An independent travel guide to Sihanoukville with candid reviews and recommendations. No sponsored content, no advertorial.

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Sihanoukville Introduction

| 03 Jun 2014
Last updated 03 Jun 2014

Sihanoukille on Cambodia's southern coast, sports some handsome stretches of beach and picturesque islands. But beyond that, it's something of a case study in the perils of developing world tourism and sleaze. It's hard to imagine where it's all headed.

Foreign visitors first began descending on the beaches of Sihanoukville in the early 1990s, when the UN force known as UNTAC was engaged in the final demobilisation of the Khmer Rouge. Sihanoukville became the favoured beach escape for the mainly male forces and their fellow travellers. It didn't take long for sleaze to follow and a sex tourism destination evolved that has continued to flourish to this day.

During the past decade, backpackers have discovered Sihanoukville too and the port city once known as Kompong Som is now also a fixture on the South East Asia party trail. Fueled by  sun and sand, 50 cent beers and a dubious drug scene, Sihanoukville's beaches and islands party every night of the week.

Sex tourists and party-hungry backpackers have formed the core of Sihanoukville's traveller base and the various beaches of the town have been carved up accordingly. It's ripe terrain for criminals as well and while Sihanoukville is quite safe if you stay sensible, partygoers are constantly coming unstuck - sometimes mortally. Local officials have confirmed that were 21 traveller deaths in 2013. Causes ranged from natural to drug overdoses, traffic accidents and "criminal activities".

Add to that stories of ugly land grabs and forced evictions and Sihanoukville may be a near perfect snapshot of the debasing powers of tourism.

Many travellers arrive in Sihanoukville with a plan to head as quickly as possible to Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloen, two unspoiled islands that since early 2014, can be reached from Sihanoukville by fast boat in around 40 minutes.

In recent years, a long and uncomfortable local boat trip has hampered development on these stunning islands. This looks set to change.

Koh Rong has developed as a party island while Koh Rong Samloen is more mellow. Koh Rong Samloen is also popular with divers and snorkellers but is perfect for anyone looking for a no frills, back to nature beach escape.

At the opposite end of the scale, there are efforts to recast Sihanoukville as a luxury travel destination. Song Saa Private Island off the coast is home to Cambodia's most expensive resort and the country's only resort to cover an entire island. It touts its responsible tourism credentials serving the super affluent to the benefit of Cambodia's poor.

Don't write Sihanoukville off. Koh Rong may well be sufficient reason for a visit. And Sihanoukville's best beaches are the pick of Cambodia's southern coastal stretch. It's a logical add-on to a journey to Kampot and Kep.

Who knows, if a more diverse group of travellers descends on what are very pleasant stretches of beach, Sihanoukville might take a turn for the better as well.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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