We're going to explore Cambodia, hop in! Photo: Patty Hogan
It’s 1961 and Cambodia is thriving. The rock and roll scene unmatched, foreign dignitaries flocking to see what the commotion is, your neighbors to the east are locked in conflict, but you have more than enough resources for yourself and it hasn’t hit home quite yet. For the most part, things are peaceful.
In a few years that all changes. Cambodia, now run by the communist Khmer Rouge, sees one of the bloodiest genocides in the history of the world. In just a few years, all that was once becomes the past and the streets of every town and city lay barren. Roughly one-third of the population has perished.
By 1979 it was over. The Khmer Rouge remained in power, give or take, for another twenty years, but Cambodia hops on the long road to recovery. Families that are left are reunited, the nation begins to heal, and the process continues until this day.
I recently took a trip to Cambodia to see what was going on down there. I had been before, and I must say that it’s a very slow recovery. I didn’t see many vast differences from my first excursion in 2011, but there were some noticeable changes. At the beginning of this decade I feel Cambodia was still in a search for national identity, and now I feel they’re focusing on the little things, such as keeping tidy and refurbishing landmarks.
A nation rebuilding. Photo: Patty Hogan
One such landmark is the beach at Sihanoukville, named for King Norodom Sihanouk. This is where the history lesson ends and I actually get into the fun part. Along with the general upkeep of the place Cambodia has allowed itself to develop its own unique brand of beach culture on its one beach and the islands that surround it. Surfing, sailing, and yes, diving are all now a huge part of the reason that people head down to the affectionately nicknamed “Snookyville.”
Personally, I loathe the nickname, but I’ll let them have it. Here’s what I’d do with a day in Snooky.
The Night Before
Check in to Sakal Guesthouse.
Sakal offers pretty much everything you need. Photo: Sakal Guesthouse
Sakal is incredible. The customer service was unmatched by anywhere else I had ever stayed in Cambodia. Friendly staff, cheap laundry service, two blocks from the beach, and family friendly. Not many places in Cambodia are going to be this nice. While they’re improving, there’s still a bit of seediness about, and you’ll feel safe at Sakal. It has a 24 hour restaurant and bar serving everything from Cicilian pizza to local specialties such as beef lok lak and fish amok.
Oh, and it costs about fifteen American dollars a night to stay there. There’s no reason not to.
The Wake Up
After you wake up at Sakal and get breakfast a mere thirty feet from the door of your private, air conditioned room with a private bath that you’ve only spent fifteen dollars to sleep in, head down to the beach and catch a boat over to one of the islands.
Make some new friends. Photo: Scuba Nation Cambodia
If you’re not feeling too adventurous, Scuba Nation Cambodia can arrange that for you. Offering several types of dive, go out and spot rays, seahorses, and much more of the wildlife that Cambodia has to offer. If you have a newbie on board, their certification, which involves sleeping, four dives, snorkeling, boat times, and good times will only run them $445.
With a good combination of foreign visitors and Cambodian locals, as well as low prices, the dive scene here is evolving quite well alongside the beach scene.
The Come Down
So it’s the afternoon, you’re exhausted and you’ve probably worked up quite an appetite. All of the seafood on the beach can wait, you need to be full now.
You're going to be full, and you're going to need a nap. Photo: Patty Hogan
This is where you let Harry into your life. Harry’s Bar and Restaurant, run by the eponymous German, will dish out one of the best schnitzels this side of Europe. They come in regular and giant, and you can get it on a bun, almost making it like an Iowa style pork tenderloin sandwich.
After lunch, you’ll probably need a nap. That's not an author's cop-out, I went straight back to bed.
Fine dining on the beach. Photo: Yasmine Restaurant and Cafe
There’s one main road to the beach in Sihanoukville, and it’s lined with restaurants, so the options are plentiful. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for.
If Cambodian food is to your liking, as it is mine, you’re in luck. Walk down the road to the beach and make a left. There are literally about ten restaurants specializing in seafood along the beach with both indoor seating and tables right out in the sand, catch a sunset and go wild.
If you’re not in the mood for local fare, head to Yasmine Restaurant and Cafe for some Turkish delights. My wife and I took in the lamb pita, falafel, and kebab along with our local draft beers right on the water. It was lovely.
After the Meal
Sihanoukville lights up with life after dark. Shortly after sundown you can make your way to the beach for the fire show. I was convinced for a long time that I wasn’t into firedancing, but I realized that I’m just not into backpackers firedancing. The local boys of Sihanoukville put on a hell of a show with their spinning, dancing, acrobatic act that left the beach smelling of kerosene well afterward. It wasn’t the most environmentally friendly thing, but the two dollar cocktails will get your mind off of that. For the grand finale, they spin literal fireworks. It’s one of the more astounding performances I’ve ever seen for free.
When the firedance gets real. Photo: Todd Allen Williams
When the beach time is over and you’re tired of eight year olds up at midnight trying to sell you bracelets, shirts, sky lanterns, and whatever else it is, the night doesn’t have to end. Several of the bars, clubs, and pools along Serendipity Beach Road are open twenty-four hours.
But, if that’s not your scene, go to the secret side of Serendipity Beach. This is what we chose to do to unwind. Normally tourists make that instant left at the beach to the restaurants, fire shows, and glitz. If you make a right at the beach, just past Yasmine, there are several nice bars with dollar beers and sand seating where it appears that they’ve paid the touts to stay away. Nobody will bother you. We chose one with a pool table that was lightly playing Radiohead in the background to unwind and get a bit tipsy before grabbing a second meal and heading back up the hill to Sakal, where my third meal was a two in the morning pizza.
Cambodian street food. Don't be shy, give it a try. Photo: Patty Hogan
Cambodia isn’t a place many would think of when planning a beach holiday. In fact, I didn’t know much about Sihanoukville until a few years ago when I lived in Seoul and my local convenience store owner was from there. She recommended it, and now I do. With tourist dollars and fresh smiles Cambodia is still clawing its way out of the mess it created. People from all around the country are noticing the new pearl that is their beach town, and with a bit of elbow grease and tough love it’s going to be the spot to go in a few years. Make sure not to miss it when passing through Southeast Asia.
Oh, and hey, keep an eye out for good pizza. Stay happy, friends.
- Cheers from Cambodia, Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor