Languidly reclining under a large beach umbrella at the Independence Hotel, a tanned well-rounded Russian puffs on a Cuban cigar, while his glamorous companion wears a bored expression as she gazes out to sea. With a long crescent shaped beach, clear blue sky, casuarinas and swaying coconut palms, this could be anywhere hot and exotic, except that we three are the only guests.
Could this really be Cambodia? In a country renowned for the temples of Angkor Wat, the Mekong river and the museums, temples and palaces found in the capital Phnom Penh, the lesser known coastal resort towns are an unexpected find for those travellers who take a trip off the beaten track.
Sihanoukville has stunning white sand beaches, budget guesthouses, rustic outdoor beachfront restaurants, a national park and diving excursions to nearby islands including the Bamboo and Monkey islands that are teeming with marine life. Given Cambodia’s recent history, the resurgence of Sihanoukville is remarkable.
In the early 1960s, a port was built and a town created, named after King Norodom Sihanouk. Then came the Vietnam War followed by the Khmer Rouge who murdered 1.7 million people, almost everyone in the country who possessed wealth or an education. Their holiday homes and resort hotels were abandoned and fell into ruin.
Also in the ‘60s the Independence Hotel was Sihanoukville’s premier resort, and many celebrities stayed here. Exuding a retro 007 James Bond ambience with the classic sounds of Frank Sinatra coming from the bar, and black and white photographs of Jackie Kennedy who stayed here in 1967, I felt myself taken back in time. It was low season and the mysterious Russian couple and I had the opulent, fully-restored hotel to ourselves.
After breakfast, being the only guest faced with choosing from a lavish buffet selection, I asked the Duty Manager if I could walk to all beaches in a day. “Yes, ok!” was his reply. Unconvinced that he had fully understood my question, I set off with a tourist map.
After several kilometres I neared a fishing village at the end of a peninsula. Young schoolgirls indicated I had come too far and practising their English, walked me back to the right path. Sokha Beach has a beautiful white sand beach, a spacious resort and a handful of guests.
Then past the famous Golden Lion roundabout, internet cafes, bars and massage parlours to the main beaches of Serendipity and Ochheuteal. Here you will find guesthouses with rooms from US$3 and beachfront restaurants with raised bamboo platforms where local families sit to enjoy BBQ seafood. The furthest, Otres Beach is the prettiest and least touristy, the guesthouses still more rustic.
I found the bucolic laidback charm that I had come in search of several hours away along the coast in Kep, where Phnom Penh’s elite established a retreat in the first half of the 20th century. They built modernist mansions many in the style of Le Corbusier, some now sympathetically restored and turned into luxury residences or boutique hotels.
Although the narrow beach in Kep fronts a retaining wall and is less spectacular than the beaches of Sihanoukville, the town has an appealing relaxed feel to it. For the days I spent here, I cycled from Kep Lodge, a delightful place with bungalows set in a lush tropical garden on a hillside, to the waterfront crab market and along the headland for a tasty vegetable curry at Brise De Kep restaurant and guesthouse. I took a boat ride to nearby Rabbit Island and after circumnavigating it, in the company of two young New Zealanders, spent several hours relaxing in a hammock until the fishing boat returned.
There are also waterfalls and pepper plantations to explore along a series of hiking trails. I took a trip to the dusty town of Kampot with its yellow and white French colonial buildings to Bokor Mountain, the site of an abandoned hill station built by the French in 1922 with the ruins of a Catholic Church, hotel and casino abandoned since 1972. It is an eerie haunting place surrounded by thick impenetrable fog where many Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge. A Chinese company is building a massive casino and turning the road leading up there into a highway.
If you can get beyond the bars, massage parlours, too many tuk tuk drivers in search of a fare and aging westerners with long white ponytails riding noisy motorbikes, Sihanoukville has a lot to offer, but for me, Kep is one of those special places that I think of often. Cambodia’s southern coast is well worth the detour.
Relaxed, rustic Cambodian retreats
Although the metros are touristy and predictable, Cambodia’s resort towns of Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep are a pleasant surprise