I have a special treat for you today – a guest post by my boyfriend Ian, who visited Sihanoukville, in south Cambodia during our sabbatical. Unfortunately I couldn’t join him so I asked him to share his view of the coastal city. Sihanoukville has a poor reputation, despite receiving 1.3 million tourists a year. Reports of high crime rates and drug use (compared to other Cambodian cities), along with excessive construction work and a surge in casinos being opened by Chinese investors means that the city often gets overlooked or dismissed by holiday-makers. I asked Ian to answer the all-important question: ‘Is it really as bad as they say?‘
Over to you, Ian!
I had to decide where I was going to head after leaving Siem Reap. Despite being in South East Asia for nearly 3 months, I realized I was still pretty pale, therefore the logical step would be to head down to Cambodia’s sunny, beach-laden southern coast. From there, I would work my way east towards Vietnam where I’d be reunited with Isie. From my brief research, it seemed Sihanoukville would be a good place to head first. People tend to use it as a stopover to the nearby paradise islands of Koh Rong and the smaller Koh Rong Sanloem, of which I was planning to visit. I had read some negative things about the town – such as it’s seedy and sleazy – but I like to make my own mind about things.
Having stocked up on snacks and enough water to survive a desert trek, I got on my 8.30pm night bus that I’d booked through Giant Ibis and got settled for my 10 hour journey.
12 hours later, I arrived.
Normally when one arrives somewhere by bus, it is common to be dropped off at some sort of station. Whether that be a large station used by numerous companies, or a small independent stop. However, it seems Sihanoukville is a bit of a non-conformist. Hobbling off the bus with all my luggage, I took my first step out into the city….*squelch*. Looking down, I realized that instead of the bus station I naively expected, our stop was in fact a large swamp of mud, rubbish and leaking pipes. In hindsight, this was probably the most apt welcome to the grimmest place I’ve ever been.
As far as the eye could see, there were dust clouds, piles of rubbish, huge construction vehicles plowing past, motorbike drivers wearing goggles and face masks, more piles of rubbish and torn-up flooded roads. Rather than a beach resort, it was more like a scene from Mad Max.
In addition to this array of sights, there was an abundance of casinos. Before arriving, I had heard from Cambodians that there has been a bit of a ‘’Chinese invasion’’ in recent years (their words), with them coming to Sihanoukville to let loose a bit and do certain things they wouldn’t get away with back home. There are also suggestions of links with the Chinese mafia, which would certainly explain the ludicrous number of casinos being built. If TV has taught me anything, it’s that the Mafia, casinos and construction go hand in hand. I had previously asked some Cambodians if they were happy with this situation. Perhaps there would be some positives, like more job opportunities for the locals. Sadly they didn’t seem convinced, suggesting the only beneficiaries were government officials and the casino owners.
So, first impressions…not good.
I only booked one night in town, so despite these first impressions I decided to explore. It was almost lunch time and there was a beach nearby, so I thought maybe that area would be nice. Walking along one of the many picturesque dirt tracks, carefully avoiding sewage puddles and cement trucks, I finally saw some food stalls emerge through the dust. I couldn’t quite tell what they were serving, but the dead cat with a caved-in head next to it was perhaps a clue. Possibly served with vermicelli noodles and sewage broth and eaten with one of the many plastic spoons the ground was festooned with. I didn’t think my delicate stomach could handle such delicacies so, like a coward, I retreated to my hostel, giving up on the city and to some extent the world.
I chose to stay at the Onderez Hostel as it had good reviews online, was centrally located and had a pool. I tend not to eat at hostels as they are usually overpriced and pretty average, but the food here was actually quite good and not as expensive as I was expecting. The Amok curry was tasty, fragrant and hopefully cat free. This dish was depressingly the highlight of my visit.
Once I’d eaten it seemed like a good idea to go and relax outside by the pool and collect my thoughts. This was unfortunately hindered by the drilling and falling rocks of what I assume was another casino springing up. That coupled with workers in opposing buildings yelling at each other made me return to my dorm. This would be where I would stay for the remainder of my short stay in Sihanoukville.
So, unless you are Chinese, love gambling or have other “interests”, I can’t say I would recommend visiting this town. Once upon a time it might have been a pleasant resort, and maybe one day it will be again, but for the foreseeable future it is probably best avoided unless you need somewhere to stay before heading off to Koh Rong. Unfortunately, I’d have to say it is as bad as they say. Possibly even worse.
Thanks Ian! Clearly he’s not a fan, but if you are going to Sihanoukville and are looking for recommendations, this website and this one might help. There will be more guest posts from Ian about other Cambodian destinations coming soon.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow