What Not to Do in Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville-Beach-Cambodia (2)-1000x1000

Vice and Slate writer Nathan Thompson visits Sihanoukville and has a dire time of it

I expected Sihanoukville to be a Sodom of sexpats. But it wasn’t all that bad. “Just go to Otres”, my expat friends had told me. I would have followed their advice if I hadn’t been traveling with a Khmerican girl and 10 of her Cambodian relatives. When traveling in groups of that size simply getting a tuktuk 15 minutes to Otres can become a Byzantine process more trouble than it’s worth.

It began on Friday at Sorya bus station. It was me, the Khmerican girl, her two sisters, brother, cousin, mother and four elderly relatives collectively referred to as “the Oms” (“Om” being the Khmer pronoun for “elder”). Hungry, I joined the Oms in eating a white doughy pork bun that tasted like grease and death. The bus station announcement was made in Khmer. “Is that us?” I asked the Khmerican girl – it was.

We arrived in Sihanoukville in the cool night. Crammed into tuktuks dragged by protesting motorbikes, we set off to find a hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by the establishment we ended up in. Sure, there was no lift and we were on the third floor but the rooms were clean, the beds firm and the cabal channels ample. We took three rooms between the 11 of us and I, being English and used to a certain amount of “personal space”, was allowed my own bed. The family fussed, the old men smoked and I basked in the comforting sound of BBC News.

“Let’s go for a walk and find a restaurant on the way”,
“But I’m hungry now”,
“I have to find food for the Oms”,
“This place looks good”,
“I want Khmer food”,
“If I eat any more rice I swear I’ll vomit”,
Negotiations continued in a similar vein until, exhausted by discussion, we settled on a restaurant immediately next door to our hotel which turned out to be the worst ever. The spring rolls disintegrated into a pool of grease, my fish was as chewy as doublemint and my fries were of the type banned in the UK since 1983. We returned to the hotel to sleep off our indigestion.

I can’t remember the name of the nearby beach. It was accessed via a filthy street lined with shacks promoting debauchery and diving. A sewer of sweet stinking beer and cigarette butts ran down its centre and into the white sands of the beach. We stepped out onto the soft sand in the morning sun rapt by the fishing boat bobbing sea.

Having recently been criticised on the forum for being “judgmental”, I hesitate to use the term “eurotrash” to describe our fellow beach enthusiasts, but only for a second – the place was full of eurotrash and drunk Australians. The Oms stared agape at old wobble-bellies in bikinis, ratty sexpats and backpackers stumbling in the alcohol sick morning.

“Let’s go to Otres”,
“Let’s get a boat”,
“I’m hungry”,
“I want beer”,
The negotiations began again. The Khmerican girl floated the idea of hiring a boat which was met with approval from everyone except the Oms. One Om squinted the green islands in the blue distance and said, “last night I had a bad dream and it will be bad luck to get on a boat”. She huddled with the other Oms under an umbrella. They muttered darkly about omens.

The Khmerican girl gave the Oms some lunch money and we left them on the beach as loud techno began pumping from a nearby bar. “I need to get my drink on,” said the Khmerican girl in her southern accent. At the pier bar cocktails were downed and more ordered. We jumped onto boat with foaming beers whooping as the wind began to run through our hair.

Halfway to Bamboo Island we stopped for a swim: diving into the cool blue ocean, swimming, climbing back aboard, nasal passage lined with saline, leaping back into the water again. We arrived on the island and walked with sand-dashed feed past empty beaches. The waves sounded like the breath of the Earth. Through dry jungle to the other side. It was another beach where we drank coconut milkshakes and ate Lok Lak. The Khmerican girl woke me up from my post-lunch snooze, her hair matted by salt water, her head cocked to one side. It was time to go. The boat returned with us sleeping on the deck.

That evening we crammed again into two tuktuks and drove to a restaurant that had been recommended as “good for Khmers”.
“I don’t like soup”,
“But the Oms have never had it before”,
“Can we get a pitcher?”
“So they have squid?”
The discussion was protracted. The Khmerican girl wanted to get one of those vats of do-it-yourself soup. I was against the idea. I still don’t understand the appeal of cooking your own soup by adding medallions of meat and bunches of vegetables to boiling water – why would you go to a restaurant just to cook yourself? It’s not even as if you have a variety of ingredients to choose from just exactly what the kitchen would have put in.

We decided to get dishes – fish, squid, pork and so on. After taking our order the waitress returned to cheerfully announce the restaurant had run out of food… at 8pm on a Saturday. Behind her, another waitress changed her baby’s nappy on a spare table. We left.

After a dinner of fish and rice at an upmarket hostess bar, we returned the Oms to the hotel to sit on the floor and consume tobacco. We ventured out to a Karaoke bar. Drunk, we tumbled through the heavy doors into an interior like a cinema. Short-skirted hostesses led us to a private room. A Khmer song was playing and a cousin picked up the mic and made a noise like a dental drill while I scrabbled for the English song menu. It was lacking. As some forum members have correctly inferred I have a poncy music taste and found none of my standbys there (“Gouge Away” by the Pixies anyone?). So I contented myself with a dewy-eyed rendition of “The Way We Were” by Barbara Streisand.

By the time we left the Karaoke had stripped us of good humour. The cousin, being fully Khmer, had murdered song after song and I found myself jaded and confused by the weird videos that accompanied each song often featuring bikini-clad wobbling around swimming pools onThnom stilettos. We stumbled into the Sihanoukville night. “I knew we should have gone to Otres” I said.

Nathan Thompson

22 thoughts on “What Not to Do in Sihanoukville

  1. Arthur Fannin Reply

    No visit to Victory Hill?

    This account was so lame it might as well have been cobbled together by someone who had never set foot in Snooky!

  2. jimmy Reply

    Also one more tip. Most old people eat humble food. If they’re being picky then chances are they see you as a sucker.
    If I’m paying for a seafood dinner thats 5 times the cost of their average dinner then they better pick something from the menu.
    Also, you’re khmer american girl seems like a complete newbie.

  3. Joon Reply

    That was a painful read of a SHV trip account, even by SHV standards. I don’t know how Nathan ended up with the Khmerican girl and her family, but my rule of thumb is NEVER EVER GO TO SHV WITH EXTENDED FAMILY. Especially if not yours. Or get your own means of transportation and don’t feel bad about appearing discourteous and going your own way.

  4. chris Reply

    Gotta agree with Joon. Sihanoukville is a place to visit alone, or with a fun loving friend. With an open mind, Sihanoulville can be a great laugh, but obviously travelling with a closed mind as well as money grabbing family( cos they saw u as sucker), and you’ll have a crap exp anywhere.

    Therefore this write up is basically void and useless for 99% readers. Not worth reading, cos its Nonsense.

  5. Chis Waldie Reply

    The onslaught of negativity and deadpan wit is an attempt at encapsulating the great British sense of humour no doubt, but in all honesty it comes across as the archetypical whinging Pom…..and that comes from a fellow Brit.

  6. pete w Reply

    What a load of whingeing responses! Why don’t you geniuses do something constructive like post your own articles instead of slating someone else’s efforts?

    • Joon Reply

      Well, you don’t necessarily get an A for Efforts… :\

      I’m pretty sure such misadventure could turn into a hilarious piece, but it was, in this instance, poorly thought out and written. No offense intended, of course. Just a genuine reaction to an account that most probably could have been better written.

  7. Ray Reply

    I did not get there but if is best suited to single males I will soon , sounds fun.

  8. Roger Mexico Reply

    I’m sorry that Mr. Thompson had a bad time in Sihanoukville (I want to stress that I enjoy reading Mr. Thompson’s writing and bet he’s an awesome guy I just feel like indulging in a bit of teasing for some reason relating to the balance of my humours at the moment, and to make a few points), but I think this article can be read as an extended lesson in what happens in Cambodia if all signs point to “chill out, go with the flow”– and in this case “you are the guest of a local family”– and one decides to ignore those signs and impose some sort of plan on things. I’m not saying that barangs should check agency, common sense and sanity at the door as soon as they enter Cambodian public space (plenty of debates in various forms on this board over the correcting daft behavior vs. letting it slide vs. middle ground argument already), but it seems like the devils tormenting Mr. Thompson were in (desired) details of his own devising. The serving staff at a restaurant behaved irregularly (what!? in the Kingdom!?), the “Oms” didn’t want to get their skin darkened at the beach while the Westernized young author and the “Khmerican” gal wanted to absorb the sun (and I suspect that the dynamic of a Khmer-American visiting local relatives added to the unsteady vibes of “face,” value-judgment and decision making.) They went to a karaoke bar in Sihanoukville and it turned out to have women in short skirts (what!? well I never!) Not to mention, the author had to watch the Om sit on the floor and “consume” tobacco– I imagined them like an odd species of ruminant primate that just chews on wads of tobacco that three stomachs of bacterial flora can digest. That would be unsettling to watch, but also probably interesting. I bet they were just smoking cigarettes.
    All in all, what is described in this article is a generally “blah”, tepid time full of frustrations. As some posters mentioned above, they were expecting some far rougher incidents. The point I want to make is that this story takes place in a tropical seaside paradise for heaven’s sake! Yes, little children and hawkers pester you on the beach. Yes, foreigners who come to beaches can have floppy, unsightly bodies- don’t worry about them, they’re walking around enjoying themselves! Yes, the whole tourist-serving system of Sihanoukville isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine yet, but in five years the beaches of Kompong Som will be lined mega-resorts full of young Khmer staff trained in rudimentary Chinese and Korean and instead of saying “out of food” in English they will just point to a flourescent-lit banquet room with buffet lines.
    I have only been to Sihanoukville once, for two days, in JANUARY, and it was lovely. I stayed at a guesthouse (forget the name- evergreen?) with clean and spacious rooms right on Ekareach street. I sat outside under the stars and had delicious grilled seafood, chicken, and kabobs at a restaurant called Apollo. I went to an all-night open-air beachfront jazz club filled with Western hippies and a few of their local Khmer equivalents. I went into a bar whose name I forget (it was strung with little flags from all over the world) that was clearly a pickup bar but didn’t spend much time there because of the composition of the group I was with, but there’s that sort of scene in town obviously. I didn’t go to any of the new (at the time) casinos because I am not super into gambling, although if I had stayed there longer I would have started the night at one of them (I do enjoy getting tatted up and playing Rat Pack at nagaworld once in a blue moon, but generally do that as a treat when I have extra cash and luckily I don’t have the pawn-my-watch-to-keep-playing bug…).
    Most importantly, I went to Ochheuteal Beach and Otras, but it was also very easy to just keep going down the road to beaches that were beautiful and completely undeveloped. I felt like I just touched the tip of the iceberg– Cambodia’s Gulf of Thailand coast is a “fun in the sun” gem waiting to be built up and milked to the max (see above), and ya know what, even if it is, it will still be a great place to visit, because there is always a level of artificiality to these beach zone places (like the various Koh ___ and Krabi in Thailand), and at the same time, it will be several years at least before the coastline runs out of off-the-beaten-path beaches with serviceable guesthouses and tasty food that might be a little challenging to foreigners on a bacterial level (when I get weird food vibes from a place, I take an antibiotic in the morning and drink at night). Yes, there is a seedy side (even a seedy miasma in the air) to Sihanoukville that, as with other places in Cambodia, is diminishing all the time, although with S’ville I think it’s at just the right level where it’s fun. Like a “choose your own adventure” book- you can make of it what you want. I have never been to Poipet but I hear that that’s the genuine article in terms of pure, fresh out the mason jar distilled seedy

    So, Mr. Thompson, I would recommend resetting your relationship to Sihanoukville– get back on that saddle. Don’t get jaded. There’s palm trees and sea breeze and beaches and drinks in coconuts and even fun souvenirs floating in the water (what are all those little deflated cucumber balloons? Must’ve been popped by all those funny-looking clear plastic darts people are playing with… Just kidding!) for you to collect. And if you find a “stah-mat” that sells aluminium foil and one of the Oms knows how to minimize your deikei, you’ll have a ruddy good time indeed… Better luck next time! – RM

  9. OD Reply

    Your inability to eat your own meal while they eat theirs is a serious issue that you should consider addressing before traveling to exotic destinations that feature food you don’t care for. Especially if your time there is to be spend with the local inhabitants that feel exactly the same about your preferred food.

  10. Visser Reply

    “After a dinner of fish and rice at an upmarket hostess bar, we returned the Oms to the hotel to sit on the floor and consume tobacco. ”

    What were you thinking?

  11. brent Reply

    I detest people like this – they come to sihanoukville, visit the very worst areas, and then slag it off – come hear and let someone show you the best of our home. infact dont stay in PP where you belong with the trash

  12. Jim Reply

    I spent a month in Sihanoukville scouting for a long term living location. I hated the place. Coty was practically rmpty and nothing to do. Only a handful of people around in Victory Hill and The main beaches. Shops complaining about ‘low season’. Very depressing overall.

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