Cambodia’s original seaside town of Sihanoukville may be disappearing in a cloud of construction, but writer Chris Watts finds that this nation still has some of the region’s best tropical beaches.
Why Cambodia? A friend asked me this before I left London. And when I arrive in Sihanoukville, while looking for a lift, I realize I don’t know the answer.
It feels safe but sanitized: It’s certainly not the Asian ‘wild west’ I was expecting from Cambodia’s most popular seaside city, its quiet roads scattered with tour groups. I spot a tuk-tuk driver, lounging in a hammock slung over his tiger-print seats. Rows of tricycles line the road behind him, and the drivers play cards and wait for business that doesn’t arrive anymore.
“You want girls, drugs, overnight trip to Siam Reap?” Chaay, the driver, asks me, searching for something to sell. I politely refuse all three but agree to a ride. “We like many travelers,” he continues. “They explore Khmer culture, eat our food and ask about our country.” There’s an air of resignation in his voice as he surveys the surrounding rows of new businesses, many of them foreign-owned; at times, Sihanoukville does resemble one big construction site.
“I’ll take you to Otres. It’s still nice there,” says Chaay. He was right. Otres village and its beach, just a few kilometers east of Sihanoukville town, have eschewed large-scale construction in favor of DIY development, although there is a significant amount of that. The palm trees and white sand are punctuated with boutique resorts and ocean-side bungalows arranged in neat paragraphs; it’s the sort of place you might find Keith Richards climbing a mango tree.
I walk down the beach and wander into Last Hippie Standing. It’s a beach bar, music venue, night club and ocean swing. There’s also a side room that sells an exhaustive selection of narcotics. You might spot Keith here too.
Sitting on the beach, I see a shimmer in the distance. Koh Rong, the diamond in Sihanoukville’s coastal crown. Its exotic green and gold hues decorate both the horizon and many an outlandish story; in fact, the majority of escapades you hear about in Cambodia happen on Koh Rong. I decide to buy a ferry ticket immediately.
I’m not disappointed. It’s as beautiful as anywhere else in the Gulf of Thailand, but a little more rustic—although not as rustic as nearby Koh Ta Kiev. While most of Thailand’s tropical islands revolve around buckets, fire shows and glow paint, Cambodia’s are more likely to feature 50-cent beers, fresh seafood and karaoke.
Although, it’s apparent on arrival that Koh Rong’s main town of Koh Toch is descending into the hedonistic debauchery that plagues some of south Thailand. Surrounding the boats, narrow alleyways snake into bottlenecks of backpacker rooms and neon dive bars. But I only have to walk 20 minutes around the coast to the island’s 4K beach and it’s strikingly close to perfect. If you can find a fault with it, you’re either unreasonably harsh or a mountain person. I choose a room without a view because it’s peaceful and I like Mliss, the grandma in charge.
The next day, I trek through the mountainous jungle to Koh Rong’s Lonely Beach. It’s accurately named and hard to leave. This popular island, like so many around the world, has its fair share of hidden coast. I finally arrive back at my room without a view to find a selection of insects roasting on the fire under the warm light of sunset.
Ironically, the actual traveling is the only part of traveling that’s rarely shared on Instagram … This journey, however, was very ‘Insta-friendly’. The half-hour journey took us across a sea wearing such a pure shade of turquoise it must make all the other colors feel underdressed.
“Have you had dinner?” Mliss asks. Should I lie? I decide to be truthful. “No.”
“Here, eat this,” she thrusts a bunch of beetles into my hands. Maybe I should have lied. She’s watching me chew so I smile.
“How are they?”
“Great.” I reply.
This time, I am lying. They taste how they look; black, viscous and crunchy. “It’s a delicacy,” she reassures me.
Dawn breaks, next stop Samloem: Koh Rong’s hermitic younger brother. A humble paradise where, if you pick the right beach, you can be without wi-fi, electricity or ego. I play Tetris with my bag till everything fits between the two zips, and I’m trudging through pearly sand, rucksack spilling over my shoulders, negotiating my way towards a small fishing boat.
I return to my two wheels, one coconut between my knees, riding with as many working brake lights and responsibilities as T-shirts: Zero. Here is the Wild West I was looking for.
Ironically, the actual traveling is the only part of traveling that’s rarely shared on Instagram. Usually, because the act of moving from one destination to another isn’t fun: It’s belts and shoes off for security, missing breakfast for a bus, or buying airport coffee for the price of lunch. This journey, however, was very ‘Insta-friendly’. The half-hour journey took us across a sea wearing such a pure shade of turquoise it must make all the other colors feel underdressed.
Three days of waking at sunrise, reading and lounging on these quite perfect beaches and I’m ready to explore again. I head back to the mainland where I find Chaay waiting by the port. I tell him I want to see the countryside.
Illuminating the sky behind his tuk-tuk is perhaps the main reason for Sihanoukille’s rapid growth: China’s love affair with Cambodia. Gambling is illegal under Chinese law but here, rows upon rows of gaudy casinos pollute the skyline with names such as New Macau and Oriental Pearl.
Candy-colored palaces of luck, offering easy wins and expensive thrills, have been built to service a purely overseas clientele: Cambodians are banned from gambling here. We speed right past them towards Ream National Park, where tropical birds soar above monkeys and deer in an almost-pristine display of nature. Ream’s white-sand beaches and solitude are the antithesis of Sihanoukville.
It’s time to trade my shared tuk-tuk for a solo motorbike. This is a quintessentially South East Asian brand of exhilaration, zigzagging through the jungle past rice paddies and coastal mangroves, and hurtling down ocean roads and stopping at street food shacks for dollar bowls of curry and sweet coffee. I return to my two wheels, one coconut between my knees, riding with as many working brake lights and responsibilities as T-shirts: Zero. Here is the Wild West I was looking for.
The police might pull me over, but it’s nothing a few dollars can’t solve. As Sihanoukville disappears in my wing mirrors, the tropical islands glisten with hope on the horizon. This is what freedom feels like. I take a picture to send to my friend. Why Cambodia? This is why.
Chris writes adventure travel features and speeches for people more important than he is. Originally from London, he spends more time in Spain, Dubai and South America because he’s scared of winter. He speaks poor Portuguese and average Spanish, but he’s fluent in sneaking into airport lounges.