** Updated 2018 **
When Pol Pot’s regime was driven from power in 1977, the highway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville became notorious for banditry, and few dared to attempt the journey. In 1997, with peace and stability was achieved, backpackers began to arrive for the unspoiled beaches and chilled-out vibe. Incredibly, both elements still exist today, making it one of Asia’s most intriguing beach destinations.
Sihanoukville proper is a peninsula ringed by by a few grotty beaches and few few decent ones; offshore are a couple of island destinations with spectacular beaches and pumping party vibes.
Sihanoukville Travel Essentials
- Peak season: November-Feb. Cool and sunny.
- Hot season: March-July. Non-existent breeze, sweltering heat and largely deserted beaches.
- Rainy season: July-October. Lots of rain in typically short bursts.
Getting there from Phnom Penh: the ride to Sihanoukville takes around 4.5 hours by bus (slightly less via taxi or mini-bus) along National Route 4, one of Cambodia’s best roads.
- Bus: several companies offer service, with Capitol Tours and Sorya the most popular options ($5-$6 one-way, $3 to bring a bicycle along). Both run daily services with most runs departing between 7am until 2:30pm. Buses will drop you near Victory Hill outside of town – suffering a gouging by the tuk-tuk mafia is the only way onward to the beaches.
- Mini-bus: Giant Ibis is the main player, offering 17-seaters with (spotty) wifi and a TV playing English movies. Tickets cost $10 and includes pickup from your hotel. Mey Hong Transport is another solid option (less expats use it) that does not offer hotel pickup – you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk to their station on the outskirts of town.
- Taxi: private taxis charge $50-60 one-way, typically in newish sedans that generally go really fast.
- Shared taxi: the worst option crams 7 people into 5-seat sedans for $7-10 per person. In Phnom Penh this service is found at the southwest corner of the Central Market (most tuk-tuk drivers know it), while in Sihanoukville they depart from the old bus station.
From Siem Reap by Air: Ankor Air offers four flights weekly. One-way flights cost $150, round-trip double that. Flight time is around one hour, compared to 12-ish hours by bus. The small Sihanoukville Airport (IATA: KOS) is located 17km east of town. Shuttles from the airport into town costs $6 (you will get dropped off around the Serendipity Beach area) and the trip takes around 20 minutes. The other option is by taxi, which generally costs $20 but often gets jacked higher during peak season.
Getting around town
Sihanoukville has a notorious tuk-tuk mafia that charge $3-5 for most trips (non-negotiable) and are also notorious for selling drugs, reporting the sale to the cops and then slitting to profits of the bust. While drugs are easy to buy here, never buy from these guys!
The better option is to bring your own bike or else rent a bike or motor scooter in town (generally less than $5/ day, more in high season).
Getting to the islands
The two main islands worth traveling two are Ko Rong (backpacker-oriented party vibe) and Ko Rong Sanloem (no parties, better suited to couples and families); both offer spectacular white-sand beaches and clear waters, so the choice basicially depends on your preferred vibe.
There are dozens of ferry operators offering services – if you book a place to stay online, you will likely be forced to also buy a ferry ticket from a particular company).
If you prefer the DIY route, speed ferries (45 minutes) and slow boats (1.5 hours) depart from the main pier at Serendipity beach. The former costs $30 for open return tickets; the latter $20. Departures start at 8am and finish around 3pm – enquire at the ticket office.
There are no ATMs on the islands but plenty along the Serendipity strip. Make sure to stock up on enough cash before heading out.
A summary of the main areas in town that draw expats and tourists:
Located near Victory Beach and the Sihanoukville Port, Victory Hill was backpacker central until the late 1990s. Today, it has degenerated into a grotty dump of bars serving .50¢ to miserly sexpats living off of pension funds. The main drag is a seedy stretch of lady bars with a smattering of penny-pinching alcoholics and hordes of bored-looking bargirls.
On the positive side there are plenty of restaurants and guesthouses (with rooms as cheap as $5 per day), and the best beaches are easy to reach by tuk-tuk.
- Best suited for: sexpats on a budget.
- Room rates: around $25 for a private bungalow. Charlie Harper’s has $5 rooms and negotiable rates.
- Typical experience: wake up to a late lunch and then nurse beers until you pass out 12 hours later.
Once upon a time, this 1 kilometer-long stretch of sand featured a 500-meter stretch of BBQ huts and bars. This was once where the action was for expats, with tons of accommodation options of all ranges and plenty of bars that catered to young and old travelers.
Today, the area has largely been taken over by Chinese development – in place of beach bars, there are now KTVs and casinos – for Chinese patrons only.
There is no reason to stay here for longer than a meal, unless you find construction and Chinese hotel resorts appealing.
Otres Beach Beach
This area has so far escaped the clutches of Chinese re-development. At first glance it is a 3-kilometer stretch of sugar-white sand, clear waters and reasonably-priced bungalows. With a closer look you will see lots of trash in the water, few places to sit in the shade and a crazy muck pit serving as a main street.
There are plenty of thatched huts on the beach to rent, but it sounds more romantic than it is. Sleeping in these will allow a free flow of rats and insects through your room all night – not much different than sleeping naked on the beach.
Still, if you’re looking for some peaceful chill on the mainland, this is the best option.
- Best suited for: couples and families.
- Room rates: around $25 for a private bungalow.
- Typical experience: sunbathing, swimming and exploring, interspersed with long laps and leisurely meals.
If you are looking for a quality beach experience in Cambodia, there are two island paradises easily accessible from the mainland. Ko Rong is more suited to backpackers, Ko Rong Sanloem to families and couples.
Blessed with white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, Ko Rong (78 square kilometers) is known mainly for the party vibe on its main beach Ko Touch, which is dominated by an ugly cluster of cheap guesthouses dominated by young backpackers getting off their faces every night of the week.
Beyond that chaos, however, there are plenty of othwer beaches with sparse development and goregous bays teeming with marine life.
There are two main areas for tourists:
- Ko Touch: rampant bungalow construction serving the young backpacker crowd with music pumping late into the night. There are plenty of places to eat and drink, a few convenience stores, spotty wifi but no ATM machines.
- Soksan Village: served by regular slow boats from the mainland, this village is at the end of a lovely 7km stretch of white sand beaches. There are several bungalow operations to choose from, while the main village contains a small supermarket with some beachside pool tables the primary entertainment on offer. Be warned that since manny parts of this beach is deserted, thus breeding hordes of snadflies (one bite will sting like hell for weeks).
During low season, it is easy to stroll the beach of your choice and pick a place to stay, but impossible during peak times, where you must book ahead or not bother coming.
- Best suited for: young backpackers on a budget.
- Room rates: $5 dorm beds, $15 for a private room, $50 for a beach bungalow.
- Typical experience: wake up late, laze around the beach, start drinking late evening, party until 3am, repeat. Bring rolling papers and condoms.
Ko Rong Sanloem
40 minutes from the mainland by speedboat, this may be one of the best beach islands in all of Asia. Aside from the absolutely gorgeous white sand beaches and turquoise waters, development is very tasteful. Bungalow operations are spread reasonably far apart from each other, no vendors work the strip, and nightlife is limited to quiet meals and cocktails.
Prices for food and accommodation are high (average of USD$50/ night for a bungalow), but a few budget options exist as well (such as tent rentals for $5 nightly).
- Best suited for: families, children, couples.
- Room rates: minimum $50 for a private bungalow on the beach.
- Typical experience: beach bliss with gentle waters, no hawkers or music bars and exquisite dining options.
Because of its low-cost rooms and continual flow of tourists, Sihanoukville was once a prime place for foreigners to disappear into anonymity.
Similar to the Thai beach scene, a growing meth problem is taking hold in Sihanoukville – for desperate addicts, foreigners are considered plum targets. Unlike Thai beaches, police sweeps are not as aggressive or prevalent, but they are increasing.
Be warned that Sihanoukville is no longer a place to smoke weed openly. Spiked drink incidents are increasing. Tuk-tuk drivers will sell you drugs and then grass you up. Foreign con-artists lurk for opportunities from the shadows. Local gangsters pack guns.
Be aware of the following:
- Murders: Aussie man clubbed to death during a robbery in 2009; American woman murdered on Ko Rong island in 2013.
- Robberies: reports and warnings (link).
- Passport sweeps: long-term expats who have ditched their passports are getting rooted out.
- Drug busts: Russian turf wars have sparked the new police chief to take a hard line on foreign crime, and the number of foreigners getting nabbed is growing. Two examples from 2015: 33-year-old British national busted with meth and weed; 66-year-old British national pinched with 77 grams of meth.
On the mainland, if you are looking for trouble, grab a beer and get into the mix along Serendipity or Ochheuteal Beach. If you are short on time but desire good swimming and quiet, head to Otres.
On the islands, if you want to get laid and party hard, go to Ko Rong. If you want sugar sand and crystal water beach bliss, Ko Rong Sanloem is perfect.