The expression “off the beaten path” always fills me with excitement. Knowing I’d be coming back to Cambodia to share some of the highlights of this country with my husband who had yet to explore Asia, I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t visited before. I had already visited the must see attractions of the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, and the Genocide Memorials in Phnom Penh, all of which I would gladly visit again, but I wanted to see something new.
The expression “off the beaten path” always fills me with excitement. Knowing I’d be coming back to Cambodia to share some of the highlights of this country with my husband who had yet to explore Asia, I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t visited before. I had already visited the must see attractions of the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, and the Genocide Memorials in Phnom Penh, all of which I would gladly visit again, but I wanted to see something new. When I read Cambodian beaches are what Thailand beaches were 25 years ago, I knew this was the region I wanted to explore. Besides, with resort names such as Cloud 9, and Above Us Only Sky, I couldn’t help but imagine a tropical paradise.
After visiting Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, we bought an afternoon bus ticket to Sihanoukville – a ocean side town that promised breathtaking views, cheap accommodation, and a good starting point to explore the islands off the Cambodian coast.
We booked a couple of nights at The Cove, located right on the waterfront with air conditioned rooms for $49 a night, including breakfast. One of the more expensive places to stay, I’ve learned that in the hot climates, air conditioning is worth paying for. Arriving at the Sihanoukville bus depot, a tuk tuk took us for the regulated rate of 6 USD to the bottom of Serendipity Road. He then carried my backpack for me about 4 resorts in along the beach to the Cove.
The Cove Resort, Serendipity Beach Sihanoukville, Cambodia
When you reach the bottom of Serendipity Road, the resorts to the right are generally quiet, yet slightly more expensive. The resorts to the left cater more to the 18-25 year old backpackers looking for $4 dorm rooms and a continuous party scene. Local bars offer 50 cent draft beers, cheap meals, fireworks every night and no matter what time of day, a expat drunkard stumbling around being boisterous and mildly entertaining from afar. Knowing for certain I had passed my prime backpacking years, I was very happy to stay on the quieter side, with friendly staff, little tourist traffic and great food available. Drafts may be $1 on the right side, but surrounded by a much more chilled environment, I was willing to pay the difference.
View of Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia
Sihanoukville is a typical beach town – bars, hostels, restaurants and tourist stores line the main streets with a pharmacy or dive shop thrown in here and there. I figured it would be a great place to relax while we did a little research on the Islands in the area to visit. I was sadly mistaken. The number of beggars along the beach was astounding. While sitting at the bar or in the open air restaurants, you could expect to be approached at least 5 or 6 times during your meal, more often during sunset, by those asking you to buy their bracelets, their sunglasses, their services of manicures, threading, or foot massage. Those who had lost their limbs most likely through landmines, also came around begging, holding out their hats and saying “please miss, help feed me and my family”. As a general rule, I don’t support begging in the streets and very rarely give, choosing to support local shops and businesses that work on getting the beggars off the streets, and into school or the workforce. I usually shake my head, and say “sorry, no”, or “no, thank you”, smile and they continue on their way. Most places I’ve visited this usually works, but this was not the case in Sihanoukville. “No” doesn’t seem to register, and each tourist is continuously pestered to the point that it is overwhelming.
Two of the “street vendors” of Sihanoukville, Cambodia
During one occasion, a young girl in her teens approached me the first 10 minutes I was at my resort waiting to check in, and after a few minutes of continuous begging, I eventually told her that maybe tomorrow I would look at her bracelets. The next day she came by, and when I told her no thank you, she called me a liar, told me I had promised to buy something from her, started cursing at me in both Khmer and English and stormed off making a scene. Whenever she saw me again, she’d curse me out again and say that all Canadians are bad. If I was the only person she treated that way, I would have been concerned that I had somehow unknowingly disrespected her, but as she sat on her cell phone surrounded by her friends and shouted out insults to others who refused to buy her products, I saw how sad it really was. The children begging on the street are young – anywhere from 8 years old, up to their late teens. All school aged, they said that school was too expensive for them to attend and that they had to take care of their families at home. Even the waiters and waitresses at the restaurants would share their stories with you, asking to practice their English with you, and finishing the conversation asking for extra money they could take to their families for food.
The beach itself is naturally beautiful, soft sand and turquoise water, make it look like a bather’s paradise. What isn’t mentioned is that the town’s sewers all empty out through a cracked blue plastic pipe, only meters away from the swimming area. I wish I could recommend Sihanoukville as a destination, but can only say I’d visit again as a place to pass through, getting me from main land Cambodia, to one of the picture perfect islands worth visiting off the coast.
Many places to buy tickets to the Cambodian Islands
As an afternote, we had to stay for an extra night in Sihanoukville at the end of our beach holiday on Koh Rong Island. We checked into the Serendipity Beach Resort, slightly up the main road from the beach, advertising rooms with a/c and a nice pool for $35. Although still under construction, this beautiful hotel seemed like an oasis amongst all the rundown guesthouses and resorts. I’ve read a lot of articles speaking against development in the Serendipity Beach area, but seeing some of the higher end resorts pop up might be the only hope of a future without sexpats, backpackers, and beggars over running what could be a memorable beach destination