Sihanoukville (Krong Preah Seihanu), formerly Kompong Som and familiarly just Snookyville or even Snooky is a seaside town featuring Cambodia's best-known beaches.
In a land with thousands of years of history, Sihanoukville is a colorful but tragic upstart. A mere fifty years ago, a French-Cambodian construction carved a camp out of the jungle and started building the first deep-sea port of a newly independent Cambodia. Named Sihanoukville in 1964 after the ruling prince of the kingdom, the booming port and its golden beaches soon drew Cambodia's jetsetting elite, spawning the first Angkor Beer brewery and the modernist seven-story Independence Hotel which, claim locals, even played host to Jacqueline Kennedy on her whirlwind tour of Cambodia in 1967.
Alas, the party came to an abrupt end in 1970 when Sihanouk was deposed in a coup and Cambodia descended into civil war. The town – renamed Kompong Som – soon fell on hard times: the victorious Khmer Rouge used the Independence Hotel for target practice and, when they made the mistake of hijacking an American container ship, the port was bombed by the U.S. Air Force. Even after Pol Pot's regime was driven from power, the bumpy highway to the capital was long notorious for banditry and the beaches stayed empty.
Peace returned in 1997 and in the ensuing ten years Sihanoukville has been busy picking up the pieces. First visited only by a few intrepid backpackers, guidebooks still talk of walls pockmarked by bullets, but any signs of war are hard to spot in today's Sihanoukville, whose new symbol seems to be the construction site. More and more Khmers and expats have settled down to run hotels, bars and restaurants, and the buzz of what the New York Times dubbed "Asia's next trendsetting beach" is starting to spread far and wide. After 30 years of housing only ghosts, the Independence Hotel is wrapped in scaffolding and scheduled to be rise from the ashes soon.
The small airport is located 17km to the east of town, on the edge of Ream National Park. Long closed to scheduled flights, domestic airline PMT started shuttle flights between Sihanoukville and Siem Reap around three times a week. By late 2007, larger airplanes like the Boeing 737 will be able to use the airport and international routes will be opened then, with Bangkok Airways reportedly planning to be among the first to fly in.
From Phnom Penh: National route 4 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia's best roads. There are regular bus services with Sorya and GST from Phnom Penh (Central Market) which takes about 4 hours at a cost of 15000 Riel, or $4 through a guesthouse. The first bus leaves at 7:15 AM, the last one at 2:30 PM, and the Snooky terminals for both companies are a few metres apart on Ekareach St. It's worth reserving the day before or at least a few hours in advance to be sure of a seat. Mekong Express also runs two buses a day for $6, as does Capitol Guesthouse.
From Koh Kong / Hat Lek (border crossing with Thailand): for the most part this road is unsealed and the condition depends on the weather and frequency/scale of maintenance. "Local" and "Tourist" minibuses service this route; they are always jam-packed, and the trip can be uncomfortable. "Local" service price depends on how much space you want (a whole seat, half a seat, or a space on the roof); foreigners can expect to pay around US$6-8. The journey involves four ferry crossings; the scenery is mixed, but does offer some moderately spectacular views at the Koh Kong end.
A chartered taxi from Phnom Penh's Central Market can do the trip in less than three hours and will cost anywhere from $25-40, depending on the gas price of the day and how beat up the vehicle is. You can reduce the price by sharing seats, but be warned that Khmers will squeeze in as many six people into the car, so most people will need to buy two seats for comfort.
From Koh Kong / Hat Lek (border crossing with Thailand): weather permitting, a daily fast ferry departs from Koh Kong for Sihanoukville at 08:00 and from Sihanoukville for Koh Kong at noon. The journey usually takes about 4-4.5 hours and stops once to pick up/drop off supplies at an outlying island; tickets for foreigners cost US$12 (or 500 baht). Minibuses and moto-taxis shuttle passengers from the ferry to the border crossing; a moto-taxi should cost 50 baht. On the Thai side, minibuses run to Trat (110 baht), direct to Laem Ngop (for ferries to Ko Chang), and direct to Bangkok. If taking the minibus to Trat, note that you will arrive at 18:00-19:00 by which time the only long haul bus services are to Bangkok. In some circumstances it's worth spending a night in Koh Kong or Trat.
There are no longer any passenger services on the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville railway line. It may be possible to hitch a ride with the freight train security guards - enquire locally for further information.
Distances between the beaches are a little too long to walk comfortably, but getting around is easy, as the roads are wide and bike taxis (motodop) are everywhere. The standard price is US$1 per trip, although expect to haggle at night or if the distance is long. They'll gladly pile on two people and their luggage too. For larger groups, car taxis can be called up by phone (flat US$5 to most places around town) and there are a few tuk-tuks lurking about too.
The reason to visit Sihanoukville is the beaches. Not as crowded as some of the Thai resorts, but they can be cramped on weekends and holidays. For diving go to one of the nearby islands. The town itself doesn't offer much to see. From north to south, the beaches are:
Other places of interest include:
There are several small shops in the town, plus a standard Cambodian market ('Psaa Leu'). Handicrafts organization Rajana has a branch above the Starfish Cafe.
Several ATM machines can now be found throughout town, including at the ANZ Bank branch on Ekareach St.
Along the beaches there are many food stalls and some restaurants, especially at Ochheuteal beach. There are a good many restaurants in town as well. Sihanoukville boasts a suprisingly diverse set of cuisines.
There are lots of bars all along Serendipity Beach, and they're pretty much all the same. Many have happy hours in the early evening, with draft beer for $1.00. Cocktails are usually $2-3.
Accommodation ranges from basic guest houses on the beach to four-star resorts. There's no shortage of guesthouses and pre-booking is only necessary at peak times such as at New Year.
Common on some beaches are "free accommodation" options, where budget traveller can get a very basic room for free and pay only for their meals.
There's only one game in town right now, but the competition should heat up in 2007 when the Independence Hotel and the as yet unnamed Malaysian-run golf resort open.
Medical services in Sihanoukville are very limited and basic. Medical service is offered by the International Peace Clinic (Ekareach Street) and the public hospital. In case of major trouble evacuation is necessary.
Sihanoukville area code is 034.
There are only a few Internet cafes within the town and some other at the beaches (one is behind the Crystal Hotel on Orcheuteal Beach). Charge is about US$2/hour and Internet-'phone services are also available. Some of the mid-range hotels also offer Internet services at higher prices. Coasters is the only Guest House on Serendipity Beach that has internet access. The connection is high speed, very reliable and good value for money, $1.25 an hour. International phone calls and Skype available also. Open to all from 7am until midnight.
The main Post Office is on Victory beach behind the Holiday Palace Casino, with another office opposite the market.
The Vietnamese consulate on Ekareach Street issues 30 day tourist visas on a same-day basis.