I grew up in a coastal city where winter involved putting on a light jacket over one’s t-shirt and shorts. Even the high-rise offices look out over the Indian Ocean, and busy executives hang up their suits and ties, slip into shorts, and jog along the beachfront at lunchtime. Many keep a surfboard in their cars and catch a quick wave before or after work (or both). As a result of this, I have a love for beach towns, islands, sunshine and the ocean. So I knew my trip to Cambodia would not be complete without a visit to the most famous Cambodian beach town, Sihanoukville.
In order to get there from Siem Reap, I needed to take a 10 hour bus 😮 So I decided to just make it an overnight bus and hopefully I could sleep through most of it (I can sleep on planes, in buses, on trains, standing up and with my eyes open- just ask my sibings).
The bus was a pleasant surprise: Instead of seats, it had beds and we were given blankets! (Think Knight bus in Harry Potter!) I don’t have much more to say on the bus ride except that it was a bit bumpy but I was able to read and sleep for decent amounts of time. We arrived on schedule and I had no difficulties with the whole process.
So let’s talk about Sihanoukville.
Now Sihanoukville has developed a bit of a reputation for itself as a backpacker’s party haven – apparently something of a similar vibe to the islands and beaches in the south of Thailand.
But Sihanoukville doesn’t have the chalky white sand of Thailand’s beaches, the water doesn’t seem to have that magical turquoise colour and it isn’t filled with American families. Nor is there the infrastructure that supports Thailand’s massive beach tourism industry.
There are however long beaches with warm blue water, lounges to sun yourself on, cheap hotels, good food and drinks for a dollar. Part of the charm of Sihanoukville is that it is Cambodian – its grittier, its part of the country rather than removed from it, and in many ways it’s probably more like Thailand was 15 or 20 years ago.
I spent day one on Serendipity Beach, which was only a 4 min walk from my hotel. Serendipity Beach is filled with bars and restaurants and a few souvenir and art shops. Staring at the blue sea from a comfortable chair on the beach with a mango milkshake in hand was as close to heaven as one is bound to reach anywhere. In the distance a bar was playing mellow beach music as the waves broke on the sandy shoreline.
It was my kind of beach, apart from the few pushy vendors that worked the crowd of Caucasian drinkers.
– Hello sir, bracelet?
– No, thank you.
– Why not?
– I don’t want one.
– Then you can have two.
One guy came up to me and said in a very matter of fact way,
“Hi, my name is Jinchong, I have been working on the beach selling drugs for ten years. Would you like to buy some drugs today?”.
“Sorry Jinchong, not interested”
“I can also fix shoes”.
“I’m wearing flip flops honey.”
And that was how I ended up signing up for a cruise to Koh Rong Samloem Island. (But more on that later).
Here is a sunset on Serendipity Beach:
Ochheuteal & Victory Beach
On day two, I was booked to visit Monkey Island for a day excursion but the weather had other plans. When our boat was set to depart, we were all informed that the sea was far too rough and we would not be able to head to the island. So after I collected my refund, I went to Ochheuteal Beach a few kilometres away. It was still quite undeveloped; just a stretch of clean sand, though there was a line of bars/restaurants and some guesthouses. It offered a nice bicycle ride from Serendipity Beach, with a chance to swim, though the beach was too shallow for far too long.
When I tired of that place, I went over to Victory Beach, another beach area in Sihanoukville. I ended up enjoying this beach more than Serendipity because there were fewer people on the beach trying to sell me things and I visited the famed Airport Club.
This is a restaurant where they have an actual Russian aeroplane in a hangar. I had lunch here but the food tasted like airplane food 😦 I loved the décor and kept thinking, “I wish I could’ve had my 21st birthday party here” (my theme was ‘Around the World’).
It rained a lot on my 2nd day in Sihanoukville despite my beach hopping and I crossed fingers that they next day’s weather would be better.
Day 3 and also my final full day in Sihanoukville was the day of my cruise to Koh Rong Samloem Island.
The weather improved and by 09:30am I was deposited on to a big boat by a helpful tuk-tuk driver. The boat was quite full with a large group of young Europeans (students perhaps?) speaking loudly in Spanish. Other than them, there was a Chinese couple, a Russian dad and son and three French people (Yes I am good at identifying languages).
This wasn’t good news for me. A big reason that I wanted to do a cruise was so I could meet people. It was my 5th day in Cambodia and I had yet to meet or hang out with anyone other than myself. Just as I was despairing that I would be the only English speaker on the boat, two girls hopped on at the absolute last minute. They descended the stairs in a hurry, and one girl tripped; as people went forward to help her, she said, “Oh I’m fine thanks” in clear accent-less English.
I was saved.
And as I do, I went forth, introduced myself and spent the day chatting with them. They were Australian law students and were good fun.
This cruise was a bit pricier than the other ones on offer but it included free breakfast buffet, free lunch buffet, one snorkeling trip and one jungle or river walk. The boat was huge, it had 3 decks and one sun deck; it belonged to a German guy called Robert (more about Robert later). The boat played some mellow Caribbean music while we sailed and I enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere and the scenic views around the boat.
We stopped to snorkel at one point and some of the Spanish girls were diving off the boat into the water. There was also one old man with the young Europeans. He was in the water with his iPhone (??) taking videos.
After an hour of snorkelling, we had a buffet lunch, which ended with some delicious fresh fruit. Within a short time we were getting ready to disembark from the boat and head over to the pristine island a short distance away. Some people opted to swim to the island from the boat but I chose to jump on the little dinghy with the students who were playing music on their iPods and dancing in the dinghy.
Koh Rong Samloem is a small island and luckily, not very developed. There are no roads, no supermarkets, no hotels and no Internet. There is not even electricity, apart from the few hours in the evening when they start a generator.
The photos distort the colours somewhat but finally the search for the white sand and turquoise water was over. This beach was pretty close to the paradise I experienced in the Philippines. Exquisite does not even begin to describe this island. To say it in one word: Paradise!!
As part of the cruise, our tour guide took us jungle trekking in the small jungle on the island. He insisted that it wouldn’t be taxing and that there would be no deadly animals along the way but the Spanish girls seemed very apprehensive. Apparently this jungle was where the French version of Survivor was filmed. Interesting.
We waded through a swamp and went through a forest. The girls were shrieking every time they saw an ant so any chances of seeing even a monkey was destroyed. The boys were making gorilla noises to scare the girls even further. Haha 😀
We spent some time enjoying the loveliness of Sun Beach before heading back to the mainland.
The ride back was quite entertaining. Robert the bartender was pretty drunk by the time we all got back on the boat. He proceeded to give everyone free shots (while downing a few himself) and also initiated a competition where people had to drink beer through snorkeling equipment. It was quite amusing. After all the drinking, he put on some really loud Madonna and in no time all the Europeans were dirty dancing to “Like a virgin”. I spoke to one of the guys who turned out to be Italian (but studying in Madrid). They were a group of dental students who volunteered to stay in Cambodia for 3 weeks and fix the locals’ teeth for free. Awwww! The old guy who was with them was their supervisor. As he mentioned this to me, we caught sight of the ‘supervisor’ pole dancing. I love Europeans!
One of the advantages to being the a sober person is being able to put my feet up and enjoy the free entertainment!
When we got back to the mainland, I arranged to meet Havva & Nicole (my new Aussie friends) for dinner later.
It was a beautiful day which I ended off with the girls, stuffing ourselves with delicious food. If it wasn’t the delicious fruit shakes, shrimp tacos or the cheesecake, it was the delicious stir-fries and the Cambodian curries.
I was sad to say goodbye to the girls but the next day I was leaving for Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia).
Overall Verdict: I knew Cambodia had beaches, but I hadn’t really heard much about them or how beautiful and relaxing they were. My expectations were met and exceeded. Thank you CNNgo for sending me to Koh Rong Samloem… blissful!
Defining moment: On the overnight bus to Sihanoukville, just before the bus departed, all the passengers were settling in to their beds for the night. It was then that I looked at all the couples and friends traveling together and suddenly I realized: I am all alone in this crazy country aboard a bus that will drive through the night to deposit me into another strange place. Just me, myself and I. I think the fact that I was alone didn’t hit me until that point. Even though I was terrified and missed Faraaz terribly, I grit my teeth and got on with it. And you know what? Now I can say…” Overnight bus across Cambodia? Yeah I did that :)”