The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated September 8, 2006
Sihanoukville is a funny place. Whilst some people love it, it’s hard to adore. It’s got most of Cambodia ’s best beaches, but I’d draw a line before calling it a beautiful area. The whole point is to have fun, yet it can be a frustrating, demanding even charmless place for a holiday. I’ll even admit that I used to dislike Sihanoukville. Intensely in fact.
However, there are ways and means, secrets and well-known sidetracks, tips and tricks to get a lot out of the greater Sihanoukville area, and with a modicum of input and purpose you too can join me as a convert to the finer sides of Sihanoukville, which of course goes hand-in-hand with avoiding the drags and annoyances of its darker side.
Hand on heart Sihanoukville-Kompong Som really does offer a lot – and not just bars, eateries, sand and (hired) sex – there’s great variety and something for most in its spectrum.
Sihanoukville is a big city, in that it covers a large area, but things are pretty spread out and that’s worth bearing in mind when you arrive or are planning a trip since journeys can easily take you several kilometres from beach to restaurant to bar to home.
The spaced out nature of the place can feel kinda odd, as if things weren’t finished and tools were downed, or a mudslide removed parts of town. In truth it isn’t ‘finished’ and the city’s population continues to steadily rise and construction gradually fills the vacant lots. But give it a chance, Sihanoukville is only in adolescence, conceived in 1955, born a child of the Sixties with a quick boom time then things went quite (as elsewhere in Cambodia) and growth was severely stunted from 1970 onwards during Cambodia’s string of regressive regimes. The second wave of growth and development of the early 90’s got things back on track; it’s now developing a head of steam with significant construction projects dotted across the peninsular as well as rapid infill of downtown space and around a couple of the beaches (such as the now private Sokha Beach and the Ochheuteal-Serendipity beach area).
There are options galore for wining, dining and sleeping; read up and scoot around a bit and you can eat well (and with good value) every meal, find a watering hole or three that appeal, and a place to stay that fits your requirements. Fairly rustic beach bungalows (but not the ultra-basic stilted shacks above the sand of yesteryear Thailand or Sri Lanka et al), mid-range comfort, bargain basement traveller ghettos, bland but comfortable Asian hotels, overpriced resorts are available, as well as more thoughtfully planned, special resting places– check your wallet’s contents and take your pick.
Bear in mind that what part or town you stay in will affect where you may end up hanging out. Otherwise simply zip around town on two or four wheels – it’s a bit too big for most of us to conceive walking to and fro with much comfort come rain and shine.
Sand, sea and ssss… Sun? Sex? Seclusion? Party? Activities? Chilling? Rain? Beaches are of course a key draw of Sihanoukville; they’re not all the same by any means, so read up, take your pick and enjoy it out there. You know what you like (or can try something different), so it’s easy to avoid what (you think) sucks, and seek out all that sparkles and gets you off – there’s no excuse for moaning about having a bad time, you just didn’t get yourself to the right spots for you. Note that some folk do like to moan and grumble about what a shit time they had – you too can do some research and zone in on the best spots to bitch and gripe about.
Some might claim that any time of the year is the right time to visit Sihanoukville. Maybe for an annual report of weather and climate of the region, but for the rest of us the study of rainfall gets a little tedious and can interfere with the best laid plans and firmest intentions to keep out of the bar, not get pissed (again) then early to bed, early to rise for a full day’s fun, getting into adventures or mischief, or plain relaxing and/or chilling out, man.
I’m not a rain-lover myself and Sihanoukville sees a lot (I mean that) of falling water beginning some time in May to late October or early November – though by no means does it rain all day, every day; and rainy seasons are always interspersed with glorious ‘mini dry seasons’. Too much rain dampens the spirit, makes trails muddy and maps soggy, flattens quiffs and mohawks, clouds up seawater visibility and some say even helps the rice grow (which equates to making Cambodia’s world go round), as well as providing all that water needed to shower off, flush toilets and power those natty butt sprayers.
What’s in a name? SihanoukvilleisKompong Som. For all intents and purposes we can take them as being one and the same; they’re not different areas of town, higher end or lower class. Add to that Krong Preah Sihanouk – these three terms can be used interchangeably. I suppose the term kompong in Kompong Som in effect refers to the port; som denotes happiness, fun, havin a good time. Budding linguists please note that despite the way it reads, Som isn’t pronounced like (the Battle of the) ‘Somme’, more like ‘saom’.
And, for those who like this sort of thing, if you tweak and clip the pronunciation to a slight Chinese-Khmer lilt, you can emulate one witty Cambodian comedian, who realised the chuckling potential in blurting out, in the role of taxi tout “Bohng Saom, Bohng Saom!” which sounds close enough like ‘sweaty bollocks!’ to make me snigger along with the natives.
Krong Preah Sihanouk is a bit of a mouthful, and simply is the Khmer for ‘Sihanoukville’ (ville = krong = city; preah = holy, venearble). These days anyone in the tourism game will understand when you say Sihanoukville. ‘Snooky’ is a nickname used by many a foreigner, expat and visitor alike.
Khmers prefer it short-time and that includes their sojourns to the beach. Park up, gorge on seafood, a quick fully-clothed splash in the water (optional), jump back in the Camry in soggy clothes for the blast back up Route 4 to Phnom Penh with aircon on just to develop a full body chill and head cold – but hey, we can afford it. That is a generalised but very common Cambodian visit; let them enjoy it their way, besides it means the beaches are clearer by mid afternoon and early-ish in the morning.
Folk travelling through often find 3-5 days is their fill. Some folk get attached limpet-like and find themselves compelled to stake their claim and open a business that will feather their nest in the sunshine as the waves crash in and the rain beats the doors down.
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