Sihanoukville beaches

From some articles I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that Ochheuteal Beach is the only beach in Sihanoukville. If not that, it’s touted as the most popular beach in town. I almost never go to Ochheuteal. I like to swim and I choose quieter beaches where I can enjoy a view of nature while I swim. Here’s a rundown on Sihanoukville beaches you might not have thought about.

I’ll start with this satellite view of Sihanoukville. It covers all the beaches in the area. Admittedly, it can take some time to reach some of them, but if you want to be surrounded by nature instead of restaurants, it can be worth taking the time to get to some of them.

Towards the bottom of the photo, you’ll see Ochheuteal and Otres. Look at the very bottom of the photo and you’ll see the outline of another beach. Well, it’s a narrow beach, but it’s there at the bottom right. It’s hidden because it’s not developed and there are trees on the beach. It’s a bit rocky on the ends of the beach, but you can still find hundreds of metres of beach to swim in.

I don’t go there often because it takes about an hour to get there. I usually don’t have time for day trips, so I go to beaches closer to my home. My two favourites are the free end of Sokha Beach and what I still call Victory Beach (because it’s below Victory Hill). My current favourite is Victory Beach because it’s often windy when I go swimming and Victory Beach is sheltered from the wind. When there are whitecaps at other beaches, the water is fairly calm there.

I also like to take the kids there because there is an inexpensive restaurant on the left side of the pier and the water is shallow for a good distance. I like to go swimming alone there, too, because once I get past the beach, there’s a rocky, undeveloped area and I can swim between the rocks and have a wonderful quiet little nook where I can imagine I’m on an unspoiled island. Here’s a photo of the beach as seen from the restaurant.

What you don’t see is what I see when I go swimming there. This satellite image shows the area past the beach. There’s a little unnamed beach on the other side of the headland that is usually empty. Then you come to Hawaii Beach, which is also relatively quiet.

This photo illustrates a point I want to make about Sihanoukville beaches. The beaches with the biggest names may not be the beaches you want to go to if you want to get away from the crowds or want to go to a beach that isn’t lined with restaurants. The Airport Disco used to dominate the right side of the pier at Victory Beach, but it wasn’t very successful and they tore it down. Now it’s a relatively quiet beach with a few palm trees to provide shade.

If you really want to get away from it all, you can go to the beach I mentioned above (the one at the bottom of the first satellite image). It will take a while to get there and you’ll need to take food and water with you, but you will be surrounded by nature. Arguably, it will feel more remote than some of the islands, which have been developed since fast boats became available.

Think outside the box when you’re in Sihanoukville. You can find Sihanoukville beaches that suit you better than others. You may have to search for your ideal beach, but it will be worth it.


Why I like living in Sihanoukville

Victory Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

I started this blog because I hadn’t read many positive blogs or articles about living in Sihanoukville. Most of them focused on the worse parts of the city and others made stuff up. That includes some mainstream publications. I read one article in the Sydney Morning Herald that said half-built hotels were “derelict” and wouldn’t be finished. If the writer returned to Sihanoukville, she would see they have all been completed.

I wanted to avoid making my site personal, so I’ve written little about why I like it here. It’s a blog, so I should be able to write what I want to. I have no idea why I made up that rule, so here’s . . .

Why I like living in Sihanoukville

I could focus on the negatives, but I chose to focus on the positive things about living here. Negatives include trash on the beaches. I don’t like it, but I can ignore it and focus on the warm water and beautiful views. Here’s a photo of one of my favourite swimming beaches. I still call it Victory Beach because it’s near Victory Hill, but I’m not sure it’s called that any more.

living in Sihanoukville: beautiful beachesI used to go to the other side of the pier, but now I go to this side. For one thing, they keep the beach clean on this side. Since they tore down the Airport on the other side of the pier, no one picks up the trash on the beach. This little restaurant serves coconut milk straight out of the coconut and other snacks. They also look after my stuff for me. I gave them my phone and wallet yesterday and the waitress didn’t steal any money. During the week, the only sound is the lapping of wavelets against the shore. On weekends, children play on the pier and you can hear them laughing as they jump off the pier and play on their rope swing.

When it’s not windy, I go swimming at Sokha Beach. When it’s windy, Victory Beach is sheltered from most of the wind. Yesterday, for example, there were whitecaps at Independence Beach and even more whitecaps at Sokha Beach. There were none at Victory Beach.

I love to swim. The water is always warm here and I can always find a place to swim. That’s one reason why I like living here. Another reason is that I am able to support a family on my freelance writing income here and indulge in daily cappuccinos and dinners out. If I lived in Australia, I’d only be able to support myself and would rarely if ever be able to indulge even in a cappuccino. Here I can have one or two cappuccinos every day and have my pick of restaurants. I can get a good meal and two small glasses of wine for $5.00 at one Cambodian restaurant. If I go upmarket, I can get a delicious Italian meal and a glass of wine for $7.50.

living in Sihanoukville: good restaurantsThese are my two current favourite restaurants. They’re both on the Hill, but they both serve delicious food. I usually go to Irina Franca because Raphael’s is more popular and I can’t sit outside. Irina is a wonderful Russian woman who serves home made Russian and Italian food. Both restaurants are reasonably priced. I’m not a big fan of the Hill, but the food is good and there is less traffic when I go in that direction.

Swimming and food are two reasons why I like living in Sihanoukville, but they’re not the only reasons. I was able to make freelance writing my career here because I could afford to. The first year was tough and I didn’t start making enough to indulge myself until about 2013. Now I’m making a reasonable living and freelance writing is the first job I’ve had I really enjoy. I’ve had others that were okay, but I love freelance writing. In Australia I could only do it sporadically. I made good money on articles for print publications, but never enough to make a career of it.

The reason I’ve written this article is because some people think I’d be better off in Australia. I disagree. I live comfortably here and have a Cambodian family. I get a lot of pleasure out of knowing I’m being of service to my family. In Australia I’d only be able to take care of myself. Living in Cambodia has made my life fuller than it would be in Australia. Australia was great, but times have changed. I like living in Sihanoukville for the reasons stated above and more. The city is growing fast and we’re talking about moving, but I don’t think I’ll leave Cambodia.It feels like home to me now.

The Road from Otres to Sihanoukville Airport

I’ve been wanting to take the new road from Otres to the Sihanoukville Airport for a while now. Today was the perfect day for it: no rain, a little overcast and windy. I was hesitant after a friend hit a rock and had a bad accident, but another friend told me it was smooth now. She was right.

road from otres beach sihanoukville to ream I told myself I wasn’t going to get distracted by new developments. It wasn’t easy, because I saw many as I rode my motorbike to Wat Otres, where the new road begins. I couldn’t help but take a picture of this mural on a wall just outside of Otres, though. I have no idea who did it, but it’s brilliant.

mural near Otres beach, sihanoukville cambodiaThe first thing I came across on the new road from Otres to the Sihanoukville Airport was this.

on road from otres to ream, sihanoukville cambodiaI was impressed but was more impressed when I came across this vista.

road from otres to battrang, sihanoukville cambodiaI took this photograph at a crossroads. I rode to the bottom, but turned around. I thought the other road would lead to a beach. I ran into a Cambodian man I know on my way back up the hill and he wanted to show me the 3 hectares of land he had bought, so I followed him to the bottom. He told me the road comes out at Route 4 in Battrang and was going to be paved next year. I’m glad I went today. I’ve been kicking myself for not taking photos of places before they’re developed. I didn’t see much of interest on his land, but after I turned around, I had to take a photograph of these cows. I suspect one day there will be a resort where this little shack is today.

road from otres to sihanoukville airportWhen I got back to the top of the hill, I went down the road I suspected led to a beach. I was right. It was a beautiful, unspoiled beach with only a couple of families having picnic lunches on the beach.

empty beach outside of sihanoukville cambodiaOther than that, it was completely empty. I loved it and plan on returning soon to enjoy a few hours on an empty beach swimming and relaxing in the sun.

empty beach between sihanoukville and ream, cambodiaIt reminded me of Maui, circa 1969. We used to go to Makeena Beach and swim nude. It was completely empty. A guy told me there’s a golf course there now. It’s getting harder to find empty beaches. No, I won’t swim nude (that was when I was a young hippie), but I’ll enjoy the natural, empty beach for as long as I can.

Two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville

My idea of a perfect weekend is going to a café with a good book and following it up with a swim. Everything cooperated with me the past two weekends, so I enjoyed two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville. I finally got my copy of Brian Gruber’s War: The Afterparty and the weather has been nice the past two weekends.

escape in sihanoukville

I go to Escape on Serendipity Road on weekends for my coffee. I go there for three reasons:

  1. The owner is nice
  2. The cappuccinos are good and come with brown sugar, which I prefer over white
  3. I can easily get to Sokha beach from there

Fortunately, the warning on my cigarette pack is in Khmer, so I don’t know whether I’m going to die from lung cancer or heart disease. One thing’s for sure: I am going to die one of these days, so it would be a little silly to stress about it prematurely. Better to get the most out of life while you’re alive than worry, I reckon. Besides, I read that smokers don’t succumb to Alzheimer’s disease as readily as non-smokers and I’m more afraid of that than I am of dying.

book and coffee in sihanoukville

I met Brian when he was in Sihanoukville and looked forward to reading his book. I could have bought a digital copy on Amazon, but I wanted a real book because I work online all week and enjoy taking a break from digital devices. Brian made a visa run to Phnom Penh and I was going to meet him there, but my pay was late and I couldn’t afford to make the trip. We arranged for a taxi to pick it up and I got it just in time for last weekend.

Brian crowdfunded his book, sneaking in the required amount half an hour before his deadline. Then he started traveling. He went to Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Serbia, Indochina, Afghanistan and Iraq during his travels. He interviewed a cross-section of people, including well-connected people, journalists and average people on the streets. The book is remarkably objective. Where another writer might have started a rant, he simply shares information.

It’s not boring information, though, and he gives you a sense of the places he visits and the people he meets. There were times I felt like I was sitting next to him during his interviews or walking with him through the streets of the cities he visited. I kind of wish the book had been a little more boring because I only managed to make it last two weekends. Despite my efforts to pace myself, I inhaled the book. Since Q&A closed, it’s been hard to find good books. Casablanca is kind of hit and miss and I haven’t been into Mr. Heinz in a long time. I keep meaning to since it moved to a quieter location and now serves coffee, but I’m yet to try it.

Sadly, I finished the book today. The final chapter made tingles go up my spine. Brian quotes from Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant speech in The Great Dictator. Click the link to listen to the whole thing. I’ll just quote a few lines:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human being are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery.

Sadly, War: The Afterparty proves that’s not always the case, but Brian’s travels revealed that most people do want to live in peace. I can’t recommend the book too highly. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read because Brian went to countries where America has intervened and found out what he needed to know from people who were affected by the interventions. He doesn’t cherry-pick his quotes, either. Some of the interviewees have different opinions than others.

sokha beach sihanoukville cambodia

So I closed the book, finished my second coffee and went to the beach. It was the perfect ending to another perfect weekend. I’ll go to Casablanca this evening. Hopefully I’ll find something to read, but I doubt it will be as good as the book I just finished.

Secret beaches of Sihanoukville

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I read another “authoritative” article about the noisy, congested beaches of Sihanoukville the other day. As usual, it was by someone who came here for a few days and spent all their time on Ochheuteal beach. Since they spent all of a few days in the one spot, they decided they were an authority on the subject of Sihanoukville. They mentioned Otres as an alternative, but didn’t give any details and an uninformed reader would surmise that Ochheuteal and Otres were the only two mainland beach options in Sihanoukville. As you can see, there are others.

white rabbit beach panorama

This panorama shot is a little deceiving. Straighten out the beach and the lounges and you get a more accurate picture. As you can see, the beach isn’t such a big secret, either, but it might as well be if you’re the type who believes what they read in mainstream blogs and publications.

white rabbit menu

After I wrote The Mellow Side of Ochheuteal Beach, a local complained that she wished I hadn’t published it. I assured her that most backpackers didn’t visit my site, so the secret was safe. Just to be on the safe side, I’m not going to reveal where this beach is. The photo should make it obvious, but finding the entrance to the beach isn’t so obvious. I’ll give you a hint, though. I took the photo a few days ago when the wind was blowing hard on other beaches in Sihanoukville. This one was sheltered from the prevailing wind. I hung out at White Rabbit and enjoyed lunch and coffee between swims and reading. The weather took a turn for the worse in the afternoon, but the couple of hours I spent at the beach made my weekend complete. I’d just spent a marathon week of work and needed a break.

This beach was just one of three I could have chosen to spend my time at. I chose this one because I wanted a Western meal. Just down the road is an even more secret (to Westerners) beach, but the food is all Khmer and there’s not as much sand on the beach. Just up the road is another beach that has a stretch of empty sand next to a couple of Khmer-run restaurants.

These three secret beaches of Sihanoukville are within five minutes ride on a motorbike from each other. If I had more time and took my own supplies, I could go out of town and find completely empty beaches or beaches that are frequented by a handful of Cambodians on picnics only.

The point of this little exercise is to demonstrate how limited mainstream sites are in their coverage of any destination. Fair enough, your first stop should probably be a more frequented part of any city, but if hanging out with backpackers isn’t your thing, avoid the places backpackers tell you to go to. Instead, take the side roads and see what you find. If nothing else, you’ll have an interesting day and you just might find a little patch of paradise hidden away between the tourist traps.

Christmas in Sihanoukville 2014

sailing off otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

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On Christmas day, Sophie and I were in Psar Leu fighting the crowds. “Go Otres now,” Sophie said out of the blue. “Justin come now.” I wasn’t expecting him for at least another hour, but I’ve learned to listen to her when she says something like that. She can be amazingly intuitive.

Sure enough, Justin and Annameeka were checking in at the beautiful new Sahaa Beach Resort when we rolled up on our motorbike. Because of Sopheak’s exquisite timing, we were able to have lunch with them before they went to their bungalow to recover from their long, overnight flight and drive from Phnom Penh.

sahaa beach resort, otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

Sahaa Beach Resort

That evening, Justin and Meeka took my advice and ate at Papa Pippo’s. They loved it and loved everything about Otres. When they came over to our house for lunch the next day, they told me how quiet and mellow it was and how friendly the people they met at the beach were.

lunch on 26 December 2014Over lunch, we made plans for the following day. I would come over at about 10 a.m. and we would go sailing. That and dinner at Maybe Later were the two things I wanted to do with him in Sihanoukville. Otherwise, I left it to him and Annameeka to decide what they wanted to do. Fortunately, sailing was on their agenda, too, so there was no conflict of interest.

The breeze was just starting to kick in when we got to the Nautica Sailing Club at Otres 2. I was as surprised by the new Nautica as they were. It’s been expanded since the last time I was there and is as much a bar/restaurant as a place to rent Hobie cats and kayaks now. After Justin and Meeka drank fresh coconut milk and I had a coffee, we headed out to sea with me at the helm.

sailing in sihanoukvilleI had big plans, but the wind died down, so after we got out to this little island, we turned around. Then the wind picked up again, so we turned around again. I made only a token effort to head towards another island, but my preference for speed won out over a desire for a change of scenery, so we pretty much just retraced our steps.

sailing off otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

After sailing, we walked a few steps up the beach to Elephant Garden for lunch. Everyone agreed it was delicious and there’s no mellower place to hang out than in their restaurant or on their beach lounges. Now you can stay at the Elephant Garden Resort just across the road. I’m sure it’s just as well-run as the restaurant.

That afternoon, Justin and Meeka rented a jet ski. The guy put it in sports mode, whatever that is, and Justin said they went from zero to 35kph (or was it mph?) in about 2 seconds. How Meeka managed to take this photo is beyond me.

justin-meeka jetskiBefore they moved on to the Serendipity Beach Resort, Justin and Meeka managed to squeeze in a night at the Otres Market, which they thoroughly enjoyed. Things turned a little south after they moved to Serendipity beach, though. We had a great dinner at Maybe Later, but they said they could hear music coming from the concert up the road and fireworks going off at the beach all that night and the next. New Year’s is a three-day event here in Sihanoukville.

The next day was a bit of a catastrophe. They couldn’t get an 8:00 a.m. boat to Koh Rong, so they settled for a 12 o’clock one instead. It hadn’t arrived by 1:00, though, so they asked for a refund. Going all that way just to have an hour or so didn’t seem worth it to them. They finally got the refund, but the worst was yet to come. Justin sent me a message, but I didn’t read it, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the car Sophie had for the day and take them out to Ream. They ended up going to the free end of Sokha. That night, we all met up at Olive & Olive and had a great meal, but the day could have been so much better.

On the 30th, I rode out to the airport to see them off. Afterwards, I continued on to Ream, where I found a great restaurant in a beautiful spot. Then I went on a motorbike ride up the beach. I had a relaxing time, but it would have been so much more fun with them.

beach in Ream, near Sihanoukville Cambodia

My private beach in Ream

I don’t want to get all cosmic on you, but if you ever get a chance to read my book (shooting for June 2015 completion), you’ll learn that my best guide in life is a goddess I call Serendipity. . Sophie had worked at a wedding the night before and drove some of her police friends home in one of the cars they used to get to the party. The Mitsubishi Pajero was hers for the day. She wanted Justin and Meeka to change their plans and take advantage of having the car. Had we done so, Meeka could have gone snorkelling at the empty beach in Ream we took Jan Cornall to and it would have been nicer than Koh Rong, which is kind of a zoo now that it’s so popular. We barang aren’t very good at spontaneous changes of plans, though, so Serendipity’s gift to us sat in the driveway all afternoon.

Actual photo of Serendipity and her sister Fortuna

Actual photo of Serendipity and her helper

All’s well that ends well. Justin and Meeka are now in Siem Reap and having a great time. They loved Sihanoukville, too, except for the hiccough in the end. Can’t say fate didn’t try to lend them a hand, though. When Serendipity speaks, it’s best to listen. She’s a lot better guide than Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor.

Sihanoukville a hot travel destination

Sophie at Sihanoukville Airport prior to flight to Siem Reap

When I came here in 2007, it was a big deal when a cruise ship came to town. Now we get 30 every year. A couple of weeks ago, Sophie got a nice job taking a family from one of them for a tour around Sihanoukville. They had a great time because she hand picked the sights. Others aren’t so lucky. They hop on a tour bus after trudging off the docks, take a spin around town and that’s about it.

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sihanoukville port entrance

Sihanoukville port entrance

If the Ministry of Tourism gets its way, all that is going to change. In an effort to make Sihanoukville a more attractive travel destination, they’re contemplating some major changes:

  • Reducing or eliminating visa charges for tourists arriving by sea or the airport
  • Building a shopping and dining area at the port
  • Allowing foreigners to own holiday properties in selected areas

I was stunned when I read this in an article in the ASEAN news site, TTR, Cambodia considers sea shore incentives. I knew cruise ships were not a big deal any more. There were three in port when Sophie picked up her customers. I didn’t know we got 30 a year with up to 1,800 passengers in each, though.

I knew the port was becoming more active. Awhile back, we decided to take an afternoon motorbike ride on the road that skirts the port. We hadn’t gone that route in years. The road was so clogged with trucks carrying containers, it took us about half an hour to negotiate what used to be an almost empty three or four minute stretch of road. I hadn’t thought about it from the tourist angle, though.

It’s semi-official: Sihanoukville is a hot travel destination

Tourists are coming here from all directions. Some expats are grumbling because international flights aren’t finding their way here, but I think it’s a good thing. As fast as it’s growing, Sihanoukville is having trouble keeping up with the influx of tourists. Three times in the past two weeks, we’ve had to look for a restaurant that had a table or a beach cafe that had spare lounges. We found them on the second try, but it was just one more sign that our little town is becoming a hot travel destination.

Don’t take my word for it, though. A recent article in the Nesara News Network, The new hot travel destinations you’ve never heard of! listed Trip Advisor’s Destinations on the Rise awards. I thought I might see Sihanoukville somewhere towards the bottom of the list, but it was Number 2 after Da Nang.

What’s the attraction? Come and see for yourself. There are plenty of beaches and islands to explore, but don’t leave Ream National Park off you list, either. And try some out of the way places that Trip Advisor doesn’t know about. No sense just following the crowd when you’re in the Kingdom of Wonder.



The Sun Shines in Sihanoukville!

The sun shines in Sihanoukville at last! It’s 3:00 on the third straight day of sunny weather. Normally, that wouldn’t be news, but June, July and the first week of August were some of the rainiest I can remember. I usually like the rainy season, but it was wearing thin after two months. For us here in Sihanoukville, it was just an inconvenience, but in flood-prone parts of Cambodia, things got serious.

Saturday started off overcast, but that didn’t stop people from going to the beach:

hawaii beachAs the day progressed, the skies cleared and people were out and about doing everything from fishing to feeding the monkeys on the road next to the Independence Hotel.

fishingAs you can see, the monkeys were out in force. Maybe it was because they hadn’t been able to sponge off passersby for so long or maybe it was because some silly person tossed their bananas into the road instead of on to the side of the road. I don’t know, but they weren’t moving, even for this big car.

monkeysOn Saturday night, we threw a big birthday bash for Kelly at Happy Burger. Way back when Luna had her first birthday party in 2008, I came up with the bright idea of inviting all the village children to birthday parties. Around a dozen attended then. I didn’t factor in the possibility that our village would grow. Nearly three dozen came to Kelly’s party. We commandeered the play area and tables upstairs and left such a mess, I think I’ll avoid Happy Burger for awhile until the staff forgets I was responsible.

party at happy burger, sihanoukvilleAs expected, the party didn’t go without incident, but fortunately, it was a minor one and the girl recovered quickly after her leg got trampled on on the trampoline.

Sunday was a glorious day. Sophie and I were able to escape and spend a few hours at Independence Beach to recover from the party. I went for four swims and got a sunburn in spite of the fact that we were sitting in the shade. Last night, we did something unprecedented and had dinner at Ochheuteal Beach. We went early, so it was actually quite pleasant and relaxing. Speaking of Ochheuteal, I should write something about the Sihanoukville party scene. I noticed today my blog doesn’t get a mention when I google that search term. On the other hand, maybe I won’t. It’s the one thing I don’t like about this town.

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I’ve been wanting to write something about village life in Sihanoukville, but need to take some photos to illustrate what I want to write about. It’s an important subject to me, because if you don’t understand that Sihanoukville is still divided up into about 30 little unofficial villages, you don’t understand the social dynamics of the city. What we lack in central governance, we make up for in the villages. I saw an example of this just the other night, when a couple of drunk men got into a fight. The villagers broke it up. No one went to jail and life went back to normal the next day.

It’s been awhile between posts. As my last blog suggests, I’ve been more interested in events in Gaza than in Sihanoukville and I wrote a flurry of posts on the subject on my new blog, Expat Journal. They were kind of a departure from my usual topics, but that’s why I dropped my old blog in the first place.  Just writing about freelance writing gets boring and repetitive. It’s been a slow crawl getting readers, but my latest post, How to Become a Journalist (a real journalist, that is) has been doing pretty well and a couple of my blogs about Gaza, especially Jews Against Zionism and Debunking Zionist Myths, have been doing well, too. Check it out if you get the chance.

My first days in Sihanoukville

far end of ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville, cambodia, 2006

I’ve been cleaning out my drawers in anticipation of the arrival of a new and much-needed desk and office chair. I’ve collected an astonishing amount of unneeded papers over the years and was tempted to simply turn the drawers over and dispose of everything. Luckily, I didn’t, because I stumbled across some real gems amongst the rubbish. One of them was a diary I started in Ho Chi Minh City in September of 2006 and totally forgot about. I’m not going to bore you with the whole thing, but do want to share my first days in Sihanoukville with you. The following is verbatim from my diary plus a few photos from those first few days:

I’m sitting in a thatched-roof, open-air café by the side of the road, sipping on an ice cold banana and coffee shake and watching the world pass ever so slowly by. It’s the low season: traffic is light. Aside from the occasional putt-putt of a motorbike, only the sound of a small generator at the construction site across the road reminds me that I’m still living in the petrol age. At the restaurant next door, a young man dressed incongruously in Western attire deftly shimmies up a palm tree. Two brown-skinned children, a boy and a girl, watch him in wonder. When the first coconut falls, the little boy excitedly runs over to retrieve it, but his father calls him back. I imagine he’s saying, “stay away or the next one may fall on your head.” The boy and his sister retreat to a safe distance and watch as one, two, three more coconuts fall. One splits open on impact and is shared amongst the onlookers. The rest are for sale.

ochheuteal beach, Sihanoukville 2006

My crépes arrive and I become absorbed i my morning meal. I marvel at the blueness of the sky and am grateful for the cool, gentle breeze. My reverie is broken by the squeaking of timber spoked wheels. A bullock-cart laden with earthenware jars and other goods is passing slowly by. Dammit! Where’s my camera? It’s just a passing thought. It would take a lot more than a messed up photo op to disturb my peace of mind on this perfect morning.

After a time, a minibus stops briefly in front of the café. The side door opens and a little girl, 8 or 10 years old I guess, in a blue-pleated skirt and crisply ironed white shirt steps off. The logo on her blouse tells me it’s her school uniform. The man sitting behind me, the proprietor with the gold grin (literally and metaphorically – he has gold caps on his front teeth) calls out cheerily and she runs to him. She hops on his knee and after a bit of lilting but incomprehensible conversation with her, the man begins to sing a song to her. He has an exquisite voice, soft and melodious. Tranquillity gives way to something deeper as I listen to this fatherly serenade.

far end of ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville, cambodia, 2006

Where am I? Just 20 metres behind me, warm tropical wavelets lap peacefully against a narrow strip of sand. After breakfast I’ll go for a leisurely swim. Tonight I’ll struggle with the biggest dilemma my trip has to offer: where to eat? Will it be local fare or maybe European, Australian, Indian or Mexican?

Where am I? What tropical paradise have I stumbled across, persuaded by the impending arrival of a hurricane to change my travel plans almost as soon as my plane touched down? This end of town is called Ochheuteal beach, but that’s all I’m going to tell you for now.

I ended up at this end of town simply because my driver suggested it. The Orchideé is the only guesthouse in town that has a swimming pool. I guess my age and/or the fact that I shave regularly marked me in his eyes as an upmarket tourist. The cost of the room – $10US per day for a double bed, hot water and satellite TV convinced me to stay.

It’s absurd. $10US is about $13.50 Australian dollars. The guesthouse can’t be more than five years old. It’s set out in a courtyard style, with lounges and umbrellas surrounding the pool. Huge wicker chairs in the restaurant invite you to stay and chat. If you think I’m talking about Bali, you’re wrong. But imagine Bali 30 years or so ago, before Jalan Pantai, the beach road, was lined with hotels and you’re getting close.

victory hill, sihanoukville cambodia 2006

And like Kuta Beach, hawkers sell their wares on the beach and a manicure or massage can be purchased for a song. But this is a white sand beach, unlike Kuta’s hot black volcanic sand. Food stalls and umbrella shaded lounges take up half the beach. The other half serves as a footpath, just wide enough for easy two-way traffic. Unlike Kuta, this beach on the edge of the Gulf of Thailand (No! I’m not in Thailand) has no waves. Just wavelets lapping serenely against the shore. You can walk out 20 metres before the water becomes chest deep. And instead of one well-sealed beach road, there are two, separated by just enough land for beach side development. Clearly those who decide where to build roads and why are expecting a tourist boom, but for now at least, there are wide empty spaces between guesthouses and hotels.

I don’t want to tell you where I am. If I do, it will probably scare you away.

Yesterday, I rode my rented motorbike outside of the city, just to see what was there. More of the same, really, minus the shops and the people. I stopped by the side of the road, went for a swim and dried off in the sun. About halfway back to my guesthouse, I got a flat tyre. After trudging along for awhile, I saw a dilapidated little shack with a little shingle on a tree. The words were in a foreign language, so I didn’t know what they meant, but the old tyres hanging on the tree around it told me what I needed to know. I was at the local equivalent of a Bob Green’s T Mart.

The guy had me by the proverbial balls. He could have asked me for any amount of money to fix my tyre and gotten it, but $3.50 and 15 minutes later, I was back on the road. I’m not sure I’d have gotten such friendly, honest and efficient service in an outback garage in Oz.

The diary entry goes on from there, but that’s all I want to share right now. What struck me about it was how impressed I was with Sihanoukville and how now, nearly 8 years later, I’m still impressed. I see the downside, but the good outweighs the bad by a long shot and although it’s grown, there are still spaces between hotels and you can find an empty stretch of beach to call your own if you want to.

Why I Love Sihanoukville

Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

They say Cambodia has only two seasons — wet and dry. That may be true, but there are also transition periods when it’s a little of each. The in-between season leading up to Khmer New Year is my least favourite. Hot and humid, there’s little respite from the heat day or night. I was riding my motorbike down the least appealing stretch of Ekareach Street on a particularly humid day last week when it struck me like a benign bolt of lightning: I don’t just like it here, I love Sihanoukville.

Hawaii Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

I spent most of the rest of the week wondering why. Yesterday, I got my answer. It started in the morning, when some friends invited us to Hawaii Beach for lunch. We usually go to a little place at the end of the beach. It will never make the Michelin guide with its flimsy chairs and plastic covered tables, but it beats the plastic atmosphere of far more upmarket restaurants by miles. Where else can you sit in the shade of a natural umbrella and watch squirrels play in the branches above your head or take 10 steps into balmy seas to go for a dip after lunch?

Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

How’s this for a setting?

Our friends didn’t speak much English, so I had plenty of time to daydream during the meal while they chatted with Sopheak. It occurred to me then that one reason I love it here is because I feel so comfortable with Cambodians. I used to try too hard to communicate with our friends, but now I just enjoy their company and they seem to enjoy mine.

I got pulled over by the police the other day for not having my lights on. Fair enough, but I didn’t have any money to pay the whopping $1 fine. No problem. I went on my way, got money out of the ATM, had breakfast and paid them on the way back home. “Accuun (thank you), Papa,” the policeman smiled as I rode away. Getting pulled over by the police in Sihanoukville is a far-cry from being pulled over in Australia or the U.S.

The sandy road fronting Hawaii beach leaves something to be desired, but that’s just one more thing I like about it: it’s sand, not hot asphalt and the surface forces everyone to drive slowly. As a bonus, the restaurants at the far end fill up more slowly than those closer to the entrance and the trees haven’t been chopped down to make way for parking areas. This is what it looks like:

Road to Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Sihanoukville: The International City

Other cities brag about their “international flavour,” but I’ve never been to a more truly international city than Sihanoukville. Last year, tourist numbers topped a million for the first time. Over half of them were Cambodian, but the other half was a nearly equal mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, European, Russian, Australian, American and just about every other country. We watched a Ukrainian belly dancer perform on Valentine’s Day and had dinner with an American and two delightful Siberian couples last week. A Crimean sat down and had a beer with us the other night. He didn’t speak much English, but we were able to communicate enough for me to learn that he was relieved that Crimea chose to become part of Russia rather than the Ukraine.

Having such an international mix of expats pays big bonuses when it comes to dining. Off the top of my head, I can think of several authentic Italian, French, Indian, Mexican (Southern California style), Greek, and Japanese restaurants and cafes in town, not to mention some great Khmer restaurants. Some of them have sprung up in just the past few years, since Sihanoukville has become more popular. I complain about its growth sometimes, but have to admit I do appreciate the wider variety of restaurants in town and the improved facilities.

All of the above is good, but it still didn’t quite tell me why I love it here.

I was supposed to go to my weekly writing workshop yesterday, but got a flat tyre on the way home from Hawaii beach and by the time I got it fixed it was too late, so I skipped it and went to Escape for a snack instead. I ran into a friend there who loves it here as much as I do. Somewhere along the line, I mentioned the Welcome post in my new blog, in which I wrote about the worker on the neighbouring property who cooked a dog that had been hit by a car. That would have shocked me seven years ago, but I am more shocked now by Western supermarkets, the sanitising of imperialistic wars by the media and the institutionalised corruption of wealthy governments, corporations and financial institutions.

Escape on Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville Cambodia

After my brief rant, my friend summed it up for me:

“It’s real here,” he said.

That hit the nail on the head. Cambodians are by and large real people. Like most real people, they are friendly, hospitable and unpretentious. Sure, there are exceptions, but even what’s bad about the country is right there on the surface rather than hidden behind the scenes.

There’s more to how I’ve come to love Sihanoukville and Cambodia than I can summarise in a short blog. That’s why I’m working on a book. Living here has been an ongoing learning and unlearning process. Hopefully I can share that process with readers in my book and give them a little unique insight into Cambodia and Cambodians. I had to shed a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to get to this point, but it’s been worth it. I feel more real now than I did before and as a consequence, feel more a part of the family of humanity than I ever felt when I saw the world through Western eyes.

In the meantime, my blog will have to do. Sorry I sound so harshly critical of Westerners sometimes. I don’t hate us as much as it might seem, but we do drive me nuts. Like other Westerners, I came here thinking I had something to offer Cambodia. Now I’ve learned that Cambodia has so much more to offer us. Once we learn that, then maybe we can share what’s good about our culture with them and stop trying to mould Cambodia (and other “Third World” countries) into our image.