A mere 7,538 miles from Seattle awaits a tropical paradise: Sihanoukville, Cambodia, which just happens to be Seattle’s sister city. For those wondering, that’s 20-something leg-cramping hours by plane just to get in the vicinity. But the distance is worth it. With the city nestled on the Gulf of Thailand, I had the opportunity to spend a few days on its pristine and quiet beaches, far away from the hustle and bustle of the better-known and popular destinations of Southeast Asia.
Getting there can be a bit of a headache, but that pain will be long gone by the time you’re kicking back on a cushioned beach chair, sipping a generously poured mai tai, and gazing upon the crystal clear waters and islands scattered across the horizon. Most U.S. airports, obviously, don’t have direct flights to Cambodia, so the first part requires getting to a major international launching pad like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, or New York. For me it was Atlanta, which meant a three-hour flight before the 23-hour flight to Phnom Penh, the busy capital of Cambodia.
After that, you hop on a cheap but air-conditioned bus (about $20 USD) and get bounced and jostled for the entirety of the almost four-hour ride to Sihanoukville. You’ll never look at potholes the same way once you experience the craters that threaten to engulf vehicles in Cambodia.
Upon arriving in Sihanoukville, I wondered if I had stumbled into nirvana. This was a tropical postcard plopped down right in front of me, and it was all mine. I had never seen an ocean so blue, a sky so clear, or palm trees so vividly green.
There were bungalows and shacks scattered along the beach, and young backpackers from all over the world were lounging at open-air bars, sipping Angkor Beer just a couple feet from the beautiful water. I was home.
I have traveled all over the world, and this is, without a doubt, my favorite place, and I doubt it will ever be beat. If your interest is piqued, and paradise is what you seek, keep reading for travel tips, must-see places, and cool things to do.
Brian’s Travel Tips
Traveling to an exotic country can be daunting, but we’ve got you covered. Here are a few tips to help ease your mind.
Language: Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. While not a lot of people speak English in other parts of Cambodia, I found a surprising number of English speakers in Sihanoukville, as most of the hostel and hotel owners I met were from Europe, New Zealand, and the United States.
Safety: Most travel sites will warn you to not leave anything unattended anywhere at any time in Cambodia. However, while you should still be smart about what you leave lying around, I never had a problem with my belongings going missing, and, for the most part, Sihanoukville felt very safe.
Something to avoid: You may be feeling adventurous, but I would avoid renting motorcycles. They’re basically just fast, ill-maintained scooters. And to say the roads in Cambodia are horrible, pothole-marked messes would be a gross understatement.
Light it up:
Thinking of lighting up a good cigar on the beach? There are a fair number of roadside stores that sell a small stock, and then you’re more than welcome to smoke basically anywhere. I have a particularly fond memory of enjoying a Romeo y Julieta while sipping Angkor Beer and watching the sunset.
There is nothing quite like a Sihanoukville beach. It’s relatively quiet with the background pulse of reggae drifting from various waterfront restaurants and shacks. The only other sounds you hear are laughter, good conversation, and the soothing lapping of the waves. You smell the clean ocean breeze mixed with cuisines ranging from Mediterranean to Cambodian to barbecue to Thai—and more—all while laying on gorgeous, soft white sand.
While I was a fan of every beach I visited in Sihanoukville, my favorite was Otres Beach.
My bungalow was situated on Otres only about 15 feet from the ocean. Pricey, right? Not here. I paid a mere $10 a night, but it can range up to $50 depending on where you stay. Otres is the least crowded and most relaxed of all the beaches in Sihanoukville. It’s an excellent place to sunbathe, have a drink, or take a nap in a hammock.
If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, then consider renting a boat for snorkeling (about $15 a person for a half-day trip), kayaks, jet skis, or a bicycle for as little as $5 an hour.
And if a quiet beach isn’t your thing, I suggest Ochheuteal Beach, the most popular beach for the Western tourist. There are more than 30 huts offering delicious food and drinks, midrange hotels, a golf course at the southern end, and plenty of nightlife activities.
Check this out:
The Otres Market: This is an excellent place to spend your evenings after the sun has set until the early hours of the morning. There’s plenty of live music, dance clubs, food stalls, drink stands, souvenir shopping, and a plethora of fellow backpackers ready to be your new best friend. Getting there is easy and cheap: It’s only a $3 tuk-tuk ride from Otres Beach.
Nightlife on the Beach:
This is a place that firmly believes in partying and does so every single night. Most of the beachside bars offer insane happy hour deals and then continue the specials and dancing into the early morning; you may even see some fire dancers.
My favorite bar was Utopia (utopia-cambodia.com) where they offer 25-cent drafts from 8–9 p.m. and plenty of other food and drink specials every night. The best part is the swimming pool and 25-person hot tub, where bartenders will occasionally bring free shots for those soaking. And if you’re not comfortable stumbling down the beach back to your room at the end of the night, Utopia offers rooms with air conditioning for only $3.
If bars and dancing aren’t your thing, buck up the courage to dip into the pitch-black sea and you’ll be rewarded with a light show that will rival any club. In certain areas of Southeast Asia you’ll find the waters full of bioluminescent algae that glow when jostled. Move your arms and legs, and the sea will come alive with thousands of tiny bioluminescent lights. It is truly an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Want more travel adventures? Check out tips for Cuba.