The Seduction of Sihanoukville

The five hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to the white sand beaches of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, took me through charming villages spray painted with lush green meadows, farmers in cane hats harvesting crop and rose cheeked women selling fresh fish and tapioca chips. I had for company a bunch of mirthful locals, who gleefully clapped their hands at the comedy program that was blaring on the TV screen of the bus. From my window seat, I watched the landscape change from bottle green to almost white, as we inched up closer to the coast along the Gulf of Thailand.

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Sihanoukville or ‘Snook’ as it is lovingly called, is named after King Norodom Sihanouk, also known as the Father of the Nation. He was the chief promoter of independence of Cambodia from France in 1953. Although this is one of Cambodia’s newest cities, it is of immense historical significance. Founded in 1960 as a strategic port city after independence from France, Sihanokville was used as an intensive military port during the last battle of USA against the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam War. This was known as the ‘Mayaguez Incident’. Divers can still dive down from the Koh Tang Island to see the shipwrecks from this naval war.

Except for names like the Victory and the Independence beach, today the war time is thankfully just a distant memory in the utopian setting of the idyllic beaches, laid back shacks and forest covered islands. Lesser known than its other big brothers Phuket, Pattaya and Koh Samui, Sihanoukville has been crowned by the New York Times as ‘the next trend setting beach’.

It is pretty easy to figure out accommodation once you get there, with local Tuk Tuk drivers competing to show you the best hotels within your budget and the hotels competing to give you great discounted rates. Costs are reasonable and it is possible to get a decent fan cooled room from anywhere between  5 – 10 USD and an air conditioned room for 15 – 20 USD.

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If you are in search of a more tranquil setting to stay in, you might want to head out to the quieter Otres beach or to the rocky Serendipity Beach. Seredipity has a raw charm, with dramatic cafes and pubs located right on the rock edge with the waves gushing up nearby. Luxury seekers would do good to try out one of the high end villas on this beach. A few good ones with quirky sounding names are ‘Don’t tell Mama’, ‘Above Us Only Sky’ and ‘The Cove’.

The popular beach to stay at is the Occheauteal beach, noted for its long stretches of white sand beaches. Dozens of shacks dot the shore, serving everything from local Khmer food like Fish Amok to French delicacies and fresh seafood. There is a range of budget accommodation available in and around Occheauteal. The GBT series of guest houses and cottages offer good value for money with clean rooms, central location and safety.

Day time sees a host of sun bathers sprawled on deck chairs, local women offering a session of Khmer massage and a range of beauty services, fishermen hauling in their catch, water taxis leaving for various islands and vendors selling everything from sarongs to snake wine. You can just park yourself either in the midst of all the action or find your slice of heaven under one of the many trees that fringe the beach and listen to some soul music.

Night life is really happening here, with locals and foreigners gathering in from the sunset cocktail to the late night Angkor Beer. The place where they party really hard is ‘The Dolphin’ and if you are lucky you might get to see one of their fantastic fire dance performances. Despite the tourist police being at large, it is quite common to come across underage girls soliciting the white male for as low as 5 USD a night, despite notices in all hotels and restaurants speaking out strongly against child sexual abuse. This is largely due to the fact that Cambodia is a country that is still getting on its feet after the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and poverty is widespread.

A day trip to the nearby islands is a must.  I booked myself on one of the multiple island tour that includes a session of snorkeling and lunch. As the boat headed out to the high seas, the horizon and the sea literally melted into one shade of powdery blue and dozens of emerald green islands started dotting the horizon. While some of my fellow travelers jumped into the sea to snorkel, I gazed down at the crystal clear waters and saw several school of colourful fish swim by. They would come cutely in a bunch, flapping their fins rapidly… see the boat… look confused….then beat a retreat.

Our main stop was at the picturesque Bamboo Island, a pretty lagoon strewn with easy chairs and shaded by drooping trees. I could spend an entire lifetime on one of those easy chairs watching the waves come and go.

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While we ‘busied’ ourselves ‘lazing’ on the beach, our boat man multi tasked himself as a gourmet chef and tossed up a sumptuous seafood barbeque lunch for us. Delicious food and what an ambience!

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That was followed by a siesta and then a walk through the surrounding woods to the other side of the island where the native residents live. It was a slow paced life full of gently rocking hammocks, hens pecking about, purple wildflowers swaying in the breeze, thatched huts, children collecting shells from sand … a far cry from ringing mobile phones and a life determined by stock market highs and low.

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It is an experience to spend a night or two at the pristine Bamboo Island if time permits. Accomodation is basic, no internet or TV or even roads…but you wake up to the sound of birds chirping (very rare in Cambodian mainland, considering they eat almost everything that moves)…. Aqua marine waters lulling you to bliss… miles of forests and coves begging to be explored. It’s a real ‘get away’ experience.

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Another day trip from Sihanokville is the Ream National Park. Home to over 200 bird species, the park is known for its mangrove forests and lovely waterfalls. One could go trekking through the nature trails and boating on the Prek Touek River that becomes salty when the sea water flows inland during the dry season. In the rainy season the water is fresh and dolphins can be seen swimming.

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Spend your last evening in Sihanokville watching one of the best sunsets of the world in style. Find yourself a comfortable deck chair, put your tired feet up … sip on a delicious cocktail and watch the setting sun jet spray the horizon in spectacular shades of red and orange… and soak in the thrill of living life Khmer size !

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