Otres beach

The One Reason Sihanoukville Doesn’t Suck

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Since writing this post in 2012, Sihanoukville (including, sadly, Otres Beach) has seen massive tourism development. Hundreds of casinos and hotels have been built, locals have been priced out of everything from accommodation to food, and whatever charms the nearby beaches once held have disappeared under a sea of concrete and plastic waste. I’m leaving this post on the site as a historical record, but please don’t rely on it for planning your own trip!

When people talk about Cambodia’s beaches, they seem to use words like undiscovered and untouched. Visions of white sand and gently swaying palm trees spring to mind.  A cheaper, quieter alternative to Thailand, perhaps.

And, well, then you turn up in Sihanoukville.

If you’re particularly unlucky, you’ll be on a bus from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap that arrives at the main station. About 10 minutes out of town, it’s home to the worst tuk-tuk mafia in the country. You can negotiate until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll likely pay the going rate regardless … and then once you arrive somewhere near Serendipity beach, wonder why you even bothered.

This, the western end of Ochheuteal beach, is less than lovely. Child beggars, backpackers and sexpats vie for space on the narrow strip of dirty sand, picking their way between the discarded needles and styrofoam. Optimistically-named beach bars lie every few feet, bored staff promising (warm) beer for fifty cents.

Sihanoukville street

A street or two back from the water lies a motley selection of guesthouses and hostels. Hung-over teenagers subdue their headaches with a whiskey bucket for breakfast, victims of another all-night party. Moto drivers offer rides to the few people that might want to go somewhere, and bags of weed to the rest.

Unless that’s your thing, there’s not much to redeem Sihanoukvlle really … until you go to Otres.

It’s only a few kilometres, although of course every tuk-tuk driver will tell you that it is, in fact, a ‘long way’. Backpackers quickly give way to cows along the potholed route. A dirt road runs along the beach, with a few dozen guesthouses offering basic bungalows.

You’re unlikely to get much more than a fan and cold water shower, unless you opt for the high-end places at the far end of the beach. Everything is more costly than back in town, food options are limited, and there really isn’t that much to do.

Have I put you off yet?

I kind of hope so. You see, like many of the best parts of Cambodia, Otres beach is under threat from commercial development. Many of the guesthouses and restaurants beside the sand were bulldozed a few years ago in preparation for a resort that may one day get built, and the rest recently barely managed a stay of execution.

As a result, it’s often hard to get a room here at all.  Rainy season has just finished, yet I’m already hearing reports that, some days, ‘the beach is full’.

Otres beach bungalows

We turned up at Otres based solely on the Travelfish write-up. Apprehensive about the “charms” of Sihanoukville, the plan was to only stay for a couple of days before moving on. A week and a half later, we grudgingly checked out of Papa Pippo’s.

There is a vibe on Otres that you don’t find on Serendipity. A pride, perhaps. The guesthouses clean up their little piece of beach each morning. Other than right at the end, there is barely a flip-flop or plastic bag to be seen. While some of the bars play decent dance music, laid-back jazz and Bob Marley dominate. Either way, everything other than the local dogs is quiet by midnight.

Whether that remains the case in high season, I don’t know – but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The days had settled into a deliciously lazy routine.  Wake up, open the door, walk ten metres into the flat ocean. Eat breakfast, work for a while, walk ten metres into the flat ocean. Have lunch, lie on the sun loungers with a book … and walk ten metres into the flat ocean.

Add a few beers as the sun goes down. Rinse and repeat.

Sunset on Otres beach

For us, Otres was perfect. Beautiful beach. Warm, clear water. Just enough going on to not go stir-crazy, but small enough not to attract hordes of wasted backpackers. There were a few kids selling fruit or bracelets on the beach, but they were more interested in chatting than making a sale.

The power works most of the time, and even the internet is surprisingly fast. If there’s a better place to stop and chill out for a while, I’m struggling to think of it right now.

Get there before the builders do.

Sihanoukville town image via ND Strupler

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  1. Hurrah for a real piece about Sihanoukville’s “charms”. Read enough rubbish about how “cool” the whole place is.

    Unfortunately i didn’t get to Otres Beach, looks like I missed out on a gem. But the rest of the place? I couldn’t have put it any better, a soul depressing place to stay and I was glad to get to Kampot.

    1. Yeah there’s not much that’s cool about Sihanoukville town in my opinion. Each to their own and all that, but it just seemed like a fairly generic SE Asian coastal backpacker dive to me. Otres, on the other hand, is not (and neither is Kampot!).

  2. Thank Dav for this trip sharing. I am not sure if it’s your first time in Cambodia. I hope you enjoy your stay here.

    I wanted to go there last weekend but unfortunately we were still at work.

    Thank for the recommendation, I will do a post about the PAPA PIPPO soon,

    1. It’s my second trip to Cambodia, but first to the coast. It won’t be my last – visa runs out in a couple of days, and I’m already making plans to return…

  3. We just spent over a month there and felt the exact same way. We couldn’t even go to the beach at Serendipity because we were harassed so much and the water was filthy!

    For some amazing Central American beaches try the Corn Islands in Nicaragua and Punta Uva on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica are amazing! I also love Nosara in Costa Rica! Actually if you head to Costa Rica just get in touch with me, i’ve been to pretty much every beach there so I can tell you the good and bad and compare them to Thailand and Cambodia beaches:)

  4. Putting this one in the “keeper” file as we would like to move beyond Thailand to other good beaches and perhaps some snorkelling around Cambodian islands.

  5. It looks beautiful, I do worry about commercial development spoiling natural beauty in South East Asia though. I hope by the time I get there next year it’s not too late.

  6. Leaving Sihanoukville this morning, and truthfully not fast enough. Did you make it over to Koh Rong? One of the only good things I can say about Sihanoukville is that its where you catch the boat for the amazing beaches a 2 hour boatride away. Great article!

    1. I did – just writing up the post now actually! Koh Rong is beautiful (although infested with sandflies) in all the ways that Sihanoukville is not. 🙂

  7. Otres beach – a slice of paradise with a cold Tiger beer, freshly cooked chicken amok and the sun setting on the Gulf. Get to this place before the secret’s out. Would also recommend staying at “Don’t Tell Mamas”…just slightly away from the main beach lodgings.

    1. Totally agree! And yup, Don’t Tell Mama’s looked nice – it was just over the road from where we were staying. There is now basically no development further along the beach for another two kilometres at least, so these places are even quieter and more chilled out than elsewhere on Otres. So awesome.

  8. So glad that you went to Otres Beach instead of just turning around and leaving Sihanoukville 🙂 I loved the laid-back vibe in Otres and the lack of wasted backpackers, like you said. The sunsets there were just amazing. And Papa Pippo’s was the most beautiful hotel there – great choice 🙂

    About similar spots in Central America: I think you’d enjoy San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, Samara in Costa Rica, and some of the quieter places in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Taboga Island off the coast of Panama City also had an amazing (deserted) beach.

    But I have to warn you – it’ll be hard to be impressed with the Central American beaches after visiting all the beautiful beaches in South East Asia 😀

    1. Thanks Dani! I know that we were following in your trail a bit when in Cambodia, esp in Koh Rong. 🙂

      Thanks for the Central America info … hopefully we can find a few beaches that we love almost as much as Otres!

  9. Hey Dave, I have been to a town called Montezuma in Costa Rica a couple of times and when I was there (about 4 years ago) the place was great. Not much in the way of a nice beach but they have a great waterfall to hike to, renting an ATV is a great way to explore the villages outside of the main town, not too expensive as I recall. We stayed at a place up the hill from town called Casa Colores which was great and looked better than the normal backpacker spots in town. Granted is may have changed but when I was there it was pretty chill, not too busy with kind of a crunchy hippie vibe to it.

  10. Oh, and you can jump off of the waterfalls, which is one of my favorite things. One is a short drop and if you’ve got the cojones the other is maybe a 40 ft drop or so. Good times man!

  11. You don’t need to worry too much about the Otres beach front road becoming overdeveloped. There are height restrictions and only kitchen and toilet facilities can be made of brick on the beach side of the road. On the other side, they can build brick structures, but the second road back is the one that’s reserved for the bigger hotels.

    Some interesting stuff happening on the road to Wat Otres, too. About half a kilometre inland from the beach, they’ve set up a weekly market and some bungalows are springing up, too.

    No mention of the improvements on Serendipity Road or elsewhere in Sihanoukville. Going to Ochheuteal Beach isn’t really going to Sihanoukville. It always amazes me when, after rolling in for a day or 2 and for no good reason staying at a beach they hate, backpackers turn around and write as if they were sharing something new. At least you ventured as far as Otres Beach, but other than that, you made your judgements based on all the old cliches.

    1. I went back 2-3 years after writing this post, and there was quite a lot more construction and litter even then. From what I hear, it has sadly gotten much worse since then, and the beach and water quality has really suffered, with a lot more pollution both in and out of the ocean. It’s probably still not too bad at Otres 2 (the far end of the beach), since that was always the higher-end section anyway, but the chilled-out, backpacker-friendly section in Otres 1 apparently isn’t at all what it used to be. As I say, though, this is only what I’ve heard from others, not what I’ve seen for myself in recent years, so take it with a grain of salt.