A giant bearded man wearing a Boston celtics singlets, red curls held back with a bandana above bleary eyes lurches towards us out of the night, thrusting a flyer at my chest.
“You guys gonna party tonight?” he bellows in the way only an American can. We tell him yes, we shall party tonight.
“Oh you gotta hit up JJ’s Bar on serendipity beach” he says, handing us more of the same flyer. “Its about 16 shacks to the left. You’ll see a place called ‘Dolphins Bar’ – it will be full of hookers, don’t stop there – its the next one. Free shots, $1 buckets. Allriiiiiiigghht.”
He stumbles back to his station in the middle of the road, where he resumes listening to dubstep on a tiny speaker attached to his ipod.
Later we stop by JJ’s bar, but it seems to be run by 17 year old frat boys, and decide to have a beer down by the water. The scene on the beach is a strange one – shack after mostly empty shack offering stupidly cheap booze to entice the backpacker crowd in, big groups of local kids keen to sell bracelets (0r drugs – or steal an unwatched handbag), Cambodian girls too young to be wearing far too much makeup, and older western men who really shouldn’t be on this beach at night alone. Yep, this is Sihanoukville.
The four hour bus-ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville wasn’t too bad. Across from us a family of five, a young mother and four small kids, had piled into a seat for two. One of the boys had an uncapped water bottle filled with yellowy water, and closer inspection revealed a few small fish swimming about.
The bus discharged its cargo of tourists and a few locals in the mid afternoon sun and after haggling a member of the tuk-tuk mafia down to a reasonable price, we were soon on our way to our hotel near Serendipity beach.
Sihanoukville is probably the best – and definitely the most popular – beachside town in Cambodia, with a number of long beaches around a bit of a ramshackle town.
I’ve heard people compare it to beaches in Thailand – perhaps as it draws a lot of the same backpackers on the banana-pancake tour of south-east Asia – but Sihanoukville doesn’t bode well in such a comparison.
Sihanoukville doesn’t have the chalky white sand of Thailand’s beaches, the water doesn’t seem to have that magical turquoise colour and it isn’t surrounded by gorgeous islands. Nor is there the infrastructure that supports Thailand’s massive beach tourism industry.
There are however long beaches with warm blue water, lounges to sun yourself on, cheap hotels, good food and beers for a dollar. Part of the charm of Sihanoukville is that it is Cambodian – its grittier, its part of the country rather than removed from it, and in many ways its probably more like Thailand was 15 or 20 years ago.
We headed for the beach the next morning after breakfast, keen to set ourselves up on some beach chairs and laze the day away. Perhaps we were a little over excited, but at that time of day the only people on the beach were the most determined of Serendipity’s touts.
We spent the next 2 hours fending off sassy young girls selling bracelets, their mothers offering massages and beach makeovers, boys carting around trays of sunglasses and men selling drugs or promoting boat cruises. Later in the day this mob is joined by a few western backpackers handing out flyers for local restaurants and bars.
The touts – while very pushy and good at the hard sell – were incredibly funny and good natured.
Old ladies would would make tut-tutting noises while feeling Asha’s unshaved leg hairs and inspecting her armpits. “I can fix for you” they would say, and offer a demonstration of their threading prowess – a method of removing unwanted hair with talcum powder and peace of string. “Your boyfriend will like you more if you paint your toe-nails”. When one old lady shuffled off, she would be replaced by a near clone. “Oooooo, you legs hairy. I can thread for you?”.
There are signs around town urging tourists not to give money to kids on the beach as it keeps them on the beach, a place where they are vulnerable to abuse, and away from school. Whether this is working or not, I’m not sure.
Young girls would demand I buy my girlfriend a bracelet, smiling and joking with us in English, and then muttering under their breath what had to be Khmer version for “stingy bastard” when I refused.
One guy came up to us and said in a very matter of fact way, “Hi, my name is Kim, I have been working on the beach selling drugs for ten years. Would you like to buy some drugs today?”.
“Sorry Kim, not interested”
“I can also fix shoes”.
“I’m wearing thongs Kim.”
We did eventually relent and had some great beach massages and Asha went through the painful process of having her armpits threaded.
In Thailand, we never really saw Thai people at the beach. Perhaps it was because we spent a month on islands a long way from anywhere. But in Sihanoukville we were happily surprised to find white tourists as the minority on the beach – perhaps because it is the low season.
We were even more surprised to find that the favoured swimwear of most Cambodian’s is denim jeans and dress shirts. One afternoon, we shared the beach with a group of around 60 or more young Cambodians – perhaps a uni trip – who all ran screaming into the water in their finest Saturday night clothes. Go figure.
The thought struck me at 2am one morning in Sihanoukville, (while drinking a beer tower at a huge backpacker bar and watching the european football championships amidst hundreds of singing englishmen), that while Sihanoukville might not match up to Thailand’s beaches, it is still becoming part of the south-east asian backpacker trail.
There are a lot of backpackers that make it to Cambodia these days and most of these want to find a beach and unwind. We spent 5 great days doing just that.
Do: Stay at Coolabah – a great hotel with swimming pool, good food and big, modern rooms (stay in the cheapest rooms on the ground floor – they are the biggest.)
Do eat at Mango Cafe – ok so we ate 4 meals at Mango Cafe in 5 days and every one of them was fantastic. Run by an inspired frenchman, Mango Cafe only has about 10 small tables (its an open air cafe), but the menu is very impressive. A staggering range of hand-made pasta and fresh pizzas, and ingredients like crab, blue cheese, salami, good quality olive oil and fresh bread. Oh, i want to go back again. It’s also really cheap.
Don’t: Hang out on the beach at night – its pretty feral. Also don’t buy stuff from the kids on the beach. Don’t stay in the main town – its dusty and dry and far from the beach.