Travellers often opt to stop here for a few days rest and relaxation after days of trekking in the Cambodian wilds or navigating the temples (and crowds!) of Angkor Wat. It’s an ideal place from which to explore the Mekong Delta and offers easy routes into Thailand and into Vietnam. Tour companies often like to make it a ‘must’ on their country itineraries but it is easy enough to create a stopover here by yourself.
In this edition of the Stopover Series, we head over to Sihanoukville, which is just short flight from capital Phnom Penh (as well as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh), or around three hours by car. Soaring visitor numbers means the town is facing some of the issues that come with unchecked growth, and for many it is best known as a party town. But for those willing to explore and get off the beaten track, it still offers some hidden gems and a glimpse of a simpler way of life.
Here mangrove rivers thread across the landscape feeding into the Gulf of Thailand, which means the ideal way to explore is actually by boat. Now whether this is by kayak, sailing on a catamaran, or on a cruise, it is completely up to you as there is something for all skills and ages.
Dolphin Beach Club has something for everyone from booze cruises (if you’re sans kiddos!) to island hopping trips. They can also arrange multi-day trips into the nearby national parks, though the ones in this region are not Cambodia’s most impressive.
You can rent kayaks from Nautica in Otres, which is a short drive from Sihanoukville. This means you can opt for a day along the river ways, or explore the nearby little islands just off the coast.
The guys at Otres Marina, at the imaginatively titled Otres Beach 2 (a short walk on from the main Otres Beach 1!) can also provide what you need for exploring the river, which is a lovely way to see the Cambodian countryside without getting coated in that pervasive red dust from the inescapable dirt tracks. Most hotels can also organise trips for you, and there are plenty of locals with long-boats on the beaches that will take you to nearby islands if you don’t feel like planning ahead.
For the best of Cambodia’s street food head to Phsar Leu market at the beach and sample an array of delights, often for less than a dollar. The Night Market is another good spot to pick up a tasty, inexpensive local-style dinner.
Ryoma on Serendipity Road specialises in Japanese cuisine. It’s rustic and inexpensive but offers a nice alternative if you feel like a change from the curries and traditional Khmer dishes.
Dao of Life serves up some of the best meals in the area. The menu is vegetarian, the bulk of the ingredients are locally sourced, and the portions are sizeable. There’s live music in the evenings, and art workshops are held on the roof which makes for perfect entertainment for the littles.
For something more upmarket, Sandan offers classic dishes from the country but with a contemporary twist such as the prawn ceviche, spiced up with chilli, peppers, and beans.
A favourite with expats in the region, Nyam, is also a good option. Serving up modern Khmer fare – order lots of small dishes to sample everything, most plates cost around $3 USD. Your kiddos will love this one!
If you don’t want to venture too far from your beach towel, fear not, there are plenty of beach side shacks and restaurants to choose from.
There is no shortage of places to stay in Sihanoukville and something for every budget. But one of the nicest spots in town is The White Beach Hotel just by Otres 2 Beach. Built just last year, its style is Ibiza glamour meets Cambodian chic. It’s worth paying a little more for rooms on the second floor as the ground floor ones open directly on to the pool, limiting privacy.
The hotel is a minute away from the beach and has an excellent cocktail bar. Staff are friendly, eager to assist and go the extra mile to make you comfortable. Food can be hit and miss, but there are plenty of options along the beach.
Their room price is expensive by Cambodian standards, and it’s around $10 by tuk tuk to Sihanoukville town, but most visitors who come here don’t feel the need to venture back much.
The Secret Garden, at the end of Otres main beach, is a real gem. The palm-fringed bar is perfectly located for sundowners. With a prime view of rolling waves crashing on to white sand, islands dotted in the distance, and cocktails at around $4, it’s very, very easy to spend a whole evening here. Particularly as there’s plenty of space for kids to run about on the sand. The connected restaurant is also excellent and if you really don’t want to leave.
Another must visit is Five Men Fresh Beer, a microbrewery beer hall. Loved by local families and travellers, you can have a coterie of Khmer dishes, and wash it all down with some freshly brewed ale, straight from the barrel.
Jump on a long boat and make an overnight visit to Koh Rong Island. It’s a chance to get back to basics, as electricity is only provided by generator in the evening, and many of the families live there much as they have done for decades.
Soft drinks, mobile phones and the occasional satellite dish the only real reminder of the outside world. There’s jungle to hike through, empty beaches, and plenty of snorkelling spots. In the dry season, the skies are so clear and free of light pollution, you can often see the Milky Way scattered across the night’s sky in all it’s glory. Your kids will love to see the water light up with iridescent plankton too!
For a truly unforgettable experience, make a visit to Song Saa Private Island just 40 minutes by speedboat off the mainland coast. Made up of two tiny islands, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, connected by a darling wood bridge, this place sets the bar high.
Song Saa is luxury travel but with a conscience. You can relax on empty beaches, have cocktails in artful over-the-sea bars and restaurants, sail or kayak the turquoise waters and you can also help some communities in great need. The exquisite villas are made with reclaimed and sustainable products, the food is sourced from nearby farms, and the staff are mainly from the local area. The owners work with local villages to provide a better life for all from bringing over doctors to setting up a school and a dedicated charitable foundation.
Visit for a night, but be warned you may end up staying much longer. Booking well in advance is advisable in peak season.
Relax! There are plenty of beaches and plenty of beach-side bars and massage stations. Serendipity and Independence Beach are the most easily accessible from the centre of Sihanoukville, but the Otres 1 and Otres 2 strips, though further out, are generally more peaceful but with plenty of dining and sleeping options.
The coastal waters are still relatively good for diving and there are some good reefs around, though over-fishing and illegal construction has caused problems. Dive Cambodia and Dive Shop Cambodia, are two of the more established firms and can arrange for overnight trips out into the waters off Koh Rong. There are options for snorkelers too, so it can be a nice family day out if you have older children.
The adventurous should spend the day with Sailsihanoukville. Where owner Micky can teach you to sail their Hobie catamarans in half a day, which means by the afternoon you can be off by yourselves navigating the coastal waters. Experienced sailors can just turn up, jump on a boat and explore all the treasures the Gulf of Thailand has to offer.
Stray Dog Adventures offers a completely different way to see the region. Head off on the dirt trails in true Cambodian style (on a motorbike!). There are options for all skill levels, but this is probably best for families with teenagers or for those that have the option of a babysitter in hotel. The tougher trails will take you across valleys and rivers, sand and jungle, definitely one for adrenaline junkies!