Port of Sihanoukville
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.
Free shuttles are provided between the port and town center, and there are idyllic beaches nearby
Street hawkers and beggars are in the area and the port is not safe to walk at night
It's an industrial port with tuk tuks and taxis available to the southern beach resorts
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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.
Top Sihanoukville Itineraries
14 Night Pacific Asia Cruise
Singapore, Kelang , Langkawi, Phuket, Phuket, Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Koh Samui, Bangkok , Bangkok , Sihanoukville, Singapore
21 Night Southeast Asia cruise
Singapore, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City , Sihanoukville, Bangkok , Koh Samui, Singapore, Bali, Kelang , Penang, Phuket, Singapore
11 Night Southeast Asia cruise
Singapore, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City , Sihanoukville, Bangkok , Koh Samui, Singapore
28-day Indonesia & Far East Discovery Collector
Hong Kong, Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Sihanoukville, Bangkok , Bangkok , Koh Samui, Singapore, Komodo Island, Bali, Bali, Singapore, Singapore
14 Night Pacific Asia Cruise
Singapore, Koh Samui, Bangkok , Bangkok , Sihanoukville, Singapore, Kelang , Penang, Phuket, Phuket, Langkawi, Malacca, Singapore
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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.