Ahh, beach holidays. Crystal-clear waters stretching into the horizon; golden sand between your toes; endless days snorkelling through wonderlands of colourful fish, and perfecting your tan on the beach with a paperback and pina colada buckets while some lady gives you a foot massage. Living. The. Dream.
But we weren’t all born to relax in the sun and get sand in our underwear. For some of us, the seaside may be manageable for a day trip—to have a little change of scenery, take a dip in the water, and get that vitamin D production pumping—but for several days in a row? And what if, Poseidon forbid, you don’t even like swimming? What then?
If you’re like us and the idea of “relaxing on the beach” sounds about as challenging as running a marathon, then we don’t know exactly how you ended up in Cambodia’s biggest beach town, but this guide is for you. Believe it or not, Sihanoukville has a lot to offer that doesn’t involve wrinkly fingers or reading books. Together with the advice below, if you make the effort to channel your secret inner beach hippie, it’s possible to have a surprisingly great time in Sihanoukville on your own terms.
Places around town
Sihanoukville may be renowned for its beaches, but far away from the salty sea waters there’s actually a bustling enclave of Khmer and a few expats that you could actually call a normal town. Downtown Sihanoukville is where the buses from Phnom Penh land, but most people head straight to the beach and skip downtown. This works to your advantage if you want to get away from the tourist crowds. There are two busy markets and a slew of normal shops, but the area’s main draw is ultimately tourism-based, so you’ll still find lots of guesthouses, shopping and dining (especially bakeries, what is up with all the bakeries?) oriented towards foreigners.
Downtown Sihanoukville isn’t the safest place in the world; one guy told me he lived there before moving to Otres Village and got mugged multiple times. But by day people are friendly and you’ll actually feel like you’re in Cambodia, pretty much.
Seek out: Grab your most important meal of the day at Starfish Cafe and Bakery, run by an NGO that works to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people in the local community.
Unless you want to watch Magaluf escapees bake their porcelain flesh in the sun or cover yourself in day-glo paint and vomit into cocktail buckets to the tune of Black Eyed Peas, avoid this place.
The top of Serendipity Beach is where you’ll find the pier for the speed boat to Koh Rong. From the pier up to the Golden Lion roundabout is a grimace-inducing stretch of restaurants, shops and guesthouses all aimed at foreign tourists that will make you question which country you’re in. But if you’re hankering a little Russian food (??!) or more cheap cocktails, you’ll find them here.
Seek out: Sessions Bar is apparently the only “okay” club on the beach, and sometimes the only option after the rest of mainland Sihanoukville goes to sleep.
Otres Beach and nearby Otres Village are like expat hippie havens, which sounds questionable if you’ve come all these thousands of kilometres to see a foreign country, but is actually okay under the circumstances. It’s got a super laid-back atmosphere and ramshackle charm, and the music selection is way better here than the other mainland beaches. The pace of life is slow and time will drag on if you have nothing else to do, but there’s free wifi almost everywhere so you can easily gloat to everyone back home with photos of you on your MacBook drinking a Long Island ice tea, the ocean waves safely lapping a few metres away. There’s also a fair share of pub quiz nights and Sunday Roasts if you really want to delve into expat life, but beware of the poetry readings.
Otres 1 is busier and has a stoner vibe, while Otres 2 feels quieter and perhaps more upmarket. There’s a designated dead space between the two beaches where Khmer people hang out, barbecue, and swim in the ocean with their clothes on, which makes it a cool place to meet locals. Otres Village is away from the sea but on a river instead. There are a few bungalow-style accommodations and it’s home to a lot of backpackers who got sucked in; booze flows pretty freely and there’s some stuff to do that does not involve water.
Seek out: Blame Canada has strong cocktails, loads of fancy dress theme nights, and is a great place to meet resident foreigners. Dany’s Beach Club does a cheap and awesome burger. Hang out at Hacienda and pretend you’re back at uni.
This is the proverbial “paradise island”—straight out of Survivor, with all the crystal clear waters and white sand beaches of your dreams. Most of the island is either uninhabited or home to small, privately-run resorts, but there’s one stretch of sand called Tui beach (also known as Koh Touch Village) that is crammed with wooden bars and bungalows, and is probably the best place to party in all of Sihanoukville.
At first glance, Tui is like “Serendipity Lite”, as the beach absolutely crammed with bars and bungalows advertising barbecues and happy hour specials. But spend a little time here and you’ll realise it’s more like “Otres Plus”, with a fun-loving bohemian crowd and more bustling action than the sleepy mainland.
The biggest problem here is that the music is shit—lots of sing-along party favourites, trap, some Top 40, and a smidgen of the random (ABBA??). One afternoon we managed to find some English dudes who had commandeered the sound system at a bar and were playing quality tunes. Mook broke out his digital mixer and some German techno, and a couple hours later he was DJing down at Mango’s on the beach. We can only recommend you do the same.
On Koh Rong, your only escape from the beach is drinking or hiking through the jungle to another beach. Electricity only runs between 8am and 2am, and a lot of places turn it off in the afternoon. Digital nomads be warned: There is wifi, but it’s overcrowded and slow.
If you want to be able to stumble from the bar into bed, there’s loads of party bungalows on the south end of the beach. To escape the noise and hang out with posh Russian and European families (who probably have better wifi and electricity all day), head towards the more deserted northern end.
Seek out: When you’re tired of barbecue, head to Sigi’s Thai Food for a fun, exclusive dining experience and some of the best food on the island. Sky Bar let us play our own music in the afternoon.
Koh Ta Kiev
A relatively untouched tropical paradise island, with just four small bungalow resorts where you can stay in a tent in the forest or a wooden hut with no walls and have to take a shower out of a bucket and there’s only electricity between 6pm and 11pm and no wifi and oh my god what a nightmare. But there is an absinthe distillery you can visit and the beaches are ok if you like swimming. In a few years, Chinese and Russian developers plan to bulldoze the whole thing and put in a casino, so it’s worth a visit just to remind yourself of the horrors of “progress”.
Seek out: Pretty much the only thing here is the Syn Absinthe Distillery, but it’s worth the trip.
Things to do besides play in the water
Rent a moto
Scooters are cheap to rent by the day and available almost everywhere, just ask around. Once you have your own set of wheels it’s easy to hop between the different areas of Sihanoukville whenever you get bored, and there’s plenty of cool adventure to be had inland. Cruise around and look for graffiti art (there’s some walls between downtown and Otres 1), check out some local farms and fishing villages, or do some urbexing in the abandoned buildings dotted around the countryside (but watch out for snakes!). If you’re feeling really ambitious, take a day trip to Bokor Hill Station, while it’s still there.
Adventure-seeking landlubbers can go on ATV tours to a gravel pit (!!) amongst other places. Ask at the nearest outdoor touring company.
Everyone loves shooting, don’t they? If you’ve started to get smartphone thumb from all that time at the beach, give your digits some exercise at Red Paintball.
Like London’s Camden Market, but smaller, with fewer Spanish people and more sand, this quirky night market is run by the foreign residents of Otres, who get together to peddle everything from handmade jewellery to psytrance clothes to space cakes. There’s cocktails and slightly-overpriced-but-delicious food, and it’s a great chance to mingle with the locals (Khmer, foreign, and canine). In the evening the music varies between didgeridoo and folk, but after midnight there’s some pretty banging techno. Otres Market runs every Saturday during high season, from 4pm to late.
Tour an absinthe distillery
Koh Ta Kiev is home to the Syn Absinthe Distillery, run by a dedicated Californian who looks like he’s been drinking the stuff all his life. It’s a trek to even get there, but the reward is sipping some strong-as-shit absinthe on green cushions in a cool jungle treehouse. Reach the distillery either on a dedicated tour ($25), as part of a snorkelling tour ($15), or just by yourself by hopping on a fishing boat ferry.
Play with the local kids
There are kids everywhere, and they would love to play with someone, anyone. Sihanoukville kids are, in general, full of smiles and really friendly. Have a chat and help them learn English, play some football, hacky sack, or frisbee and make their day.
If you’re reading this then you’re probably not one of those “But I’m on holidaaaay…” types, so volunteering is an excellent way to escape the monotony of the beach and really fill your heart and the hearts of others with good vibes. While a lot of projects ask for a four-week commitment for temporary volunteers, it’s worth contacting charities in advance and asking if they have any upcoming projects in which they could use a helping hand. If you have a special skill that you can pass on, Help the Cambodian Children is willing to consider volunteers who can lead short projects.
Weed is in a semi-legal grey zone in Cambodia, and it’s easy to buy pre-rolled joints (or baggies) from most places on the beach—just ask the bartender. There’s also a strip of places in town and some on the beaches that deal in the infamous “happy pizzas” and mushroom shakes, if you want to reenact The Hangover II.
As for harder controlled substances, drugs are bad. Don’t do drugs. But if you are going to do them, beware: In the past few years there have been a large number of overdoses and some deaths because people have bought party drugs that actually turned out to be (heavily) cut with heroin. As a rule of thumb, never trust a tuk-tuk driver and never buy pills. Ask the resident foreigners for advice.
Throughout Sihanoukville there is a mind-boggling variety of international cuisine available, some of it better than others, but all of it a comfort to homesick travellers. But smoked salmon and cream cheese baguettes are not cheap, and not particularly sustainable either. Whenever possible, resist the urge to indulge in that $6 English breakfast at your bungalow and go for Khmer food at local eateries instead. Same goes for buying sundries—go to the Khmer-run mini markets.
This is true throughout Cambodia, but don’t buy stuff from kids, no matter how cute (or persistent) they are. Usually children are sent out by their parents to beg or sell instead of being sent to school, and by giving the children money you are further entrapping them in an unsafe and exploitative working life. There are a lot of organisations in Cambodia that directly benefit children and their families, ChildSafe Network has a good list and more information.
Have anything to add to this guide? Let us know in the comments!