Victory Hill to Serendipity Beach, downtown to Kbal Chai, and even just go for a pleasant sunset ride around the hilly countryside, enjoying the cool evening breeze, and all without reaching for your wallet every few minutes.
Motorbike rentals are available from many guesthouses in town or on Victory Hill. To get one, you will have to hand over your passport or fork out a deposit of several hundred dollars. If you take a bike in the afternoon, you should not be charged for a full day until the following afternoon. Dont let anyone tell you that because you rented the bike on the 26th and returned it on the 27th they are entitled to two days fees. Also, give the bike a thorough once over before hiring it. Make sure the lights, horn, and brakes work properly.
Even if youve never been on a motorbike before, Sihanoukville can be a good place to learn. The small 110cc and 125cc models are simple to operate, and the major roads are generally wide, smooth, clearly marked, and well illuminated. Try to find a relatively quiet area, one without too many hills, and spend thirty minutes practising. Thats all it should take to get the balance and coordination necessary to putter around town. The area around Independence Beach, or the road parallel to Ochheuteal Beachs main drag, would both be good choices.
A few final words of advice. First, lock your bike up wherever you go and try to keep it within sight whenever possible. Second, remember to wear reasonable gear. A bathing suit, T-shirt, and flip-flops might are fine for a trip to the beach, but if youre going on more adventurous trips, such as to Kampot, wear jeans and sturdy shoes, especially if youve rented a bigger bike. Third, take care when driving, especially when hitting the bars, as traffic here does not follow the same rules here as it does back home, and you are a long, long way from any qualified doctors or quality medical facilities. Finally, if you do get into an accident, you will be assumed guilty, surrounded by a mob, with no ability to communicate, and have to fork out compensation. Take it slow.
Two transportation options remain: bicycles and cars. Like motorbikes, you can hire bicycles from a number of shops and guesthouses in town and on Victory Hill. With the hilly terrain, trips between major areas are likely to be strenuous. Still, its good exercise! Reckon on about one dollar per day.
The best choice, particularly in the monsoon season, is to rent a car. Unlike back home, the driver is generally included in the bargain here, so you can be chauffeured from the beach to the bar in air-conditioned luxury and never fret about the rain spoiling your carefully styled hair. There arent really any rental companies, so you will most likely be striking a deal with the driver of a privately owned Toyota Camry. (There are a few cheap Ticos on offer as well. Try the mad Frenchman at Le Consulat bar downtown.) Ask your hotel to make arrangements. The cost varies according to the quality of the vehicle, of course, but you should be able to get one in good condition for thirty dollars per day.
IX. Getting There and Away
1) Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville
While an international airport is in the works near Ream National Park, currently the only route between the capital and Sihanoukville is National Highway #4. Built by the United States, this road is one of the best in the country. Despite being a gift to the Cambodian people, it has been made into a toll road, so if youre driving any vehicle larger than a motorbike, expect to be stopped in order to line the pockets of local officials.
Several bus companies ply this route. GST is located between the Central Market and the Sorya Center. Capitol Bus is located across from Psar ORussei. Also near Psar ORussei is Mekong Express. All companies offer regular departures several times per day with fixed prices. The busses are equipped with air-conditioning and television. They may be fifteen or twenty minutes late, but there is none of the silliness of waiting until the bus is full.
Of the first two options, Capitol Bus is the better, with stronger air-conditioning and more comfortable seating, but both feature annoying karaoke videos and Khmer standup comedy routines. They stop halfway to the beach at one of several large restaurants serving slightly overpriced and generally unpalatable Khmer food. This is the place to have a cold drink, smoke a cigarette, or use the restroom. Just a bit further is the cliffside shrine to Pich Nil, a legendary goddess and protector of travelers, where drivers often stop to offer bananas and a prayer. The trip takes approximately four hours and costs 15,000 riel.
Mekong Express offers a direct bus with a washroom on board, saving you thirty minutes. There is a toilet on board. It costs a few thousand riel more, but the bus itself has the best air-con, and superior service, with attractive female attendants handing out cold towels, bottled water, and light snacks, as well as taking up the microphone to deliver periodic lessons on local geography.
Another option is to take one of the many taxis around the Central Market. These leave when full, which happens quickest early in the day, but if you cant wait, you can always pay for all the empty seats. Many people opt to rent an entire taxi for themselves, giving them greater control over where, when, and how long to stop, and if you have a group, it makes good financial sense as well. Others rent the whole front seat (two places) or the back (four places) to have that bit of extra space. Otherwise, expect to be cramped.
Taxis have the dubious advantage of getting there fast. Two-and-a-half hours might sound like a great idea, but not when your maniacal driver with his cracked windshield, bald tires, and faulty brakes is swerving into traffic and having his side mirrors sheered off by transport trucks. Each place costs around $5. An entire taxi costs around $30. Pay on arrival.
Barring all other options, there is always a contingent of minibuses around the Central Market. They too will wait until full, and they too drive as fast as possible, and they too will feel suffocatingly overcrowded. Cost: 10,000 riel per seat.
2) Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh
The bus station in Sihanoukville is located downtown, behind the Freedom Hotel, but you can catch the busses at their respective offices. The GST office is on Ekareach Street, right downtown, next to the Blue Storm disco. The Capitol office is also downtown, on the Ekareach Street, near the Gday Mate and Oasis restaurants. The Mekong Express bus is just off the main street, also downtown, across from the Canadia Bank. The trip to the capital is slightly less expensive than in the opposite direction at 12,000 riel. Other transportation options, such as shared taxis, are more difficult to locate in Sihanoukville.
3) Kampot to Sihanoukville
The journey from Kampot to Sihanoukville follows National Highway # 3 in the shadow of the Elephant Mountains. Forty kilometres north of Sihanoukville, the road ends in the town of Veal Renh. A left turn onto National Highway #4 will complete the journey. The road is in the final stages of construction at the time of writing. The trip takes from ninety minutes to two hours. Taxis cost 10,000 riel. Minibuses cost 8000 riel. They leave from the taxi stand in the centre of town.
4) Sihanoukville to Kampot
From Sihanoukville, transportation leaves from the vicinity of Psar Leu. Taxis cost 14,000 riel. Minibuses cost 8000 riel. The trip takes from ninety minutes to two hours.
5) Koh Kong to Sihanoukville
Years ago, the best option for travel between Koh Kong and Sihanoukville was the ferry service. This service has declined over the years, while road conditions have improved, and nowadays many people prefer the bus. The boat is still a viable option, though one with a dangerous history, as they are converted high-speed river ferries, meaning they were never built for the rough conditions of the sea. For many people, this means at best a mild case of seasickness and at worst a Titanic sequel in the waiting.
On the other hand, other people rave about the scenery from the boats, as it weaves among deserted islands, with unspoilt beaches, and jungle covered shores. To get a good view, many travellers like to take the roof of the boat. This can translate into a pleasant ride in the dry season, provided one remembers to cover up and apply plenty of sunscreen, but during the monsoon season, the trip can be rain-soaked and miserable. This point may seem self-evident, but its not uncommon to see backpackers rummaging through their guidebook, agreeing that it recommends the roof, and ignoring the portentously black cumulous nimbus clouds overhead.
The halfway point is Koh Sdach, and its possible to pay half price just to get there and then pay up for the rest of the trip later. See the Koh Sdach section for more information on the island. The cost of the trip is $15. It takes around five hours.
The road between Koh Kong and Sihanoukville (excluding the eighty-kilometre stretch on National Highway #4) is in relatively poor condition. Annual resurfacing ensures that the erosion caused each monsoon season does not render it impossible for Camrys, but its a long haul through mud, dust, and cavernous potholes. This is one of the most scenic highways in the country, with rolling hills that give splendid views of the countryside, and river crossings that provide photogenic scenes. There are refreshments at each one, as well, meaning a well provided for trip with lots of short rests to break up an otherwise long journey. There are taxis, minibuses, and trucks available for those without their own transportation.
From Koh Kong, the easiest place to find them is around the market in the centre of town. Minibuses are the easiest to find, leave early, and wait until theyre full. Try to get the front seat to yourself. Travel time varies widely, and it stretches out interminably at holidays, when the ferries are packed and the cars are queuing up. Touts will pick you up as soon as you cross the border, and they will often be able to put a group of tourists on a mini-bus together. Taxis go for about ten dollars per seat (the Koh Kong side works primarily on Thai baht), though mini-busses are a few dollars cheaper if you bargain hard.
Taking your own transportation is, of course, possible. Note that you will have to pay a small fee at each of the ferry crossings. Sometimes, locals with try to hustle you onto a small private boat before the ferry arrives for two or three times the cost. This can make sense if youre in a rush, but in general its just a way to liberate your cash.
6) Sihanoukville to Koh Kong
From Sihanoukville, the ferries leave near the port. Because of double pricing, significant discounts can be found through tour operators and guesthouses. The trip costs $15 and takes around five hours. Taxis, minibuses, and trucks might be available around Psar Leu. The trip time varies according to seasonal road conditions. One seat costs around ten dollars. Taking your own transportation is possible, but you will be responsible for the small fee at each river crossing.