Languidly reclining under a beach umbrella at the Sokha Beach Resort after a dip in the sea, a lithe woman in a bikini on the beach chair next to me sits up and decides to write postcards. Like Dorothy waking up in Oz, she looks around to get her bearings. There are no signs, no landmarks, just a glimmering ocean, an empty white-sand beach and the clear blue sky. This could be Thailand or Bali. In fact, it could be anywhere hot, exotic.
The woman turns to her friend. “Where are we?” she asks, in French. Her friend isn't sure, either, and slowly stirs for some reminder in her beach bag. She finds the hotel key card and squints to read it. “Sihanoukville,” the friend says.
“S-i-h-a-n-o-u-k,” she spells out, “ville.”
Could this really be Cambodia? A peaceful, palm-fringed beach resort far removed from the challenging magnificence (and tourist crush) of Angkor Wat and the palaces and war memorials of the capital, Phnom Penh? Indeed, the country's idyllic southern coast comes as something of a surprise to the travelers who have lately started arriving here — not to mention those, like me, who remember what it was like in the not-so-distant past.
When I last sat on this same beach 15 years ago, on a break from my work as a correspondent in Phnom Penh, it was a deserted sandy stretch backed by a crumbling stone retaining wall. I remember swimming here at night with a friend in waters aglow with bioluminescent plankton. A pocked road unmaintained for decades extended between the long-needled weeping pines leaning over the beach and a line of tall gum trees. The trees are still here, but the road now diverts inland. On the Sokha's manicured lawns I can trace in the grass where it used to be, the gum trees now shading a brick walkway and a playground. Updated and renewed, yet still unspoiled.
As peace and a measure of prosperity have come to Cambodia, the government has identified the southern coast as a key to diversifying tourism — which for years has almost entirely been focused on Angkor — and travel agents have begun suggesting a few days on the beach as part of their Cambodia packages. The highway from the capital, three and a half hours away by car, has been paved with American aid money and is now safe and easy to navigate, even at night. (When I used to drive it, soldiers with AK-47s would step out onto the road to stop the cars, already slowed to a crawl by craters and washed-away pavement, to demand money and cigarettes. It was an all-day, occasionally scary affair.)
Occupancy at the Sokha resort is nearly twice what it was last year, its general manager, Pierre Bernard, says, and scouts from Four Seasons have reportedly come looking for a beach to develop. The old Independence Hotel, Sihanoukville's premier resort in the 1960s, recently completed its own makeover and now rivals the Sokha as the town's most luxurious beachfront digs. “This place is going nuts. It's really booming,” Fred Tittle, the founder of EcoSea Dive, told me one night over a dinner of fresh steamed grouper at the seaside restaurant Treasure Island. “Thailand, everybody's been there and done that,” he said. “There's no buzz about it anymore. Here people can go back home and say, ‘Yeah, southern Cambodia. I've been there. It's cool.' ”
Given Cambodia's modern history, Sihanoukville's resurgence is remarkable. In the 1960s, the government decided to develop the half-dozen gorgeous white-sand beaches that surrounded the port of Kompong Som, which was renamed Sihanoukville after Norodom Sihanouk, the prince at the time. The wealthy built houses along the sea, and magnificent hotels went up. Then came the Vietnam War — its last battle was fought off Sihanoukville on the island of Koh Tang, in 1975 — and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which murdered most of the coast's elite along with almost everyone in the country with an education: 1.7 million in all. The Khmer Rouge renamed Sihanoukville Kompong Som once again, and it soon fell into ruin.
The faded remains of war and genocide are still evident. Bullet-pocked facades of once-grand houses surrounded by frail iron fences are scattered among the new hotels and guesthouses; some of these are being renovated and restored. But on diving trips to Koh Tang and the other gulf islands with hidden coves and untouched first-growth forests, there's no sign of battle. The water is calm and clear and teeming with life, and you have only small fishing boats to compete with in the open water. At least for now: the government has begun opening these 61 coastal islands to development, much to the chagrin of environmentalists.
One is already being razed to make way for a big Russian-financed hotel.
For the moment, despite the two luxe resorts, most of Sihanoukville's foreign visitors are backpackers who stay in $20-a-night guesthouses and hang out at beachfront seafood shacks where the grilled squid on skewers is fresh and beers cost 50 cents. At night they head to the popular open-air club Utopia, to drink beer, smoke ganja and sway to house music. Just after midnight, a 25-year-old Bostonian, Bing Lyons, who had logged a number of consecutive nights at Utopia, shouted above the music to me. “The life here is so awesome I don't know whether I'm going to go crazy from it or be better from it,” he said. “The weather is really warm, the sand is really soft, the people are really great, it's amazing. It's one big party. You know, Thailand, like, 10 years ago?”
Cambodia, like, 80 years ago is just a couple of hours' drive along the coast in Kep, where the French colonialists established a beach retreat during their rule here in the first half of the 20th century. They built mansions on the hillsides to catch the gulf breezes, and as in Sihanoukville, the villas' skeletal remains and shot-up facades are an eerie reminder of the past. Those houses are now being turned into luxury residences and hotels, and new compounds like the colonial La Villa de Monsieur Thomas and the modernist Knai Bang Chatt demonstrate what the future of high-end tourism on the Cambodian coast might look like.
Although the beach in Kep is less spectacular than those around Sihanoukville, the town has a particularly appealing, slow-paced charm. There's not a lot to do but relax, go down to the waterfront to eat the famed local crab (grown exceptionally tasty by their life spans in the nearby mangrove swamps) and explore the abandoned old villa of Sihanouk, on a promontory overlooking the town, which has been left to mischievous monkeys.
From Kep you can also take a day trip slightly inland to the town of Kampot — with its own yellow-and-white French colonial buildings and riverside cafes — and the Bokor Hill Station. Built by the French in 1922 at 3,200 feet, Bokor has a Catholic church, a casino, a school and other buildings, all completely abandoned since 1972. Rangers from a small station patrol the area, which is a national park, trying to keep ahead of poachers chasing the mountain's tigers, deer and other unique wildlife, including 230 species of birds. (The last tiger was spotted in 2004.) “Keep quiet,” urges a sign at the park's entrance, “and you will hear the sound of a beautiful bird chorus, flurries of a colorful wing.” There's talk of restoring the casino or creating an eco-tourism refuge here, but for now, the pitted and long, unpaved road keeps it mostly unexplored.
Of course, development will come to Bokor eventually, and all along the coast. Sihanoukville's airport runway is currently being extended 1,300 feet to accommodate jets, and there are plans for a further extension to allow international jumbos. A few more beachfront luxury hotels are on the drawing board, and leases for five of the offshore islands have already been signed. There's even the possibility of a major oil find in the Gulf, which could take things in an entirely different direction. “They have big plans for 10 years down the road,” Pierre Bernard of the Sokha told me, speaking of the Cambodian government's ideas for the coast. “I hope we are going to develop it in a decent manner. If we have the possibility to do it right from the beginning, we should do it.”
Getting There And Around:
From Phnom Penh, it's roughly three and a half hours to the southern coast. You can pick up a bus in the capital at the central market (about $4 each way) or have your hotel hire you a private taxi ($40 to $55). To venture around on the coast, your resort can arrange a motorbike rental ($5 a day) or you can engage a taxi; avoid the moto-taxis, which tend to fleece tourists.
Independence Hotel The top beachfront choice in Sihanoukville in the 1960s has been given a stylish redo. 011-855-34-943-300; www.independencehotel.net; doubles from $110. Sokha Beach Resort Sihanoukville's high-end standard-bearer, on a lovely stretch of beach. 011-855-34-935-999; www.sokhahotels.com; doubles from $200. The Beach House Small guesthouse overlooking Kep beach. 011-855-12-240-090; www.thebeachhousekep.com; doubles from $30. Knai Bang Chatt Three luxe modernist villas, on Kep beach. 011-855-12-879-486; www.knaibangchatt.com; doubles from $350. La Villa de Monsieur Thomas Restored colonial villa with bungalows in Kep. 011-855-12-170-2648; doubles from $30. Veranda Natural Resort Sixteen bungalows on the hillside overlooking Kep. 011-855-12-888-619; www.veranda-resort.com; doubles from $20.
Sihanoukville has restaurants for every taste; among the best is the seafood place Treasure Island (Koh Pos Beach; 011-855-12-755-335; entrees $6 to $8). In Kep, don't miss the Crab Market by the water, for fresh seafood cooked on the spot for a dollar or two.