The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated September 8, 2006
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
Sand and sea are the vital ingredients but the recipe does not produce results that are uniform or plain. Sihanoukville has an impressive range of beaches to park yourself on - if not any jaw-dropping, world-class offerings - so there should be something that tickles your fancy. Long ones, bustling ones, easy-access, empty ones, coves, chill out zones, places for swimming or sailing, shallow beaches to suit kids, island beaches – “all kinds of beaches” as a Cambodian tourism guide might put it.
Even those who aren’t real beach lovers (like myself) will be pretty happy to find a stretch of sand that inspires moments of clarity, hours of being a lazy sod, a full day’s people watching or skin scorching, just sploshing around, sipping down cold beers or whatever.
Let’s begin with the closest beaches to town before moving on to the outlying stretches of coast.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
The main Sihanoukville area has four beaches within easy range, plus Otres Beach sitting slightly further afield. Running north to south these are:
This is the nearest sand to the popular backpacker ghetto of Victory Hill (aka ‘Backpacker Hill’ or ‘Weather Station Hill’ or simply ‘the Hill’). It’s split by a headland (where the Victory Monument stands) into two roughly equal halves known as Port Beach to the north (to the right as you look out to sea) and Hawaii Beach to the south (or left).
I don’t find either section of beach particularly impressive: narrow sand smattered with pine needle debris, an almost unbroken row of thatched drive-up vendors, little natural shade or beauty, plus it can get annoying with those pestering kids hawking you junk. Of the main beaches, Victory is my least favourite.
Facing west it does offer a great sunset spot though, and its proximity just a few hundred metres down the (steep!) slope from the bulk of the travellers’ accommodation makes Victory an ever-popular beach. The southern reach is the quieter area for now – accommodation is rising here fast to fill the void of hotels near the waterfront.Independence Beach
There’s a rather different ambiance at Independence Beach and I feel it has an almost European air to it. It’s grander, less crowded and is the kind of beach that makes you want to promenade it’s long curve to the far end and then strut back like an endurance catwalk – not that you’ll have many admirers as this is the generally the quietest of the four central beaches.
The north end has a tall promontory with the Independence Hotel rising above; this is a landmark and beacon both for ships and also figuratively for Sihanoukville’s development. Some say it was never completed but it was in fact open for business (as the ‘Independance Hotel’ – sic) during Cambodia’s modern heyday of the early sixties before bookings trailed off somewhat in 1975. Lying an abandoned relic for a couple of decades left it a sombre, dormant reminder of the rapid, optimism-filled rise of Sihanoukville only to be dashed by war, terror and bugger-all investment potential; it is now dusting itself down and boy does it scrub up well.
In June 2006 I crossed the cool creek at the north end of the beach and sneaked up the steep and lichen-covered stairway, before persuading my way into the complex with the reluctant permission of a young security guard (language opens doors sometimes – a Diner’s Club card didn’t do it). The mature gardens give way to the stylish lines of art deco-inspired 60’s architecture, now being appropriately remodelled (but let’s save on the terms ‘lovingly’ or ‘by a dedicated workforce’ or ‘painstakingly accurate representation’) with funding from me. Yup, my stash of dollars at the Canadia Bank is being funnelled into the project to reopen what will likely be a high-end alternative to match, or trump, the rather characterless, tacky big buck offerings in Sihanoukville. It’s nice to see someone has an eye for taste and has chosen to keep the famous structure in tact rather than the oh-too-common norm of pulling down anything old – the ‘old can’t be good’ modern Asian rationale.
I’m expecting a complimentary long weekend stay there as recompense for the not inconsiderable capital taken from my savings account (numbered special reserve gold account) but only after they’ve smoothed out the initial wrinkles following the grand reopening in 2007 of this 7-storey hotel… and that’s why the street signs and some maps refer to it as ‘7 Chann Beach’ or ‘7 Chann Hotel’ – it’s got seven floors. Now, saying ‘seven chan’ (as in Jackie Chan) aint gonna get you many looks of recognition from your average Khmer – except maybe for the intellectual elite in baseball caps driving moto taxis – so you’d have to say ‘bram-pul jorn’ with jorn sounding like ‘jaw’ at the beginning.
For some reason foreigners don’t come here much. For me it’s a prettier, more relaxed version of Victory Beach, with a similarly narrow strip of sand and wispy trees shelter the usual array of beachside seafood joints. Don’t expect much beach at high tide especially in the rainy months, but when the tide’s out this really is a nice spot.Sokha Beach
“Tickets please! Let’s have those ID passes ready for inspection ladies and gentlemen. Don’t forget to leave your wallets unattended – thanks…” If you feel like spending your ill-gotten gains – or someone else’s – in a sterile, manufactured ‘international’ setting then for a two-night stay you’ll be looking at parting with a minimum of $300 (room only, plus tax, plus service) for the dimmest shoebox in the noisiest wing of the most distant annex of the Sokha Beach Resort. This fee ensures your right to mince in your Speedos on exclusive, private sand, free from cow shit and the detritus of humanity (but it’s the same sea and there’ll still be floaters out there), looking down your long nose at fawning underpaid staff, feeling smugly rich until you unsuccessfully try not to splutter when you see the price of the G&T served at your deckchair should be buying you a litre of Gordon’s and your Ray Ban’s slip off into the sand.
The rest of us are strictly not welcome on this beach, but for a token gesture 100-metre section at the rocky eastern (left) end. A security guard patrols to apprehend violators, but if you rushed him en masse, most of you could easily get past and cause minor havoc tossing deckchair cushions around, upsetting the gentry (or jumped-up nouveau riche trash more like) and brightening up the perma-smiles of the overly humble workers. An approach by sea is another entertaining but foolish possibility.
Not really much more to do on or say about Sokha Beach except that it used to be very nice, and if I were spending big money, I’d expect a little enforced seclusion too.Ochheuteal Beach
This is the big one, the main event – and the hardest to pronounce. If you like your beaches busy and with plenty of bars to choose from, music to listen to, people to watch and bickering proprietors to meet, Ochheuteal is the one for you. The nicely curved near end is dubbed ‘Serendipity Beach’ but that moniker is strictly unofficial or jail terms may result (well, something like that happened a couple of years back).
‘Serendipity’ is the most popular end of the busiest beach in Sihanoukville – this is where most foreign guests end up sooner or later. That means it can get exciting and you meet loads of cool people and everything was so chilled, or, from another perspective, can mean overpopulated, annoying and spoilt.
Too many bars, restaurants, and guesthouses to pick from on this beach and they’re all with walking or crawling distance of each other. See what you fancy, move on if it doesn’t float your boat.
On the big Khmer holidays (most of which follow the lunar calendar, so dates vary), day trippers swarm Ochheuteal, but ‘Serendipity’ generally remains a western enclave, though of course there is no segregation at all.How to say it: Lesson Seventeen – Ochheuteal
1, ‘Oh’ – as in ‘Oh my!’
2, ‘Chur – as in ‘churlish’, or like ‘fur’
3, ‘Teal’ – like the greenish blue colour, sounds like ‘meal’
Not at all difficult. The stress should really be last syllable (the ‘teal’ part) if you really want to get it spot on. I stick to conventional spellings, like you’ll see on maps, signs etc – but it does help saying these places in a way that’ll be understandable to locals.
Otres is the most distant of the main Sihanoukville beaches. Further out, fewer people…great! It’s not the isolation zone it once was, in no small part due to the new metal bridge and road cutting steeply over the rocky point at the far end of Ochheuteal Beach (east, or left as you look out to sea), but what you lose in solitude, you gain in convenience, like getting a cold beer to enjoy the setting. Don’t get me wrong: this is still the least developed strip of sand by a country mile; no hawkers, no 7-Eleven (oh, that’s Thailand isn’t it?), no beach raves, no baton twirlers, no tattoo artists, no sand-under-feet internet. It’s fairly wide, pretty much clean and often deserted – just the way I like my beaches.
If you like the idea of being above the waves and keeping the beach out of your bed, then some solitude can be found at the Queen’s Hill Resort on the headland that separates Otres from Ochheuteal beaches (a gay, lesbian and straight-friendly environment, I presume, despite the name – pack your drag gear at weekends just in case though). Solid enough bungalows, all with direct sea views and acoustics, have been thoughtfully placed in landscaped gardens, so it doesn’t end up like a car park or institution. Room rates are for now surprisingly reasonable too, starting at $10 for an individual bungalow.
Star Bar Bungalows are tasteful too, with big picture windows and are right on the beach (unbeatable tsunami views) at about the mid-point.
Otres Beach is the place for splashing and floating in the sea, and for more serious watersports too, with a variety of sailboats and windsurfers available – overweight, drunken jet skiers must head elsewhere.
If you head all the way to the far end of the beach, you arrive at a creek (the O Tres – ‘O’ meaning creek – pronounced ‘oh’. ‘Tres’ has no ‘s’ sound; it’s more like the first part of ‘Trevor’). This is easily crossable (wade/swim) even in the rainy season, probably no more than waist-deep the rest of the year, and from the other side you could (I repeat, could) attempt a bit of an amateur Indiana Jones hack through the bush and eventually you’d arrive a sweaty mess at Ream National Park’s far end. Sharpen your machete before heading out on this mission.
Otres is the beach after Ochheuteal; simply follow the coast road and you’ll get there - it’s over the steep hill that separates the two beaches. There are a couple of other ways in and out but are in pretty poor condition, requiring a good motorbike or mountain bike and capable rider (or top of the range flip flops) to cope with boulders, 12-ft-deep gullies, steep terrain and a few dead ends. These routes eventually turn you out on Route #4 above Sihanoukville, past the brewery and on the way towards Ream, then the turn off to Kampot (at Veal Renh), and on to Phnom Penh.
And a final footnote – and I’m totally with Will Capel on this one:Beach etiquette
It’s not Rio, Biarritz, Brighton or even Bali. Swinging boobs, string thongs up butt cracks, hairy ball sacks poking out from Speedos – put them all away; thankfully it’s not really the done thing. Khmers certainly don’t do it – they get fully clothed to go in the sea (else they’ll get ‘ugly’ black skin), and because they’re modest folk.
Times may be changing but nudity, sex on the beach, drug taking and talking too loudly about tattoos are all heavily frowned upon. It’s not your country, so show a little respekt here guys n gals.
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