Feast on prawns, privacy, and priceless views on the Cambodian coast.
A sunset on a pristine beach overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, lit by flaring torches and accompanied by a guitar: This is what peace means in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, as the country rebuilds after years of strife. Named for King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, this seaside enclave was a favorite retreat for the Cambodian royal family in the 1960s. The Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror intervened, and a grim reputation followed the town in the 1990s.
Now, adventurous sun lovers are spurning crowded Thai island resorts for this tropical port town's white-sand beaches, just 184 km southwest of Phnom Penh. You may well end up echoing the thoughts of national Geographic writer and photographer Kris LeBoutiller, who describes his favorite local beaches as "deserted, lush, and ringed with sapphire blue water… and they seem to be mine." Choose a sunning spot among half a dozen beaches, edged with bungalows and bars for the backpacker set. At open-air cafes, cooks sizzle the catch of the day — which might be barracuda — and beach vendors hawk succulent barbecued prawns atop broad-brimmed straw hats. At the new town market, Psar Leu, counters glisten with vats of sea eel and urchins.
Fishing has been the livelihood of Sihanoukville for centuries. Commercial ships and, more recently, cruise liners line the town's busy docks. Charter fishing boats also anchor here. The dry season months of late November to May present the Gulf of Thailand's best season for sport-fishing. Though local commercial fishermen notoriously use dynamite and cyanide to harvest their catches, amateurs can rent reels and rods to hook snapper, barracuda, and even a few black marlins.
A day of fishing always includes communal feast featuring the group's catch. And often, your captain will invite you to jump in a sheltered bay for some leisurely snorkeling. Scuba divers find a handful of operators offering PADI certification and fun dives: more than 25 dive sites have been established off the Cambodian coasts, and the area's coral reefs are dotted with seahorses and nudibranchs —brilliantly colored toxic slugs that seem outfitted for an undersea carnival. Choose live-aboard options to venture on longer expeditions among the region's 61 islands. Return to Sihanoukville at sunset for its Full Moon Parties — raucous beachfront celebrations that include rock-and roll, fire shows, and cocktails for all.
Best of the Best
Ream National Park
While the shallow waters near Sihanoukville teem with marine life, the mangrove forests and lagoons of Ream National Park shelter reptiles, primates and dolphins. Plan a day or two to head 18km south of Sihanoukville and explore this coastline preserve, which includes two islands. Spend the night in simple, park-operated rooms with ocean breezes. Inside the 49,420-acre park, rangers guide wooden boats down the Prek Tuk Sap River to the fishing village of Thmor Thom. At the town's dolphin station, pink river dolphins and their seagoing cousins cruise the harbor, particularly at dawn. Among the park's most memorable beaches is Prek Chak, a 3.2 km crescent sand on which Robinson Crusoe would feel completely at home.
Fishing Fisherman's Den Sankeor offers daily fishing trips. For contact details, see www.sihanoukville-cambodia.com. Water sports and pleasure boat rides are also available.
Diving Visit www.divecambodia.com for information about diving excursions and certification classes.