Exploring the towns and beaches around Sihanoukville
05.09.2011 - 05.09.2011 30 °C
Discussing our travels and exchanging ‘must-do’ travel advice with an Australian couple we met at breakfast it was late in the morning before we were ready to explore Sihanoukville. However, the monsoon that had been falling steadily all morning only just drawing to a close this was of no consequence.
Riding down the hill to Sihanoukville the tarmac road changed to a Cambodian version of cobble street for the last few hundred yards of our journey. Bouncing over large rocks we drove down the not terribly picturesque main street towards the beach. As expected the beach we alighted upon – Serendipity – was a mass of bars and sun loungers, each desperate for business in this quiet ‘off season’. Walking along the beach every bar felt the need to ask us if we wanted a drink and to sit down. Unlike in Siem Reap where the ‘massage gauntlet’, the street offering $1 massages, lasted only a few yards these requests lasted the entire length of the beach and some became a little irritating. Yet, that is how things are done in Cambodia!
Along with offering Cambodia’s premier beach holiday destination we were reminded as we looked our across the Gulf of Thailand, that it was Sihanoukville that also saw the last official battle of the United States army in the Vietnam War - known as the Mayagüez Incident. On May 12–15, 1975 US forces and the Khmer Rouge engaged in battle after the Khmer Rouge seized a container ship, bound for Thailand, in international waters, that Cambodia called their own.
At the end of the beach a slightly narrow strip of sand led to a much quieter beach – Ochheuteal. This beach visited predominately by Cambodians was much more relaxed. As such we were soon ensconced in a bar, with a cold beer, watching the waves crash up the golden sands. As the overcast skies began to clear and blue skies appeared a variety of holidaymakers began to enjoy the beach, taking to the waters and soaking up the suns now warm rays. Whilst not offering the same beauty of other areas of the Gulf of Thailand that we have explored in Thailand, such as Koh Tao, it is easy to understand the appeal of this tropical, cheap and laid back beaches.
Walking through the streets of the small town a myriad of guesthouses, bars and tour operators proffered their wares. A variety of bamboo stalls had t-shirts and beach dresses for sale but their appeared to be few interested tourists. Curiously, as we walked the streets brand new $100 bills littered the roads and sidewalk. Whilst most were obvious fakes some would briefly catch the eye as being genuine. Naturally, these were all copies - Temple money. This ‘money’ is burnt at the temple as a means of passing earthly wealth to those in the next life. Imitations of other worldly necessities can be burnt but money is perhaps the most common. Curiously a substantial amount was blowing around the streets of Sihanoukville, which continued to provide fleeting piques of excitement as we wondered around. Quiet as one expects of a beach town in the off season we were soon in a very large tuk-tuk heading for Victory Beach, an area that promised to be much less commercial than the immediate environs of Sihanoukville.
Duly delivering on its promise Victory Beach proved much more restful with fewer visitors and correspondingly fewer hawkers, than its more commercial neighbor. Whilst still attractive this beach borders the main reason for this areas existence – the Commercial Port of Sihanoukville.
Construction on the port began in June 1955 providing the only deep water port in Cambodia. Built in part due to the waning power of the French leading to the Vietnamese tightening their control over the Mekong Delta and hence restricting river access to Cambodia it removed Cambodia’s reliance on the goodwill of Vietnam and their need to transit through their territorial waters.
With time to spare a long walk through the small, ramshackle town of Victory Hill and along the only six lane highway we had seen in Cambodia took us back into downtown Sihanoukville.
Returning to our hotel, ahead of the monsoon rains, we were able to take in sunset from the picturesque hill top temple of Wat Leu. From there a vast panorama down onto the ramshackle towns of the Sihanoukville peninsula and out towards the Gulf could be taken in. A few Buddhist monks welcomed us with smiles and quiet hellos whilst a small, angry ‘temple’ dog made it very clear that women were a curious sight at this practicing monastery.
Returning to our hotel we arranged our island hopping tour for the following day, hopeful, that the monsoon rains would stay away.