We’ve got stars directing our fate…
Tuesday 24 December 2013 - Tuesday 31 December 2013 30 °C
I’ve picked up an annoying habit whilst Cambodia so that every time I read or hear the word ‘Cambodia’ all I hear in my head is Robbie Williams singing it to the tune of ‘Millennium’ followed by the short burst of strings sampled from Matt Monroe’s ‘You only live twice’. And considering that Cambodia’s eponymous national beer is advertised on almost every street corner, this has become my soundtrack for the past few weeks.
The plan was always to spend Christmas day on a beach, so we headed to Cambodia’s prime beach resort town of Sihanoukville. The town, spread out over a hilly prominentary that juts into the Gulf of Thailand boasts seven different beaches. Often derided for being ‘brash and trash’, Sihanoukville certainly lacks charm in some places – see ‘Girlie-bar Street’ or JJ’s beach bar whose motto was ‘Let’s get f****d up!’ – but this does not represent the wide range of beach experiences on offer here.
We based ourselves near Sihanoukville’s more popular Serendipity and Ochhueteal beaches. This area is clearly undergoing a lot of large-scale development as there are new hotels, restaurants, bars and related infrastructure shooting up all over the place. The beach itself runs for several kilometres with the more northern ‘Serendipity’ end being the busiest, its wide yellow sands provide ample space for all the lounge chairs and umbrellas required by the predominantly western tourists. Here the beach bars start late and finish early, enticing you in with free shots, buckets of booze and the obligatory fire-dancer. There were also plenty of opportunities to buy handheld fireworks and Chinese lanterns if you felt the urge to join in the pyrotechnic mayhem.
As we walked further south the bars are replaced by local restaurants with numbers for names, which provide what can only be described as ‘total shade’ for Cambodian tourists. And then the development stops, leaving the beach to stretch almost deserted for another kilometre or so. We headed to the last bar on the beach… Cheryl had thoughtfully brought some Christmas hats and tinsel with her from the UK, so as we settled on our sunbeds Neil adorned them with some festive cheer. This clearly inspired our waiters and soon a fully decked Christmas tree appeared from somewhere and had been planted next to us. Christmas day in Cambodia was, for us, a slightly surreal experience!
We subsequently tried a different beach every day (all in the name of research of course) starting with what turned out to be one our favourites. Almost continuous with the southern end of Ochhueteal, Otres beach is divided into two by a large expanse of beachside cleared of all bars and shacks to make way for a massive resort. Sold to a developer “with connections to the government” the space has lain empty for two years, meaning that Otres still remains mercifully undeveloped. The thin strip of white sand plays host to a more relaxed set of bars and beach shacks where the beer is served cold and a bed for the night on the beach can go from a few dollars to a few hundred in one of the more ‘boutique’ shacks. This is where you can find professional beach bums (probably called Olly or Marrianne) tending their boats waist deep in the crystal waters looking every part ‘Sal’ from Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. The two ends of the same beach, called Otres 1 and Otres 2 respectively, all offered the same chilled out and relaxed feel where bar owners cared enough to learn your name and had no sense of urgency whatsoever.
Sokha beach, named after the beach resort that privately owns 80% of it, is arguably the prettiest of them all. A wide beach with freshly raked sand greets you; the added security provided by Sokha means this beach remains deserted of anyone except hotel guests. Part of the Sokimex group, Sokha beach resort and hotels are maligned for ‘owning Angkor Wat’, which is not strictly true, although they have become a political stick for the opposition to beat the government with. The Sokimex group does run the ticketing and security at the world’s largest religious site, symbol of national pride and international tourist draw but for just 15% of the ticket price. I bet that this seemed a great deal for the government when it was negotiated in 1999 but with annual visitor numbers now in excess of two million and a minimum entry price of $20 each, the fortunes have somewhat reversed.
Finally we headed for Independence beach with far fewer western tourists it was therefore much quieter in general. There were only a few sunbeds, very little in the way of hawkers offering bracelets or a massage, instead just lots of white sand. One end of the beach is used privately by the revamped 1960’s glory that is the Independence Hotel but this amounts to less than 100m which has a brackish pool running along the back of it. A few minutes walk from the small stretch of restaurants and you have the beach to yourself, where you can lie on the sand in the shade of a pine tree and feel like you’re on a deserted island, all without actually having to clamber on board a small wooden boat with a horde of other tourists who are all, ironically, seeking the same.
For those of you paying attention (and doing the maths) I should point out that we didn’t go to Victory Beach (the description that it ‘looked out over Sihanoukville port’ put us off) or Hawaii beach as it is the ‘bridge head for the new Techo Morakot Bridge’. They may be as lovely as the others we visited but I doubt that.