Cambodia Chronicles: Sihanoukville, the Rebirth of a Dream

In a land with thousands of years of history, Sihanoukville is a colorful but tragic upstart. A mere fifty years ago, a French-Cambodian construction carved a camp out of the jungle and started building the first deep-sea port of a newly independent Cambodia. Named Sihanoukville in 1964 after the ruling prince of the kingdom, the booming port and its golden beaches soon drew Cambodia’s jetsetting elite, spawning the first Angkor Beer brewery and the modernist seven-story Independence Hotel which, claim locals, even played host to Jacqueline Kennedy on her whirlwind tour of Cambodia in 1967.

Alas, the party came to an abrupt end in 1970 when Sihanouk was deposed in a coup and Cambodia descended into civil war. The town – renamed Kompong Som – soon fell on hard times: the victorious Khmer Rouge used the Independence Hotel for target practice and, when they made the mistake of hijacking an American container ship, the port was bombed by the U.S. Air Force. Even after Pol Pot’s regime was driven from power, the bumpy highway to the capital was long notorious for banditry and the beaches stayed empty.

Peace returned in 1997 and in the ensuing ten years Sihanoukville has been busy picking up the pieces. First visited only by a few intrepid backpackers, guidebooks still talk of walls pockmarked by bullets, but any signs of war are hard to spot in today’s Sihanoukville, whose new symbol seems to be the construction site. More and more Khmers and expats have settled down to run hotels, bars and restaurants, and the buzz of what the New York Times dubbed “Asia’s next trendsetting beach” is starting to spread far and wide. After 30 years of housing only ghosts, the Independence Hotel is wrapped in scaffolding and scheduled to be rise from the ashes soon.

Sihanoukville is again a major trade hub, but the actual container port is well to the west and you’ll only catch a passing glimpse on your way in. The spidery town spirals out from a simultaneously chaotic and laid-back central core of banks, gas stations and supermarkets to no less than five beaches: from north to south, there is Victory Beach and the backpacker domain of Weather Station Hill; Independence, home to the soon-to-be-reborn hotel; Sokha, exclusive domain of the five-star Sokha Beach Resort; Occheuteal, the largest and busiest of them all; and Otres, the quietest of the lot. All abound with open-air seafood restaurants, laid-back beachside bars selling two beers for a dollar, souvenir stalls and massage shops.

Distances between the beaches are a little too long to walk comfortably, but getting around is easy, as the roads are wide and bike taxis (motodop) are everywhere. The standard price is a dollar a trip, although expect to haggle at night or if the distance is long. They’ll gladly pile on two people and their luggage too. For larger groups, car taxis can be called up by phone and there are a few tuk-tuks lurking about too.

Sihanoukville’s airport has reopened but serves no scheduled flights (yet) and the rusty train line still lies unused, so for time being the only way in is by road. Fixed up and paved with American help, the highway from Phnom Penh is now one of the best in the country, and Sorya and GST have buses from Psar Thmei (Central Market) roughly hourly from early morning until the afternoon; book ahead, as they fill up fast. The trip costs $3.50 and takes around four hours, including a non-stop medley of Khmer karaoke hits and a snack break halfway through. Alternatively, you can charter a taxi, which can do the trip in less than three hours and will cost around $25. But whichever way you choose, the time to go there is now, before Sihanoukville becomes a household name.

Top Picks

La Paillote, tel. 012-632347, Victory Beach. French-Khmer cuisine in one of the finest restaurants in the country. Entrees $5-11.

Noh Kor Phnom, Occheuteal Beach. Friendly no-frills seafood restaurant with a menu of over two hundred options. Try the steamed sunfish with soybeans and ginger ($4.25).

Sokha Beach ResortSokha Beach. Cambodia’s top seaside resort on Cambodia’s best beach. Pricy but clean and hassle-free, a great option for sun worshippers and kids.