Like Bali in the 1970s, Phuket in the 1980s, and Goa in the early 2000s, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is now THE coastal destination in Asia. It is still unspoilt by the unfortunate excesses of successful tourism; here you can enjoy the clear, warm, aquamarine sea of the Gulf of Thailand; loll about on the soft, sandy beaches; pay reasonable a price for accommodation; buy a plate of freshly cooked noodles for US$2.50 or steamed crab for US$8; a large, local, cold beer for US$1; the pesky tuk tuk drivers will smile if you merely say “not today thanks mate”; courteous, friendly staff whom you can trust to give you the correct change; did I mention cold beer for just US$1?
Sihanoukville is about a 4-hour drive from central Phnom Penh, in a VIP mini-bus for US$10; or cheaper and an hour or so longer by large coach; or 3 hours in a taxi for US$50 which is ok if shared by three people. The speed limit has been reduced to 70kmh – as the Cambodian government deals with one of Asia’s worst road tolls – so take a good book, sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip. I suggest a seat at the back, so you don’t have to watch the driver’s constant game of “who overtakes who”.
Also noticeable is the genuine effort by Sihanoukville locals to keep the place clean. Anyone who’s ever travelled in Asia knows that municipal services such as rubbish collection are an alien concept. But not so here, and in the capital Phnom Penh, where local traders use old truck tyres converted into rubbish receptacles. How’s that for recycling! On Sundays, groups of young Cambodians in blue T-shirts walk along Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach, picking up rubbish. I didn’t have the same impression in Siem Reap though, where every empty block of land obviously equates to a free rubbish tip for locals.
I’m not sure how the local traders, bars, restaurants etc will fare, as more Chinese tourists come in large groups. Whereas the traditional European, Australian, and New Zealand visitors tend to come individually or as couples – and Cambodians come annually to holiday as a family – the Chinese prefer the large tour groups. They arrive en masse. I enjoy the “group tour experience” – an APT Mekong River Cruise, an AAT Kings Darwin-to-Broome tour (when I broke my leg on the first day of the 11-day tour… but that’s another story), a Scenic Tours trip across Spain, are just a few examples – but Sihanoukville has not been geared to cater for such tourism. It’s appeal lies with the small, friendly bars/eateries lining the beach – each one sets up a barbecue and dining tables on the sand as they compete to attract guests – and the ad hoc guesthouse/bar/eatery options that give character to the busy Beach Road that leads down to the sea. Already, large Las Vegas-style hotels and casino resorts are being built, just a block back from the beach, to ostensibly cater for coach-loads of Chinese tourists: a destination destined for slot machines and casinos. Sihanoukville’s challenge is to successfully manage this tourism transition…