Sunset in Sihanoukville
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It's likely that you won't be neutral about Sihanoukville. You'll either love it or hate it, depending on how well your shore experience matches your travel style, so plan your day carefully. Why so? Because Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the Vietnam War, followed by the hideous rule of the Khmer Rouge, which murdered 1.7 million people (essentially anyone who was educated), leaving the country in shambles.
If you don't want to risk encountering urchins hawking trinkets or adult beggars maimed by landmines, head straight for a private beach, or stay onboard. If you're ready to immerse yourself in the rich cultural swirl of Cambodia with all its warts, you've come to the right place.
Sihanoukville, originally called Kompong Som, is the only deep-water port in the country. It's located in the south of Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand, 115 miles southwest of capital city Phnom Penh. The town and its surrounding province are named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a major force behind Cambodia's push for independence from France, gained in 1953. In the 1960's, Sihanoukville's beaches became a magnet for jetsetters, counting Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve among visitors.
That all changed in 1970, when the king was deposed and Cambodia fell into civil war. The Khmer Rouge used Sihanoukville's once-chic Independence Hotel for target practice and destroyed local temples. By 1993, elections were restored, and the country began its recovery. Although Cambodia quickly became known for Siem Reap in the north, home to spectacular Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other ancient Khmer temples, backpackers also began to discover Sihanoukville's beaches.
In 2004, the first luxury beach property opened, and more development followed. In 2006, the New York Times labeled the area "Asia's next trendsetting beach." Now it's possible to drop more than $1,000 per night at a private-island resort, yet the majority of the local population remains quite poor. The Sihanoukville (Snookyville or Snooky for short) of the backpacker crowd still exists, along with sleazy sectors of clubs and sex workers. But there are also temples to see, as well as a vast, bustling, dirty, fascinating market in Sihanoukville town. International organizations are working to get child beggars off the street and into school, and they have created businesses that employ disabled adults.
There's luxurious Sihanoukville and local Sihanoukville -- just remember to choose carefully which one (or maybe both?) you want to see.
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Sihanoukville is home to the Angkor Beer brewery, set atop Sihanoukville Mountain. So if you want to drink local, skip that cocktail, and order up an Angkor.
Rectangular scarves, known as krama in the Khmer language, are an integral part of Cambodians' lives. Basic cotton scarves are used for everyday wear, while patterned silk scarves are reserved for special occasions. You'll find a selection of scarves, additional textiles and other handicrafts at Rajana (Building G, Street 502, Village 4; +855-034-6755551; 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily), operated by a nonprofit that teaches handicraft skills to young Cambodians.
Or, you might buy a work of art at the Cambodian Children's Painting Project (Serendipity Beach Road; +855-17 500 402), a support system for local children, which helps them get an education and provides an alternative to selling bracelets on the beach or being lured into the sex trade.
You'll do fine with English at higher-end resorts and the many local restaurants run by expats. Some enterprising taxi drivers have also studied English. Chat up any potential driver to make sure you'll be able to understand each other. When it comes to shopping, non-English-speaking sellers will likely whip out a calculator or cell phone to propose a price. Children hustling for a handout are some of the most astonishing linguists we've ever encountered, able to hit you up in five or six different tongues.
The country's official language is Khmer, a term which also refers to the country's ethnic majority. In Khmer, "hello" is Sew sadday. To say "thank you," tell someone, Awk koun. Khmer isn't tonal, so it's a bit easier than Thai or Laotian. Written Khmer is based on an Indian script, so it's artistic-looking but indecipherable. Fortunately, most relevant signs in Sihanoukville are also written in Roman letters.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollars are universally accepted. In fact, when you use an ATM, it surprisingly spits out dollars. Euros and Thai baht are also accepted by many establishments. Just be aware that even a small tear in a U.S. dollar renders it useless, so don't accept any bills as change that are damaged if you intend to use them there. You may receive some small change in the local currency, the riel, so for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are several banks with ATM's along Ekareach Street, the main commercial hub of Sihanoukville town. Near Serendipity Beach, there's also an ANZ Bank ATM in front of the Golden Sands Hotel on Tola Street, plus other stand-alone ATM's in various locations. Higher-end restaurants and resorts generally accept credit cards, but be prepared to pay cash elsewhere.
Where You're Docked
Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is two miles from Sihanoukville town and 11 miles from Kang Keng Airport. It's an industrial port with no passenger facilities.
There's really nothing worth walking to from the port. It's about a five-minute walk to the entrance gate, and the few nearby businesses appear targeted to local dock workers. Sihanoukville town is about a 10-minute drive inland, southeast of the port. The beaches are all south and southeast of the port. There's a fair amount of sprawl (casinos, huge wedding banquet halls, budget lodgings) that will likely someday fill in any empty spots between downtown and the beaches.
On Foot: Nope, don't do it. Cambodia can be extremely hot, and there's noting of note within easy walking distance of the port.
By Shuttle: Free shuttles typically operate between the port and Sihanoukville town; check with your ship's staff for details and timing. The shuttle drop-off point is across from the main market.
By Taxi and Tuk-tuk: There will be a pack of taxi drivers, tuk-tuk operators and motorcycle-taxi drivers waiting outside the port gates. Negotiate fiercely, and make sure you and the driver can understand each other. We got an all-day taxi with an English-speaking driver for $20 (and liked him so much that we tipped an extra $5).
Watch Out For
At beaches and temples, you'll likely encounter children begging or selling little trinkets. They can be charming and engaging, but international nonprofits advise that you should never buy from them or give them money, because if their begging is profitable, they won't be allowed to attend school. Rather, give to a charity like The Cambodian Children's Painting Project (see "Best Souvenir" section above), which helps kids get an education.
There have been some reports of tourist robberies in the Sihanoukville area. Don't carry a lot of cash, and consider wearing a money belt. Don't tempt drive-by motorbike thieves by carrying a purse.
If you're on foot in Sihanoukville town, be on alert for drivers who don't follow traffic rules, and should you leave the ship for an overland trip, be aware that the road to Phnom Penh (three to four hours away) has seen lots of accidents.
But bad driving doesn't stop at the water's edge. Several tourist deaths have been attributed to unsafe Jet Ski drivers, so be careful when you go for a swim.
Now that we've thoroughly scared you, know that you should also be on the lookout for the Cambodian smile, which is friendly and welcoming -- as are most Cambodians.
Sihanoukville's world-famous beaches are definitely the area's main draw. Check our beach guide below to find one that best suits your style.
For nature-lovers, 80-square-mile Ream National Park is a good option. The area is home to 155 species of birds, including macaques, herons and cranes. You might also spot wildlife, like mouse deer (muntjac), spiny anteaters (pangolin) and sun bears. It's possible to trek with a ranger for $2 per hour, visiting Keng Kong waterfall or beaches. Or, take a boat tour (about $45 per boat) along the mangrove forest of Prek Teuk Sap estuary, where leaping fish and dolphins have been sighted. The estuary is salt water in the dry season and fresh water in the rainy season. If you plan to trek, take drinking water and a snack since food options are limited to stands on the beach. The park is about 11 miles from the port, with the entrance located on Airport Road, across from the airport. The beach is an additional six miles beyond the ranger station, which is just inside the park entrance. You'll need to arrange transportation by taxi or tuk-tuk.
There are five main wats, or Buddhist temples, in the Sihanoukville area. The two most popular with tourists are:
Wat Krom, or "Lower Temple," is at the base of Sihanouk Mountain, near Independence Beach -- a 5-minute drive from town. Rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, this wat has views of the sea and a small chapel dedicated to Ya-Mao, a local deity. There's also an interesting graveyard, with small stupa towers marking many graves.
Wat Leu, or "Upper Temple," is higher up on Sihanouk Mountain, about 3.6 miles from town. Be sure to look for the three-headed white-stone elephant that's integrated into the temple's surrounding fence.
If you want to plunge into the local scene, visit covered Psar Lu Market in Sihanoukville town. You'll see stalls with goldsmiths at work; mini-beauty shops; seamstresses operating foot-powered sewing machines; fish, live and dead; butchers whacking at bloody carcasses; produce-sellers; clothing stalls; food stalls, where cooks man huge woks of seafood; a few souvenir vendors and much, much more. It's fascinating, but prepare to be hassled at the entrance by drivers touting their taxis or tuk-tuks (just say you already have a driver if you want to fend them off), and you may also encounter beggars maimed in the war.
Photographers might enjoy a trip to the fishing port, Kampong Pier Nup Lok, about a mile and a half north of the port on Hun Sen Beach Drive. There's a ramshackle village around the wooden docks, with plenty of local color and activity, plus equal amounts of grime and stench.
Been There, Done That
Want to head off the beaten track? Try these options:
Traditional Khmer Cookery Classes (335 Ekareach Street, +855 92 738 615; http://cambodiancookeryclasses.com) will let you try your hand a preparing local cuisine like fresh spring rolls; fish soup with prawns, fresh herbs and lime; banana-flower salad; or pumpkin custard. They offer both full-day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; four dishes; $25-30) and half-day classes (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; two dishes; $15), with each student preparing her or his own food.
Sihanoukville has a growing dive scene. If you're interested in taking the plunge, contact Scuba Nation Diving Center (Mohachai Guesthouse, Serendipity Beach Road
+855 12 604680 or +855 34 933700; www.divecambodia.com), Cambodia's first PADI five-star National Geographic dive center, or EcoSea Dive (Ekareach St. 012/654104; www.ecosea.com), known for its eco-friendly attitude.
One of many nonprofit groups seeking to make a difference in Cambodia, Seeing Hands 3 Massage trains seeing-impaired people to perform massages -- and by all accounts, the result is excellent. (95 Mondul 3, Sangkat 4, Sihanoukville town ,near Holy Cow restaurant; +855 12 799 016; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Best Beach for Paradise-Seekers: The private beach at five-star Sokha Beach Resort is about as idyllic as it gets -- a mile of pristine white sand, beach chairs, umbrellas and a (slightly pricey) bar. The beach is uncrowded and blissfully free from vendors or touts. The $10 entry fee also allows you to use the resort's pool. The onsite open-air restaurant serves a buffet lunch of Cambodian and Western foods.
Best Beach for the Indecisive: Victory Beach, just south of the port, offers restaurants, water sports, trips to nearby islands and two casinos: Queenco Casino at the Victory Beach Hotel and the Golden Sea Hotel & Casino. Oh, and there's also sand and water.
Best Beach for Budget Beachcombers: About five minutes from Sihanoukville town, Ochheuteal Beach is lined with seafood shacks and watering holes, fronted by legions of beach chairs. Roving vendors also hawk items like fresh calamari, grilled to order, for a pittance. The north end of this mile-plus swath of sand has come to be known as Serendipity Beach, and it's more developed, with Western-style restaurants, bars and plenty of shopping.
Best Beach for the Ghosts of Jetsetters Past: Independence Beach, named after the hotel (now refurbished) where Jackie O and Catherine Deneuve once stayed, is a favorite of locals and can get crowded on weekends. Though it was once nothing but sand, new restaurants are popping up.
It's often said that Khmer cuisine is like Thai food without the spice. While that's a bit of a generalization, ingredients and techniques can be similar to those used for other Southeast Asian cuisines. You'll find spring rolls, mild curries, noodles, dishes made with pumpkin and, of course, lots of seafood. If you can, try amok, one of Cambodia's best-known dishes. A fish fillet is covered in a mixture of shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, peanuts, coconut milk and egg. That's all wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to an almost souffle-like texture. Cambodians also devour plenty of rice. In fact, the Khmer phrase for "Have you eaten?" is actually, "Have you eaten rice?"
No matter what your nationality, there's probably a Sihanoukville restaurant that caters to your tastes, thanks to the large expat community, and many establishments offer multiple cuisines. That's why it's strange that, in this area, it's not always easy to find authentic Khmer cuisine. On the plus side, no matter what the cuisine, prices are generally very reasonable, which is why few establishments accept credit cards.
Chhne Meas, on Victory Beach, is an open-air restaurant close to the surf. It serves a wide range of fish and seafood, as well as Khmer curries and stir-fry. (No credit cards are accepted; check their Facebook page for the rather complicated opening hours; +855 12 340 060.)
Chner Molop Chrey, also on Victory Beach (look for the distinctive Chinese-influenced roof), is a huge, open-air, Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant where you choose what you'd like -- clams, crabs, shrimp, scallops, unknown finned things -- from aquarium tanks. You'll practically be sitting in the lapping waves to dine. Photos of dishes help with ordering.
Cabbage Garden (or Jumka Spay in Khmer) is a non-touristy restaurant frequented by locals and expats in the know. Some (but not all) menu items are translated into English, and service may not be up to international standards, but fans rave about the flavors in dishes like steamed fish or squid with Kampot pepper, as well as the astonishingly cheap prices. The only caution: Don't visit the restroom. It's located on Makara Street, a bit off the beaten path. If you use its Khmer name, it may help drivers know where to go.
Beach shacks serve seafood BBQ and other fish dishes at Ochheuteal and Victory Beaches for bargain prices. Look for items like grilled squid or shrimp with lemongrass or Kampot pepper.
Snake House Restaurant provides a real change of pace, as you might guess from the name. The jungle-like setting up on Victory Hill (behind Victory Beach) houses a menagerie of exotic birds and reptiles, including crocodiles. The Russian ownership serves up cuisine from the mother country (pelmeny, borsht, chicken Kiev), as well as sandwiches and other international fare. (Soviet Street; +855 12 67 3805)
As long as we're veering toward the unusual, you mght take a gawk at the Airport Fashionable Disco Flight Beach Bar, the hard-to-miss hangar-like structure on Victory Beach (not at the airport!) that houses an old Russian AN-24 airplane. There, you'll find drinks, an international assortment of food (salads, shakes, BBQ, seafood, hotdogs) and beach massages. (open from 8 a.m. until "late"; +855-70-771-557)
If you happen to be in port long enough to eat dinner, Sandan gets glowing marks, not only for its creative Khmer cuisine (vegetarian amok, for example), serene atmosphere and good service -- but also because it's run by a nonprofit that helps train street kids to work in the service industry. (Sokha Beach Road, about 100 yards from the golden lions roundabout statue; open Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
The cheapest internet cafes are to be found in Sihanoukville town along the main commercial road, Ekareach Street. Expect to pay around $0.75 per hour. Two reliable options are Happy Internet (173 Ekareach Street; daily, 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.) and Paradise Internet (193 Ekareach Street; daily, 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.). There are also internet cafes in the Serendipity Beach area (northern portion of Ochheuteal Beach), including Blue Dolphin Internet Cafe (Serendipity Road; +855-12-592-358). Rates in the Serendipity cafes run around $1 per hour.
Best for First-Timers: All lines offer full-day or half-day highlights tours, which visit one or more of the wats (typically Wat Krom, the "lower temple"), stop by a local village to visit a school or family home and swing by a beach or two; some also include the market. Full-day tours typically add lunch -- most often a beach BBQ at the private Sokha Beach Resort -- and more sunbathing time.
Best for the Five-Star Crowd: If urchins and a bit of funky local color aren't your thing, opt for a transfer to the Sokha Beach Resort's picture-perfect white-sand beach and sprawling pool. Some lines include a day-room in the package; others add in a beach BBQ. You can save money by organizing this experience a la carte (about $20 for a roundtrip taxi and $10 per person to use the pool and beach), but for a totally carefree day, let the cruise line sweat the details.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Several lines offer all-day excursions to Ream National Park, usually including a boat ride through the mangrove forests of Prek Tuek Sap River, a drive or trek up Meditation Mountain, a trip to the beach for lunch and, in some cases, a visit to the small, traditional village within the park. This trip is not for the out-of-shape, so be sure you can handle the physical requirements prior to booking.
Best for Cultural Explorers: If you'd like to go further afield, try a trip that roves outside of Sihanoukville, to Kampot Town, including visits to a local village, a pepper plantation (source of the famous Kompot pepper that shows up in quite a few dishes), a stroll through the Kompot market, lunch and a stop at a fishing village.
Best for Seeing Cambodia's Marquee Sights: Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only cruise port, but it's a nine-hour drive from the country's biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat, in the town of Siem Reap. It's also four hours overland from the capital Phnom Penh. Most lines offer three-day options to jump ship and visit one or both of these destinations in a land-air package. Phnom Penh's draws are the Royal Palace and National Museum; at Siem Reap, you have the opportunity to see Angkor Wat and other lesser-known but equally amazing temples from the ancient Khmer empire, stretching back more than 1,000 years. While you may save a bundle by organizing this trip yourself (Cambodia Angkor Air flies from SihanoukVille to Siem Reap every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon at 12:55p.m.), a travel agent's private group from our ship ended up scrambling to make alternative arrangements when high winds forced us to skip the port of Nha Trang, where they'd planned to get back aboard.
For More Information
On the Web: Cambodia Ministry of Tourism, Tourism Cambodia and local Sihanoukville commercial site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Southeast Asia
--by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor