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Sihanoukville is Cambodia's main port city. It is a gateway for overland tours to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The area's beaches are popular with both locals and tourists. Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh is 140 miles to the northeast.It's likely that you won't be neutral about Sihanoukville. You'll either love it or hate it, depending on how well your shore experience matches your travel style, so plan your day carefully. Why so? Because Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the Vietnam War, followed by the hideous rule of the Khmer Rouge, which murdered 1.7 million people (essentially anyone who was educated), leaving the country in shambles.
 
If you don't want to risk encountering urchins hawking trinkets or adult beggars maimed by landmines, head straight for a private beach, or stay onboard. If you're ready to immerse yourself in the rich cultural swirl of Cambodia with all its warts, you've come to the right place.
 
Sihanoukville, originally called Kompong Som, is the only deep-water port in the country. It's located in the south of Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand, 115 miles southwest of capital city Phnom Penh. The town and its surrounding province are named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a major force behind Cambodia's push for independence from France, gained in 1953. In the 1960's, Sihanoukville's beaches became a magnet for jetsetters, counting Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve among visitors.
 
That all changed in 1970, when the king was deposed and Cambodia fell into civil war. The Khmer Rouge used Sihanoukville's once-chic Independence Hotel for target practice and destroyed local temples. By 1993, elections were restored, and the country began its recovery. Although Cambodia quickly became known for Siem Reap in the north, home to spectacular Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other ancient Khmer temples, backpackers also began to discover Sihanoukville's beaches.
 
In 2004, the first luxury beach property opened, and more development followed. In 2006, the New York Times labeled the area "Asia's next trendsetting beach." Now it's possible to drop more than $1,000 per night at a private-island resort, yet the majority of the local population remains quite poor. The Sihanoukville (Snookyville or Snooky for short) of the backpacker crowd still exists, along with sleazy sectors of clubs and sex workers. But there are also temples to see, as well as a vast, bustling, dirty, fascinating market in Sihanoukville town. International organizations are working to get child beggars off the street and into school, and they have created businesses that employ disabled adults.
 
There's luxurious Sihanoukville and local Sihanoukville -- just remember to choose carefully which one (or maybe both?) you want to see.
 
Where You're Docked
Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is two miles from Sihanoukville town and 11 miles from Kang Keng Airport. Cruise ships may dock at the main commercial port at the northwest corner of the city though some ships may tender.It's an industrial port with no passenger facilities.
 
Hanging Around
There's really nothing worth walking to from the port. It's about a five-minute walk to the entrance gate, and the few nearby businesses appear targeted to local dock workers. Sihanoukville town is about a 10-minute drive inland, southeast of the port. The beaches are all south and southeast of the port. There's a fair amount of sprawl (casinos, huge wedding banquet halls, budget lodgings) that will likely someday fill in any empty spots between downtown and the beaches.Visiting Ream National Park is also an option for those wanting to stay in the area.
 
Getting Around
On Foot: Nope, don't do it. Cambodia can be extremely hot, and there's noting of note within easy walking distance of the port.
 
By Shuttle: Free shuttles typically operate between the port and Sihanoukville town; check with your ship's staff for details and timing. The shuttle drop-off point is across from the main market.
 
By Taxi and Tuk-tuk: There will be a pack of taxi drivers, tuk-tuk operators and motorcycle-taxi drivers waiting outside the port gates. Negotiate fiercely, and make sure you and the driver can understand each other. We got an all-day taxi with an English-speaking driver for $20 (and liked him so much that we tipped an extra $5).
 
Watch Out For
At beaches and temples, you'll likely encounter children begging or selling little trinkets. They can be charming and engaging, but international nonprofits advise that you should never buy from them or give them money, because if their begging is profitable, they won't be allowed to attend school. Rather, give to a charity like The Cambodian Children's Painting Project (see "Best Souvenir" section above), which helps kids get an education.
 
There have been some reports of tourist robberies in the Sihanoukville area. Don't carry a lot of cash, and consider wearing a money belt. Don't tempt drive-by motorbike thieves by carrying a purse.
If you're on foot in Sihanoukville town, be on alert for drivers who don't follow traffic rules, and should you leave the ship for an overland trip, be aware that the road to Phnom Penh (three to four hours away) has seen lots of accidents.
But bad driving doesn't stop at the water's edge. Several tourist deaths have been attributed to unsafe Jet Ski drivers, so be careful when you go for a swim.
Now that we've thoroughly scared you, know that you should also be on the lookout for the Cambodian smile, which is friendly and welcoming -- as are most Cambodians.
 
Things to See and Do
 
Scuba diving
 
The Sihanoukville port area is the main hub for all the dive centres from the southwestern Cambodian coast. There are four PADI dive centres which offer diving services, and one can expect to see a lot of fish and beautiful coral. Some of the dive centres to choose from include scuba nation Padi 5 star instructor development centre, and Eco sea dive.

Snorkeling
Snorkeling is probable in most parts of Sihanoukville, and with so many restaurants around offering the service, the prices are very competitive. It will generally cost US$15, and includes breakfast, visiting at least 2 snorkeling spots as well as lunch. Remember, the best places for snorkeling is available at the more distant islands where there is more visibility, more fish and corals.

Rent a motorcycle or bicycle
Motors and bicycles are ubiquitous in Sihanoukville, and are very cheap. A bicycle rented for a day will cost you around US$2 per day, and it is a great way to explore the public beaches, downtown, as well as bar hopping in the city centre. In addition, there are bicycle tours available where you can get to see the most beautiful parts of the area, such as stray dog adventures dirt bike tours. It is a lot of fun, easy and exciting, and a great way to travel between the best beaches in Sihanoukville, especially because some of them are quite far apart.

The booze cruise
This is a very popular event for young backpackers in Sihanoukville. For only $25, a few days during the week you can enjoy a booze cruise and party on a large sized boat as you explore some of the islands in Cambodia. It is a great fun party, and the drinks flow in plenty. Definitely a must do for the younger backpacker who loves having a great time.
Visit Sihanoukville’s central market
At this market, you can buy a variety of goods, such as seafood, some mightily cheap trinkets and souvenirs, juice and fruits, as well as some of the sarees and local clothing. It is a great place to buy a few gifts for some of the people back home, and an opportunity to observe the local culture of the place and enjoy some delicious prawns.

Rent a kayak in Sihanoukville
At many of the sailing clubs and resorts in the town, you can rent a kayak and try your hand at kayaking to exercise some of the rarely used muscles of yours. It is a lot of fun, and not so expensive, one of the places to do this is at the otres nautical sailing club. For only $3, you can enjoy the experience of an exhilarating adventure and have a laugh about it. Definiltey something to try if you are getting bored of the sunbathing and are in search for something more exciting.

Go to a Cambodian Wat
Although Sihanoukville’s Wats are not the oldest or indeed the most majestic in Cambodia, there are still enough set in beautiful locations that you can savor. Some of these include Wat Krom, Wat leu,Wat ream and Wat Samathi. The photo ops at Wat Samathi are incredible, and one can also enjoy a spot of meditation at these places, and get to meet a different people than they would normally see at the beaches and markets of Sihanoukville.

Cambodian children’s painting project
On serendipity beach road, you will find the Cambodian children’s painting project (CCPP). This is an NGO that helps poor Cambodian children, by selling the art they have created, and using the funds to support the children’s families. They also get some basic education, sports, medical help and painting materials. If you are interested, you can visit this place, become a volunteer, donate some money or buy a painting. It is all for a good cause, and is also great fun messing around with the little kids.
 
Don't Miss
Sihanoukville's world-famous beaches are definitely the area's main draw. Check our beach guide below to find one that best suits your style.
 
For nature-lovers, 80-square-mile Ream National Park is a good option. The area is home to 155 species of birds, including macaques, herons and cranes. You might also spot wildlife, like mouse deer (muntjac), spiny anteaters (pangolin) and sun bears. It's possible to trek with a ranger for $2 per hour, visiting Keng Kong waterfall or beaches. Or, take a boat tour (about $45 per boat) along the mangrove forest of Prek Teuk Sap estuary, where leaping fish and dolphins have been sighted. The estuary is salt water in the dry season and fresh water in the rainy season. If you plan to trek, take drinking water and a snack since food options are limited to stands on the beach. The park is about 11 miles from the port, with the entrance located on Airport Road, across from the airport. The beach is an additional six miles beyond the ranger station, which is just inside the park entrance. You'll need to arrange transportation by taxi or tuk-tuk.
 
There are five main wats, or Buddhist temples, in the Sihanoukville area. The two most popular with tourists are:
 
Wat Krom, or "Lower Temple," is at the base of Sihanouk Mountain, near Independence Beach -- a 5-minute drive from town. Rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, this wat has views of the sea and a small chapel dedicated to Ya-Mao, a local deity. There's also an interesting graveyard, with small stupa towers marking many graves.
 
Wat Leu, or "Upper Temple," is higher up on Sihanouk Mountain, about 3.6 miles from town. Be sure to look for the three-headed white-stone elephant that's integrated into the temple's surrounding fence.
 
If you want to plunge into the local scene, visit covered Psar Lu Market in Sihanoukville town. You'll see stalls with goldsmiths at work; mini-beauty shops; seamstresses operating foot-powered sewing machines; fish, live and dead; butchers whacking at bloody carcasses; produce-sellers; clothing stalls; food stalls, where cooks man huge woks of seafood; a few souvenir vendors and much, much more. It's fascinating, but prepare to be hassled at the entrance by drivers touting their taxis or tuk-tuks (just say you already have a driver if you want to fend them off), and you may also encounter beggars maimed in the war.
Photographers might enjoy a trip to the fishing port, Kampong Pier Nup Lok, about a mile and a half north of the port on Hun Sen Beach Drive. There's a ramshackle village around the wooden docks, with plenty of local color and activity, plus equal amounts of grime and stench.
 
Been There, Done That
Want to head off the beaten track? Try these options:
Phsar Leu Market is an authentic local market in Sihanoukville.
Traditional Khmer Cookery Classes (335 Ekareach Street, +855 92 738 615; http://cambodiancookeryclasses.com) will let you try your hand a preparing local cuisine like fresh spring rolls; fish soup with prawns, fresh herbs and lime; banana-flower salad; or pumpkin custard. They offer both full-day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; four dishes; $25-30) and half-day classes (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; two dishes; $15), with each student preparing her or his own food.
 
Sihanoukville has a growing dive scene. If you're interested in taking the plunge, contact Scuba Nation Diving Center(Mohachai Guesthouse, Serendipity Beach Road +855 12 604680 or +855 34 933700; www.divecambodia.com), Cambodia's first PADI five-star National Geographic dive center, or EcoSea Dive (Ekareach St. 012/654104; www.ecosea.com), known for its eco-friendly attitude.
 
One of many nonprofit groups seeking to make a difference in Cambodia, Seeing Hands 3 Massage trains seeing-impaired people to perform massages -- and by all accounts, the result is excellent. (95 Mondul 3, Sangkat 4, Sihanoukville town ,near Holy Cow restaurant; +855 12 799 016; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
 
Beaches
 
Beach hopping
With over 23 beaches to explore on Sihanoukville, some of them at the coast and others on the nearby islands, the best way to see all of them is by beach hopping. Tours to islands such as Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloen and Bamboo Island will typically cost US$30 from the travel agencies, either in serendipity or downtown. It is a lot of fun, and very affordable.
Best Beach for Paradise-Seekers: The private beach at five-star Sokha Beach Resort is about as idyllic as it gets -- a mile of pristine white sand, beach chairs, umbrellas and a (slightly pricey) bar. The beach is uncrowded and blissfully free from vendors or touts. The $10 entry fee also allows you to use the resort's pool. The onsite open-air restaurant serves a buffet lunch of Cambodian and Western foods.
 
Best Beach for the Indecisive: Victory Beach, just south of the port, offers restaurants, water sports, trips to nearby islands and two casinos: Queenco Casino at the Victory Beach Hotel and the Golden Sea Hotel & Casino. Oh, and there's also sand and water.
 
Best Beach for Budget Beachcombers: About five minutes from Sihanoukville town, Ochheuteal Beach is lined with seafood shacks and watering holes, fronted by legions of beach chairs. Roving vendors also hawk items like fresh calamari, grilled to order, for a pittance. The north end of this mile-plus swath of sand has come to be known as Serendipity Beach, and it's more developed, with Western-style restaurants, bars and plenty of shopping.
 
Best Beach for the Ghosts of Jetsetters Past: Independence Beach, named after the hotel (now refurbished) where Jackie O and Catherine Deneuve once stayed, is a favorite of locals and can get crowded on weekends. Though it was once nothing but sand, new restaurants are popping up.
 
Fireworks display at Serenditpity Beach
Every night, at serendipity beach, there is a superb fireworks display that attracts busloads of tourists. With fireworks being sold cheaply at the beach, they are in constant supply and every so often, there will be a mini fireworks display that looks absolutely beautiful in the night and black waters of the sea. It is a free event, there a lots of people around having a grand time and with a cold drink in hand; it is a moment to savor.
 
 
Shore Excursions
Best for First-Timers: All lines offer full-day or half-day highlights tours, which visit one or more of the wats (typically Wat Krom, the "lower temple"), stop by a local village to visit a school or family home and swing by a beach or two; some also include the market. Full-day tours typically add lunch -- most often a beach BBQ at the private Sokha Beach Resort -- and more sunbathing time.
 
Best for the Five-Star Crowd: If urchins and a bit of funky local color aren't your thing, opt for a transfer to the Sokha Beach Resort's picture-perfect white-sand beach and sprawling pool. Some lines include a day-room in the package; others add in a beach BBQ. You can save money by organizing this experience a la carte (about $20 for a roundtrip taxi and $10 per person to use the pool and beach), but for a totally carefree day, let the cruise line sweat the details.
 
Best for Nature-Lovers: Several lines offer all-day excursions to Ream National Park, usually including a boat ride through the mangrove forests of Prek Tuek Sap River, a drive or trek up Meditation Mountain, a trip to the beach for lunch and, in some cases, a visit to the small, traditional village within the park. This trip is not for the out-of-shape, so be sure you can handle the physical requirements prior to booking.
 
Best for Cultural Explorers: If you'd like to go further afield, try a trip that roves outside of Sihanoukville, to Kampot Town, including visits to a local village, a pepper plantation (source of the famous Kompot pepper that shows up in quite a few dishes), a stroll through the Kompot market, lunch and a stop at a fishing village.
 
Best for Seeing Cambodia's Marquee Sights: Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only cruise port, but it's a nine-hour drive from the country's biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat, in the town of Siem Reap. It's also four hours overland from the capital Phnom Penh. Most lines offer three-day options to jump ship and visit one or both of these destinations in a land-air package. Phnom Penh's draws are the Royal Palace and National Museum; at Siem Reap, you have the opportunity to see Angkor Wat and other lesser-known but equally amazing temples from the ancient Khmer empire, stretching back more than 1,000 years. While you may save a bundle by organizing this trip yourself (Cambodia Angkor Air flies from SihanoukVille to Siem Reap every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon at 12:55p.m.), a travel agent's private group from our ship ended up scrambling to make alternative arrangements when high winds forced us to skip the port of Nha Trang, where they'd planned to get back aboard.
 
Eating Out
It's often said that Khmer cuisine is like Thai food without the spice. While that's a bit of a generalization, ingredients and techniques can be similar to those used for other Southeast Asian cuisines. You'll find spring rolls, mild curries, noodles, dishes made with pumpkin and, of course, lots of seafood. If you can, try amok, one of Cambodia's best-known dishes. A fish fillet is covered in a mixture of shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, peanuts, coconut milk and egg. That's all wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to an almost souffle-like texture. Cambodians also devour plenty of rice. In fact, the Khmer phrase for "Have you eaten?" is actually, "Have you eaten rice?"
 
No matter what your nationality, there's probably a Sihanoukville restaurant that caters to your tastes, thanks to the large expat community, and many establishments offer multiple cuisines. That's why it's strange that, in this area, it's not always easy to find authentic Khmer cuisine. On the plus side, no matter what the cuisine, prices are generally very reasonable, which is why few establishments accept credit cards.
 
Chhne Meas, on Victory Beach, is an open-air restaurant close to the surf. It serves a wide range of fish and seafood, as well as Khmer curries and stir-fry. (No credit cards are accepted; check their Facebook page for the rather complicated opening hours; +855 12 340 060.)
 
Chner Molop Chrey, also on Victory Beach (look for the distinctive Chinese-influenced roof), is a huge, open-air, Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant where you choose what you'd like -- clams, crabs, shrimp, scallops, unknown finned things -- from aquarium tanks. You'll practically be sitting in the lapping waves to dine. Photos of dishes help with ordering.
 
Cabbage Garden (or Jumka Spay in Khmer) is a non-touristy restaurant frequented by locals and expats in the know. Some (but not all) menu items are translated into English, and service may not be up to international standards, but fans rave about the flavors in dishes like steamed fish or squid with Kampot pepper, as well as the astonishingly cheap prices. The only caution: Don't visit the restroom. It's located on Makara Street, a bit off the beaten path. If you use its Khmer name, it may help drivers know where to go.
 
Beach shacks serve seafood BBQ and other fish dishes at Ochheuteal and Victory Beaches for bargain prices. Look for items like grilled squid or shrimp with lemongrass or Kampot pepper.
 
Snake House Restaurant provides a real change of pace, as you might guess from the name. The jungle-like setting up on Victory Hill (behind Victory Beach) houses a menagerie of exotic birds and reptiles, including crocodiles. The Russian ownership serves up cuisine from the mother country (pelmeny, borsht, chicken Kiev), as well as sandwiches and other international fare. (Soviet Street; +855 12 67 3805)
 
As long as we're veering toward the unusual, you mght take a gawk at the Airport Fashionable Disco Flight Beach Bar, the hard-to-miss hangar-like structure on Victory Beach (not at the airport!) that houses an old Russian AN-24 airplane. There, you'll find drinks, an international assortment of food (salads, shakes, BBQ, seafood, hotdogs) and beach massages. (open from 8 a.m. until "late"; +855-70-771-557)
 
If you happen to be in port long enough to eat dinner, Sandan gets glowing marks, not only for its creative Khmer cuisine (vegetarian amok, for example), serene atmosphere and good service -- but also because it's run by a nonprofit that helps train street kids to work in the service industry. (Sokha Beach Road, about 100 yards from the golden lions roundabout statue; open Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
 
Shopping
Sihanoukville is putting on something of a real shopping scene these days. Several shops and souvenir stalls line the road to Serendipity Beach - souvenirs, clothing, crafts, music, NGO shops and more - some places staying open late into the evening. On the more practical side, convenience stores dot the area and there are a couple of small supermarkets downtown, Of special note: the Otres Market - a Saturday market gathering of local crafts and food vendors (in the spirit of the Saturday beach markets of Goa) begins its second year running, located in Otres Village, open Saturday 4PM-late.
 Traditional Markets
 
Sihanoukville town had two traditional style Cambodian markets, Phsar Pinichicom, a small market catering almost exclusively to local needs, and the main market, Phsar Leu (Upper Market) ,the largest and oldest traditional-style market in town. When people refer to "the market", they mean this one - a dimly lit, roofed expanse of booths and stalls vending everything from fresh meat and vegetables to clothing, auto parts, jewelry, etc. Both traditional markets open and close with the sun.
 
Souvenirs, Crafts, Clothing, Jewelry...
In addition to the shops listed below, check out the little NGO-based shops from organizations like M’Lop Tapang located along the road to Serendipity Beach.
Bodia Nature
Quality, all natural bath, body and massage products made exclusively from the finest Southeast Asian ingredients. Essential oils, compresses, aromatherapy products, scrubs, herbal soaps...
Serendipity Beach Road, opposite Monkey Republic, Sihanoukville
 
M’lop Tapang Gift Shop
Non-profit, NGO-based gift shop on the road to Serendipity Beach. Offering handmade products designed and made by young women “committed to learning skills to empower themselves.” Handicrafts, art, silk products and a new collection of products made from recycled drinking straws.
On the road to Serendipity beach about 150m off the beach, Sihanoukville
www.mloptapang.org
 
Rajana
The Sihanouk Ville outlet of the NGO-based Cambodian arts and crafts association, offering a good selection of Cambodian arts and crafts, jewelry, textiles, coffees, and spices.
Located on Ekareach Street near the Golden Lions, Sihanoukville
Tel: 012-789350
www.rajanacrafts.org
 
Starfish Shop
Small boutique run by the NGO Starfish Organization. All products produced locally by disabled people. All profits go back to develop Starfish programs. Silks, silk bags, kramas (scarves), bags made from recyclables, Kampot pepper, Cambodian coffee and tea.
Two locations:
1) At Starfish behind Samudera Market, Sihanoukville
2) On the road to Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville
Tel: 012-952011
www.starfishcambodia.org



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