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Travel Tales: My Visit to Sihanoukville, Cambodia

National Museum - Phnom Penh Cambodia

National Museum in Phnom Penh – Cambodia

Travel Tales: My Visit to Sihanoukville, Cambodia

After two days of exploring Cambodia’s blasé capital, Phnom Penh, I ‘escaped’ on a bus to the coastal beach area of Sihanoukville. At the time of my visit in late 2003 Sihanoukville was being lauded as Cambodia’s up and coming beach resort area with beautiful, quiet, undeveloped beaches and a relaxed atmosphere.

What I found was an entirely different scene.

Sihanoukville Cambodia - photo from Flckr CC by Damien @ Flckr

Sihanoukville Cambodia – photo from Flckr CC by Damien @ Flckr

To start on a positive note, I happily admit that the seaside views were pretty, the water a beautiful aqua-marine color, the weather fantastic and the area fairly quiet. Despite that, the entire region essentially amounted to a sprawling tourist beach ghetto.

Several miles-long but extremely narrow beaches line the coast. On top of each beach, not behind the beach, but right on the narrow strips of sand, from one end of each beach to the other, was an unending row of squalid thatched pavilions, ratty beach umbrellas, tattered beach chairs and ugly little wood tables covered in linoleum.

Nearly every inch of every narrow beach strip was covered with those rundown umbrellas, tables and chairs. There was hardly enough empty sand to walk past the icky mess without wading in the ocean. It was all immensely ugly.

Sihanoukville Beach - photo from Flckr CC by Damien @ Flckr

Sihanoukville Beach from Flckr CC by Damien @ Flckr

It also felt extremely crowded. Even if there were only a few people on the beach, it still felt crowded because of the hoards of ratty beach chairs. All I could do was stare, wide-eyed, wondering, “How is this UNdeveloped?”

In all honesty, Sihanhoukville was the ugliest beach development I’d ever seen. (And I’ve seen a lot of beaches around Asia!)

Besides the horrid beach development, none of the guesthouses were on the beach. Instead, they were all up on a hill, a 15-20 minute walk away. In SE Asia I’d become accustomed to staying in lovely thatched bungalows set right on the beach. At Sihanoukville, I had to hike from my room to even see a beach or ocean.

Sihanoukville market - photo from Flckr CC by spotter_nl

Sihanoukville market – photo from Flckr CC by spotter_nl

I will admit that some of the guesthouses and bungalows were nice, but even back in 2003 the area was already a tourist slum. The hilltop travelers center consisted of two broken-up, potholed dirt roads full of small, uninspired tourist bars and restaurants serving pancakes, fruit shakes, steak, pizzas, sandwiches and pasta. Now how is that Untouristed?

Besides all that:

1) I got mauled by sand fleas during my first day on the beach strip and spent several days sporting pink dots all over my legs and arms. (at least they were pink. lol)

2) I had to constantly worry about theft of any possessions I set on the beach. That made swimming quite stressful, when I dared risk it.

Sihanoukville Cambodia by spotter_nl

Sihanoukville Cambodia by spotter_nl

3) The motorcycle taxi guys in Sihanoukville were notorious, even among the Cambodians, as being extreme rip-off artists who got pissed off at any tourists who were not ‘rip-off-able’. I met one of them when I arrived.

He was so pissed off at me for not paying his extortionist price that he raced us around at top speed, weaving in and out of traffic, just inches from other vehicles. I assume he was trying to scare me into paying. In fact, he was trying to charge me way too much money but acting like I was the bad guy.

4) At the time of my visit, and for several months before, there were regular violent attacks of tourists at night whereby people were pushed off their moving motorbikes and robbed. If they were luckier they were only stopped and robbed. If unluckier, they got sliced open by machete! (as happened to a young traveler soon before my arrival. They wanted his girlfriend.)

5) Strangely, in 2003 several westerners previously living in Thailand were apparently ‘escaping’ from Thailand (too touristy, they claimed) to ‘lovely’ Sihanoukville, Cambodia! Eh?

Snake Pit Bar - Sihanoukville Cambodia

Snake Pit Bar – Sihanoukville Cambodia – photo from Flckr CC

I did find out who some of those Thailand escapees were: German men in their 50s who love smoking pot, drinking whiskey and having sex with young pretty women or girls.

At the time, the Thai government made a huge crack down on the country’s drug and the sex trade. The police and military imprisoned and killed hundreds of suspects, including Thai nationals and foreigners.

That’s what the Germans in Sihanoukville were complaining about. That’s what they had escaped from.

So they had run away to Cambodia. They much preferred the lawless, do-anything-you-like attitude prevalent in Cambodia. Several of them had opened guesthouses and bars in Sihanoukville. And child prostitution was a growing problem in the area.

All I could think was, “Hey, between the ugly beach development, the late night thugs, beach thefts, aggressive taxi drivers and the newly arrived druggies and child molesters, Sihaoukville should develop into a great place.”

Well, they can have it! Good riddance!

Sihanoukville Beach

crowded Sihanoukville Beach – photo from Flckr CC by Damien @ Flckr

I have definitely visited much better beaches, with much more beautiful views, with bungalows on the sand and without the dangers or sleazy sex scene.

Why anyone claims Sihanoukville is a great place is beyond my comprehension. All I can imagine is that they’ve never visited any other Asian beaches?

As for myself, I quickly escaped yet another Cambodian rat-hole (Phnom Penh being the first) and happily returned to Thailand.

En route I stopped at famous Angkor Wat / Siem Reap. Thankfully, that proved to be the one great place I visited in Cambodia. Read about my visit to Angkor Wat here

 QUESTIONS:

If you’ve visited Sihanoukville, what were your experiences?

Did you hear about or run into any dangers there?

If you’ve visited recently, what’s Sihanoukville like nowadays?

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You might also want to check out: 

My Impressions of Phnom Penh

My Visit to Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

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12 comments

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  1. Karisa

    I visited Sihanoukville last year.

    What I liked:

    1) Sitting on the sand and having dinner with my friends under candle and star light beside the water.

    What I disliked:

    1) Rubbish EVERYWHERE

    2) Drunk people EVERYWHERE

    3) Stray dogs, cats and rats EVERYWHERE including food kitchens.

    4) Children vendors EVERYWHERE

    5) Had to take a tuk tuk 10 minutes to my hotel. It wasn’t walkable.

    6) Got ripped off on my boat tour. Payed for 3 islands and we only went to one. I was so pissed off I wrote a blog post about it: http://t.co/w3LpSFyg8i

    7) The general shadiness of it and rate of crime. My friend was swimming (naked lol) in the water and her clothes and wallet were stolen. I promise that this friend is not me! haha

    I was overall disappointed in Sihanoukville and have no plans to return.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Karisa,

      thanks for stopping by and adding your story about Sihanoukville. Sounds like you found it mostly icky, too. Interesting that was just one year ago. Sounds just as bad or worse than 2003. :(

      I read your story of your snorkeling trip there. Yikes, you guys ended up in a raw deal, that’s for sure! EEk, big group of Chinese tourists = no fun! Hope your next snorkeling trip is much better!

      cheers, lash

  2. JR Riel

    I’ve read up on this place, but somehow skipped during my time in the country. It’s always been on my “go to the next time around’ list, and it probably still is, if only to see for myself how much of a dung-hole the place really is. There’s nothing more disappointing then a beautiful beach setting totally trashed by careless locals and selfish foreigners alike. But like I said, I’ll probably end up going there one day just to check it out!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey JR,

      Sounds like you’ve heard bad things about Sihanoukville, too.

      Yep, always good to go check a place out for yourself if you think it might be ok. Everyone has a different experience and likes different kinds of places.

      For me, after so many years of travels, I can pretty much read about a place in a guidebook and know whether I”ll like it or hate it. If I do go to places I think I’d dislike via the guidebook, it always ends up I hate it! …unfortunately for me in this case, the guidebook had good things to say about Sihanoukville. Sounded good, but eeek~!

      Well, if you do ever get there, be sure to tell me what you thought!

      Thanks for stopping by.

      cheers, Lash

  3. Catherine

    I visited Cambodia in 2008; to this day it remains one of my favourite countries…
    I’ll agree that there are certainly nicer beach destinations in Asia; that sihanoukville definitely has its problems… But on the whole I found the Khmer people to easily be amongst the nicest, most genuine folks I’ve ever met. I didn’t actually ever feel as though I was being ripped off in Cambodia; the one time a yuk yuk drubbed tried to, I pulled him up on it; he laughed; admitted he was trying to scam me off a few extra bucks!

    I found phenom penh to be a fascinating, intriguing, warm city; enjoyed my time there. Siem Reap was a busy tourist town, but maintained its charm… The rural areas of Cambodia were scenically beautiful; again the locals were warm? Welcoming; is very friendly.

    The people of Cambodia have been through so much. The horrible history they gave endured us not on the scheme of things that historic. Given how poor the country is I was actually surprised that no one tried to rip me off more! :)

    The worst thing about travelling in Cambodia for me, particularly sihanoukville was the constant begging; selling, but considering the history, the financial status of the locals I can understand why they would harass us rich westerners!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for stopping by and for adding your experiences here! Glad you had such a positive time in Cambodia.

      Yeah, most travelers I’ve met who visited Cambodia loved it.

      I didn’t find the people especially welcoming or kind. Just on par with the rest of SE Asia… though I’ve personally found the Thais, Balinese, Nepalese and Indians more welcoming and kind. I seem to have slightly different experiences than other travelers in that regard. Maybe my piercings and sometimes fuschia or red hair?

      In any event, I’m glad you didn’t have any troubles in Cambodia.

      cheers, Lash

  4. Alyson

    No, I’ve never been. I’ve been to Cambodia, about the same time as you, maybe 2001, but not to the beaches. Thanks for a great post, I love the honesty. I’m always getting myself into trouble for hating places that other bloggers love ( Penang in particular…hate it!). I tend to keep my mouth shut to avoid the nasty comments. But this worm is about to turn. Yep, Pnhom Pen was the only place we were actually scared in that whole 12 month trip, horrible place!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Alyson,

      thanks for stopping by and sharing your ownn experiences. Yeah, I found Phnom Penh pretty dag scary.. .and landed myself in one of the hairiest situations of my entire world travels. I got myself out pronto, vowing to be much more careful in future. whew.

      Aw, you shouldn’t be afraid to offer your own honest opinions of a place. Like you, most people do appreciate it and are mature enough to realize everyone is entitled to their opinions. If you have people lashing out at you for negative opinions about a place, just remember that those particular people are not so psychologically developed and emotionally mature. Just ignore them.

      Why do you hate Penang? I love it! ** Don’t worry, I won’t be offended that you dislike a place I love. lol!

      thanks for stopping by. cheers, Lash

  5. Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Lash,

    Kelli and I visited 2 years ago but the remnants of a typhoon kept us indoors for most of the week.

    I suspect the beach changed much over the past decade as much more money has flowed into the area, and you could tell by the quality of restaurants being built that bigger backers moved into the beach area.

    That being said this was one of the few places where groups of men cat-called at Kelli – with me there, staring at them – while we walked by, and we heard the child prostitution thing is still terrible in one particular part of town.

    Still very gritty, and we also heard the same thing about valuables being stolen regularly on the beach. It seems to be one of the places in Cambodia where the pain and regression from the Khmer Rouge campaign still runs deep, and some of the locals have not let go. Really gritty, with some crime. Still a ways from becoming a resort of Thai class….of course Thailand is my fave country on earth so I am biased ;)

    We loved Phnom Penh though, and would go back to eat on the riverfront any night.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey Ryan,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your own Sihanoukville experiences. Hmph, sounds about the same as when I visited in 2003, maybe with a bit of upscale stuff thrown in. I’m not surprised at all. It seemed to me it was heading in a bad, bad direction.

      I didn’t actually take any photos while I was there, so I got all this pics off Flckr CC. From them I could see that the quality of chairs, bungalows and shops on the beaches is much nicer than during my visit. But still the beach is crammed with stuff and entirely too crowded for my tastes.

      Glad you could enjoy Phnom Penh. :)

      cheers, lash

  6. lars

    I have been Snooky a few times. I like it. Good food, nice people, excellent beaches (independent, Sokha, Otres).
    ALso compaired to thailand not so many dogs, because they been eaten. Yes, i drive a bike and hate these soi dogs, exspecialWhat i dont like is the dirt, poverty and street kids. And a lot of drunk and drug people. And the corruption. But i love the different beaches, the diving, the islands. The taxi – i just walk on opposite site of road – no problem.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Lars!

      Welcome!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your views about Sihanoukville. Always good to hear many peoples’ opinions.

      cheers, Lash

  1. My Visit to Angkor Wat and Siem Reap - Cambodia - LashWorldTour » LashWorldTour

    […] My Visit to Sihanoukville  […]

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