Another Look at Sihanoukville, Cambodia

We take another look at Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Is it safe for travellers? How were the beaches? And did Ariadne ever eat any Khmer food?

We visited Sihanoukville during our 2012 SE Asia trip and to be honest, I hated it. The tuk tuk drivers were rude and agressive. The beaches were filthy with trash. My pregnancy complicated things, with the heat making me sick and even the smell of street food made me want to retch. I wasn’t planning to ever return but we needed visas for Vietnam and Sihanoukville was said to be the fastest place to get them.

Hat LekÔÇôKoh Kong border crossing 2014

Once again, we were travelling overland in a shared minivan from Koh Chang, Thailand. Cambodian border officials like to try to charge you in Thai baht so that they can pocket the difference in the exchange rate. We were well prepared for this and had 90 US dollars with us to pay the correct fee for 3 Cambodia visas ($30 USD each).

This time we also managed to keep a tight hold on our luggage so we would not have anyone from the bus company try to hold it hostage while trying to make extra money filling out forms for us. We almost avoided the phony $1 health check fee but some idiot from the shared minivan noticed us and made such a big fuss calling us over to the health check that we had to pay the fake fee. You don’t pay this fee at other Cambodia borders, they only check your temperature and give you a yellow slip of paper that nobody will ever ask to see.

We already knew to go to the last window to pick up our arrival card to fill out, so we avoided any little helpers wanting to fill it out for us (for a small fee). The last door is the immigration office. You give them your filled out card, passport, and $30 USD. They will try to tell you that the fee is only payable in Thai baht. This is a lie. Tell them that you already changed all your baht to dollars because the embassy website said it was $30 for a visa. They will eventually give up. This year they wanted 1600 baht, which is closer to $48. I told them that I had only paid $25 in 2012 and he told me “No, it is now $30”. He had trapped himself. I happily passed over $90 for 3 visas. He also tried to tell me that I did not have room in my passport for another visa but I thought that was part of his scam so I insisted that he put it one of the two empty pages. More on this later. Walk out the door and go back to the window where you picked up the arrival card. They will take your fingerprints and stamp your passport. Welcome to Cambodia!

Where to stay in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Since we only planned to stay in Sihanoukville long enough to get our visas for Vietnam, we weren’t too concerned about where were were going to stay. We chose Mick And Craig’s Restaurant and Guesthouse because it was closest to the landmark that I told the tuk tuk driver we were going to (Golden Lion Circle). Mick And Craig’s was okay. The rooms could be a little cleaner and the door lock needed to be fixed but the staff was friendly and helpful. There are lots of hotels and guesthouses on this road and you should be able to find something just by walking in and asking. Monkey Republic is very popular with younger backpackers. If you want a nice beach and less chaos, book something in advance on Otres Beach. I would personally stay away from the Victory Hill area. It is too far from the main beaches and the entire area is pretty seedy.

Families with young children may want to consider Sokha Beach Resort. It is much more expensive, but it has a private beach, swimming pool, and a small playground. Babysitting services are also available.

Serendipity Beach and Ochheuteal Beach

Fishing boats off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Fishing boats off of Serendipity Beach. Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

In 2012, we found Serendipity Beach too disgusting to even consider swimming. Trash was everywhere and raw sewage was discharged into the water from a pipe. This year, the beach looked much cleaner but I don’t know if the sewage disposal problem has changed. The jet skis zipping around people swimming was enough to make us not want to take a test swim.

The vendors and bracelet sellers were much less aggressive this time around and nobody cursed at us for turning them down. I don’t know if they realized that their aggressive techniques were not working or if it was because we had the baby with us this time. That has been the big change on this trip. Cambodians are so much more friendly when they see you have a baby with you. I felt much more welcomed and less threatened when everyone had a smile for the baby.

If you want a clean beach, every local will tell you that Otres Beach is the place to go. We did not have time to to visit this trip because I made a small mistake.

Remember when that border official told me that I didn’t have any more room in my passport for visas? I thought that was just part of his attempt to get more money out of me because clearly there were two pages left (one for Cambodia and one for Vietnam). I had planned to get more pages added once we got to Ho Chi Minh City. The night before going to the Vietnam Consulate, I looked at my passport. The last two pages, one now with a visa for Cambodia, were clearly marked “not for visas”. Those last pages are amendment pages, reserved by the US Department of State for amendments to the passport. Oops. We quickly changed our plans and decided to go to Phnom Penh so that I could get new pages added to my passport.

Where to eat in Sihanoukville

I swear that I am not a picky eater. I think that this blog sometimes makes me sound like I am because I am always talking about the things I didn’t eat. And of course, this time is no different. You see, we have a really good friend that was a chef at a restaurant in Sihanoukville for a year. He told us lots of kitchen stories from Sihanoukville that would be sure to put anyone off of eating. I won’t go into too many details, but there was one story about beef bones bought from a night market that had been sitting in a piss filled gutter. These were made into soup stock. That was enough to spoil my appetite. I asked him for some recommendations before we left which were not too helpful because that guy will eat anything. So where did we eat?

Slumdog Curry – Utopia Food Court, off of Serendipity Beach Road. I love you Slumdog Curry. You are cheap and delicious. I never want to know what your kitchen looks like because I want to keep believing that it is immaculate. Please keep serving yummy Indian food.

Maybe Later – Serendipity Beach Road. Our chef friend recommends the fish tacos. They were pretty good. Excellent salsa. Michael also loved the tacos which is a lot coming from him since he is not a fan of Tex Mex. Friendly staff. Also looks like a good place to have a few drinks.

Ernie’s Burgers – Mithona Street. Fantastic black bean burgers. Great service. The cheese fries were disappointing, very small amount of cheese.

Sandwich shop – Serendipity Beach Road, just down from Monkey Republic. I forgot the name of this place but it has the Dagwood comic character on the sign. Good sandwiches and pasta salads.

Roti cart – Serendipity Beach Road in the evenings. Thin crepes that can be filled with bananas and topped with chocolate sauce or Nutella. Tasty, very cheap and it is cooked right in front of you.

Breakfast – I have never had a good Western style breakfast in Cambodia. I think it has something to do with the amount of oil they use to cook the eggs instead of using butter. Mick and Craig’s had okay scambled eggs and toast but the coffee is terrible. Rice and pork is the traditional Cambodian breakfast and I don’t eat pork so I can’t give you a recommendation.

Plate of cheese covered french fries.
This is not an adequate amount of cheese!

Safety in Sihanoukville

Is Sihanoukville safe for travellers? That depends on what you mean by “safe”. In some ways, you are much safer than certain cities in the United States because you are not going to get killed in a drive by shooting. Can you run around drunk on the streets and beaches at night? No, it is not safe. Use caution. Don’t carry anything valuable with you or flash expensive jewelry or electronic devices. I don’t carry a handbag in Cambodia because there is a good chance that someone on a motorbike will try to snatch it from you and you could get seriously injured in the attempt. Don’t walk on the beaches alone at night (male or female).

Do you get loud and aggressive when you drink? Keep your mouth shut here and don’t start fights, especially with Khmer men. The authorities will always take the side of locals. Enjoy yourself, just don’t act like a drunken idiot.

Keep your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Hotel rooms do get robbed on occasion.

All that said, we had a great time and never felt any real threats. Next stop, Phnom Penh.

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