Songkran Escape Part 3: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

While my just-completed three days in Phnom Penh had always been on my to-do list, my real interest in escaping to Cambodia for Songkran was to visit Sihanoukville, a beach resort that everyone who’d been there said was great, and one that everyone who hadn’t been there said they’d heard was great. I planned a week there. This is a tale of how good, and how frustrating, “Snooky” can be.

Located 230km (143 miles) southwest of the capital, Sihanoukville¬†is most often reached from Thailand via bus and ferry from Koh Kong, one of the world’s finest shitholes. The grueling journey that combines Thai transport with ferries and Khmer mini-buses is what put me off in the past. The idea of taking one large air-conditioned coach from Phnom Penh in just under five hours actually made the trip appealing.

As it turns out, there are multiple bus lines that run almost hourly to Sihanoukville. The public bus, from PP’s Central Market, is just $4. Too lazy to find out where to catch it, however, I booked a $7 ride on a private company called Paramount at the travel agency next to the Paragon. It turned out I should have asked around which company was best.

Being the Khmer New Year, the buses would all be full and even two days in advance my preferred 8:45 a.m. trip was sold out. I opted for the 9:45 a.m. and the agent booked me into Seat 3, which she said was good because it was at the front. She failed to mention the first row has no leg room, not a minor detail on a five-hour trip.

Away We Go

Monday the 13th dawned too early for me at 8 a.m., having tossed out my short-time girlfriend at around 2. I had planned to get up early, pack, have a leisurely breakfast and grab an unhurried tuk-tuk to the bus station about five minutes away. What I actually had was a lie-in until 8:45, a quick throw-together of my things and a rushed (and substandard) Eggs Benedict at the Hope and Anchor and a harried moto-ride to the station at 9:40 a.m.

Turns out I needn’t have rushed. The bus staff was still loading several motorbikes into the cargo hold of the bus, along with my bag. I was handed my bag-claim ticket and settled into my smallish seat. The bus left at 10 a.m.

The road to Snooky is said to be one of Cambodia’s best. And while it was smooth, if a little bouncy at times, it is only two lanes. The driver spends the entire trip with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the horn, scaring to the red earth shoulder the millions of motorbikes carrying two or three helmetless people. Get rid of the bikes and the trip would be an hour shorter. It also occurred to me that the shoulders were wide enough in most places that the government could have plans to widen the road. That’d be a good thing.

Leg cramps and the 7-foot Khmer guy in the seat next to me made sleep pretty much impossible, but the view out the windows was actually worth staying awake for. For anyone who has been upcountry in Thailand or in similar places, the scenery will be nothing new. But for me, it was a first-time in the village/jungle experience. The city quickly falls away and is replaced by rice paddies as far as you can see. The countryside is amazingly flat, with nothing on the horizon and few if any structures to be seen from the road.

Taking it in was lovely and bizarre at the same time, as the bus line’s choice of movie for the first half of the journey was “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” Seeing a young Sylvester Stallone blowing up legions of Asian people in countryside identical to what I saw out the window bordered on the surreal. And listening to Sly speak Khmer simply weirded me out.

At just past the two-hour mark we pulled into a roadside market for a much needed leg stretch and watering. For the first (and only) time in Cambodia, I was charged less than $1 for a Coke. (50 cents to be exact.) And it was even cold. There were a number of vendors selling very strange stuff they called food, but I passed. Twenty minutes later we were under way again.

Back on the road, the flat land and rice fields gave way to jungle and small mountains shrouded by gray thunderheads marked the horizon. Then, about an hour before arriving, houses, then shops, then towns started popping up along the road. At first they were the most primitive of wooden dwellings, on stilts with no windows and no running water. But soon sturdier buildings appeared and then, every once in a while, a palatial western-style house surrounded by fence and well-tended yard. Call me cynical, but I’d bet my bus ticket some woman once connected to a bar lived there on farang money.

At just past 2:30 p.m. the ocean came into view and, soon after, hoardes of overpriced tuk-tuk and moto drivers waiting for foreign bus passengers to be fleeced for rides into town. I grabbed my bag and found a decent moto driver who took me to the hotel for $1,50, just 50 cents over the correct rate I found out later. Tuk-tuks were asking $4 for the $2 ride.

The Coast with the Most

Sihanoukville has a number of beaches, but the one you want to stay on is Serendipity, the northern section of Occheuteal Beach. There are lots of accommodations options, some of which are actually free. Many bungalows can be had for $7-$10 with hotel fan rooms for $20-$25.

I’m not into backpacker travel and the humidity in Sihanoukville made me glad I’d booked an air-conditioned room at Coasters. Located at the far end of the beach, Coasters is one of the few hotels that actually can sit literally on the beach. Further down the government forced all the guesthouses off the beach. Now the bars that once had rooms upstairs had to either shutter them or convert them into staff accommodations.

I grumbled throughout my stay at the $35 a night room rate, but I saw nothing else comparable at the price. The water literally is less than 30 yards from the check-in counter and the hotel is extremely quiet at night. The room was big, with two double beds, aircon, fan, a very good hot shower, lots of cable TV channels and even a dedicated foot washer for all that pesky sand. (The sand is such a pain that a broom is placed in every room.) There’s also a restaurant and Internet cafe on site with decent, if slightly expensive, food. I ended up eating there only twice, however.

The only real jolt I had checking in was when I sat my bag down and noticed one of the outer pockets was unzipped. Seems the Paramount bus staff decided to clean out that luggage pocket in transit. Upon telling Coasters’ Irish proprietor what line I used he informed me they’d long ago dropped Paramount for poor service and sticky fingers. (I was to discover a week later that one of the items taken from that pocket was my set of house keys, leaving me locked out when I returned.)

Checked-in, I beat a hasty path to my room and a much-needed toilet break, followed by an even more-needed shower. Even for a five-year Thailand resident, the humidity was oppressive, even if the temperature was a couple degrees lower than Bangkok on that day. If you come to Snooky, bring lots of t-shirts. Next stop was lunch downstairs. While delicious, $6.50 for a burger, fries and Diet Coke was a bit much, in my opinion.

Lay of the Land

Fed and watered, it was time to start exploring, starting with the beachfront. There’s no road that runs along the water, so most places are most-easily reached via walking on the sand. And, it being 4 p.m., seems I’d just embarked upon my journey at happy hour. The funny thing is every beachfront bar pretty much operates the same way, with a covered bar area back from the water, rattan moon chairs on the sand and BBQ special.

Let me tell you, eating and drinking at night in Snooky is very cheap. Happy hour runs until 10 p.m. most places and large mugs of draft Anchor or Angkor beer is just 50 cents (That’s 18 baht to you swilling down the brew in Bangkok.)

TIP: The two local beers have nearly identical-looking names (and logos). Anchor is pronounced “Ann-Chore” and is better in cans. Angkor is most closely pronounced “En-Core” and seemed more tasty on draft.

The barbecue deal is even better: Your choice of (very tasty) fresh snapper, barracuda, jumbo prawns or squid, plus potatoes/rice/chips, salad and garlic bread is just $3. Big eaters (like me) can enjoy a whole (and huge) red snapper grilled to perfection in a sweet and sour glaze plus all the fixings for $5. The same fish meal in Pattaya would have been more than double that.

Then, of course, you have the pleasure of enjoying the cheap eats and drink sitting on a comfy beach chair feet from the waterline watching a brilliant pastel sunset. Not a bad way to spend the early evening.

Still amazed at the beer prices, I sent Bangkok Bad Boy an envy-inspiring text about it. His reply left me wishing I hadn’t:

“Fuck, that’s cheap! Are the girls any better there than here?”

I was too embarrassed to answer that I actually hadn’t seen an available Khmer woman yet.

Whiel sunsets and good food are peachy, I didn’t come to Snooky to just looky. My jaunt down the beach confirmed what I’d suspected: This place is a resort for loved-up couples, fat English and Australian women traveling in packs and backpackers. The bars this time of night were devoid of not only Cambodian girls, but customers of any sort. I asked Jack of Jack’s Shack, one of the more popular beach bars, where all the people were between 6 p.m. and midnight. His reply? Eating, swimming or watching TV. Oh boy.

Although I’d done some research on where to find the women, it seemed I needed more intel. So it was back to the Internet cafe for more reading. I found some message board postings with more current information than I originally turned up and the news was grim. New Cambodia Rumor #2, which I confirmed a few days later, was that in February the Khmer government changed the laws to prohibit bars from having short-time rooms. Basically, you can have girls and you can have short-time rooms, but not both. A Phnom Penh bar owner told me a few days later the change has devastated his business and he’s let go 20 of the 25 women he had on the payroll.

In Snooky, it was even worse. New Cambodia Romor #3 says that Sihanoukville officials have also now outlawed barfines, though I was never able to confirm that.

Now left wondering what I’d gotten myself into, I headed back to the room, sleepy from beer, food and the long travel. Turned on the news to watch the Red Shirt Follies and some HBO then dozed for a while. Woke at midnight and decided to check out the beach bars. How to dress for a beachfront disco? Were Quality Fabrics required? No idea. So I simply threw on some shorts, polo shirt and my sandals and headed out.

A Sore Thumb

Things were easier to sort out now, as most bars were quiet and dimly lit and just three pumping out the tunes: Jack’s Shack, the Dolphin Shack and another shack to the left of Dolphin I never made it to. Jack’s was empty and even Jack wasn’t around to shoot the shit with, so I pulled up a bench at the bar at Dolphin and started in on the draft beer on the $1 cans of Anchor. (I was to learn later draft beer from 10 p.m. to midnight is just 25 cents and vodka drinks are $1 from midnight until 1 a.m.)

This was Monday the 13th, the official Khmer New Year’s Day and the mood was up. The bartenders had a couple of water guns which they occasionally squirted around. Normally adverse to water throwing at night, I was actually wishing they’d do more: The humidity was absolutely stifling and sweat was pouring off me and pretty much all the tall, young and beautiful white couples around the place. Seems I’d also underdressed. Even though the floor of the Dolphin Shack is sand and the dance floor a few slabs of sandy concrete, woman were dolled up in dresses and guys were in long-pants with closed shoes. A small number of people were in the casual mode, but the next night I did put on some jeans, with sandals.

As the place continued to fill up, it was 95% white girls and a few below-average Khmer girls. But what was particularly striking was how the mongers in the crowd stood out like a sore thumb. There was me, obviously alone and 20 years older than most the crowd. Next to me was an even older Scandi named Jan, very drunk and decked out in his finest Thailand tank top with sweat and beer dripping off his white goatee. Not sure which way Jan swings, but when he shook hands with me, he exclaimed “such strong hands!”and wouldn’t let go. Once freed, I got up and moved. But later, I saw him crashing in flames trying to pick up on a couple attractive 20-something Aussie girls. So who knows.

In all, there were about six of us among the pretties, all looking kind of pathetic. I was ready to pack it in for the night, but decided more alcohol might improve the outlook.

Finally, about 1:30 the Khmer girls started in arrive in numbers and, beer goggles or no, there were more than a few hotties. Where the hell were they until now? Many hang at the Freedom Bar across from the bus station, but as I was to find out the next night, many of them do not.

Being New Year’s, most the girls were more interested in water/powder play than foreplay. One sad bloke, who I was to see alone, miserable and trying to attract the attention of one particular whore every night that week, was doing his best to drag over any brown-skin he could grab onto, without much success. The real hotties zeroed in on the young bucks in the crowd. I simply sat back to check out the scene to see how it worked.

I finally caught the attention of a cutie in jeans and tight-fitting t-shirt as she came to the bar to order more beers. Enough conversation passed that I finally invited her back to the room, but she said she just wanted to celebrate New Year’s. Ten minutes later I saw her heading out with another guy with less hair and, obviously, more money than me.

Turns out, however, that while I’d been chatting her up, I noticed her friend, darker (not a plus in my book), but taller and more slender and looking very hot. Once her friend departed, I waved over her pal and, within minutes, she had me head out first and wait for her near the water. Seems that while she’ll pick up a customer occasionally, she’s still sensitive to people seeing her leave with one.

She was drunk, half-covered in powder and did not go willingly into the shower. But I’d be damned if all that dust was going to end up in my bed. And then, even though I told her “long time” she didn’t stay long. Our one round was a knockout. But as penalty for making an LT and ST, she was rewarded with a $10 note to only minor protests.

Closing the door after her, I was wondering if this is what my week in Snookyville was going to amount to: Waiting until 1 a.m. to start scouting girls, until 3 a.m. to get laid once and waking up alone. Surely, there had to be a another way?

There was, but you’ll have to wait until Part 4 to find out what it is.

18 thoughts on “Songkran Escape Part 3: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

  1. Oh boy. This reminds me of a trip to (Bali’s neighbor) Lombok, where watching the grass grow and looking at the rain drops fall seems to be the most fun one can have! Eating alone in a huge two storey restaurant with the whole street around me in the dark is probably the nadir of my experiences anywhere in Asia.

  2. Did you see any of those filthy sex-tourist farang chicks hitting on the fire-ball swinging beach boys? It’s what always ruins beach holidays for me. Sluts.

  3. $35 is what, 1200 baht? I wouldn’t fancy staying in a $35 hotel in most countries, so wouldn’t complain too loudly about having to pay it for a room with the facilities mentioned at a tropical beach resort.

    Sounds like you hit the place at precisely the worst time of year for a proper recce, but certainly worthy of further investigation.

    Probably the last question on most people’s minds, but how was the actual beach? Cleaner than Pattaya? Any snorkelling/diving?

  4. Poodle — Didn’t see any obvious women sex tourists, but all the waiters at the beachfront BBQ places are male and they spend lots of time giving good service to the white women. Many were flirty and I’m sure the Khmer guys do pretty well.

    BBB — Yeah, but you know I was on a tight budget…

    As for the beach, it’s lovely. Clean, white, water like a bath. In diving and snorkeling both, found like 2 pieces of trash on the seabed. Very nice.

    As the next two parts show, yes, Songkran is not the time to go, but Snoooky is worth visiting again, with caveats to be dicussed in next chapters.

  5. BBB: Are the beaches cleaner than Pattaya? Are there any beaches in SEA that are not cleaner than Pattaya.

  6. Ghost: Sounds like the Cambo gov is trying to make the country a more respectable tourist destination. Considering the infrastructure has about 10-15 years get to what most would consider modern standards (does P.P. still have the planned 1 hour blackouts?) it’s a bit premature in my book.

  7. Great read PG.
    Reminds me of my travels in Cambodia only a few years ago, sounds like a couple of improvements since then.
    My travel there wasn’t so straight forward and on one occassion im sure me and the girlfriend were about to be mugged!?

    That year we were travelling around South East Asia, after a week in Bkk we took the bus to the Poi Pet border, changed taking a tuk tuk down to the gateway of Cambodia/ immigration. As we approaced a queue of people some guy in slacks and a shirt handed us a form and said follow him, we started walking past some prefab huts on our left, glancing over to the right i saw a big sign saying Immgration with a couple of officials standing around in those eccentuated peaked caps. Hmmm, was i smelling a rat here? This guy was leading us away from the immigration building and it didnt feel right, i grabbed my girlfriends arm and showed her the building across the road, the guy stopped and came back over to us and told us to follow him, but my gut was telling me that this didnt feel right. I told my girlfriend my gut feeling and she agreed so when headed over to the immigration building much to the annoyance of this guy. However, he didnt follow us? I think my gut feeling was spot on, would be have been mugged? i dont know even to this day but on approaching the immigration building they took our passports and we took a seat. About an hour later after waiting in the heat of the sun they came out with our passports with Visas inside, it seems we had done the right thing.

    LESSON ONE – when travelling anywhere if you encounter a situation that your gut feeling tells you it’s not right, it probably isn’t!

    Anyway, travelling on to Siem Reap was difficult, we tried to get a bus but kept getting taxi drivers pulling up alongside us offering to take us to Siem Reap, owing to the corruptness at the time bus drivers were shit scared of taking people to the city in fear of these taxi drivers.
    As luck would happen we found a young Japanese couple also wanting to get to SR, so we all decided to take a taxi and we haggled the fare of $15 US per couple.
    After Siem Reap we headed for “Snooky”, looking forward to some sea breeze and cooler climbs after the heat of inland Cambodia.
    We checked into a place called Mealy Chenda guesthouse at Victory Hill/ beach, it was run by a lovely Cambodian lady probably mid forties, accomodation was only $10 US per night for an aircon room ensuite.
    The place was clean, quiet, lovely big sweeping staircase up to the first floor rooms.
    The room was of reasonable size, again it was clean, the beds looked comfortable with satin covers, i guess because of the nights being so hot.

    The guesthouse had a balcony above a seperate structure adjacent to the building with the rooms. From the balcony you could see above the tops of the trees, sun setting of an evening and a little breeze which was welcome.
    The food served was of a good standard, fresh and served by friendly helpful staff. The BBQ buffet evening meal was great too, just $3 US and eat as much as you liked.
    The cheaply priced laundry service from a shack just opposite was amazing, the best in South East Asia to date!
    The Cambodian food was fantastic, it’s like Thai food without the spice.
    Cost of drinks and and eating out was extremely reasonably priced, people friendly here too.
    The only sore point was the beach, it wasn’t too clean, the water a bit murky and we kept being bothered by young girls selling fresh bags of fruit. Fair enough its their living but one girl was very rude, she balled another girl out because we bought from her instead.
    You can use the deck chairs but you must buy a drink or some food from the guys/ company that looks after that area of the beach.

    This isn’t my full experience of Cambodia, i did and saw much more. But i did find that it was a bit tough there, not really a holiday, more of a life experience, and the poverty i witnessed was sad, yet at the same time humbled me like nothing else ever did even to this day.
    Maybe i’ll go back some day, after reading this blog by PG it’s got me considering another visit to snooky, but just not during Songkran LMAO.

  8. My first trip to Snooky was Oct. 07, and it took me a few days to figure it out. I’m most happy by the ocean though, so the compromised P4P sceen was IMHO worth being able to occupy said moon seat with toes in sand and gentle salty breeze, not to mention getting completely bombed on the cheep and taking a refreshing swim at 3:00am! I wish BKK had a beach!
    always a pleasure to see your work PG!!!

  9. PG, you need to get that Pattaya blog going again. There is nothing else like it that covers the goings on in Pattaya, and there is a big void in cyperspace without it.

  10. In my last comment on this topic i forgot to mention about my stay at the Walkabout hotel in smelly Phnom Penh. A seedy little place in a tatty part of town, and it’s a bit of a tatty hotel to be frank. Obviously i didnt know this before i got there.
    The girl checking me in didn’t speak or understand English very well, ok this might seem obvious but there are plenty of girls that speak English in Cambodia.
    The ensuite room was just ok, paid for aircon which in March you need.
    First night there i went down to the bar area with my friend ordered food had a few cold ones and noticed how young the BG’s were, not sure how old they were but some may have struggled to make 16 or 17!
    My friend commented on this how sleezy it seemed that these BG’s were drapped over guys old enough to be their grandfathers.
    Personally i didn’t care, i was eyeing up a young lithe hottie probably about 18 or 19, long dark straight hair, small face, bone cheeks, great smile, nice set of pearly whites and shapely. Not sure if she was either Cambodian or Laotian? Now i wished my friend wasn’t with me, bugger!
    Eventually she called it a night because she was tired. Me? i stayed up, another few bottles of beer and a few games of pool.
    The BG’s seemed a little on the aggressive side (as i’ve stated before i prefer the more feminine BG, these were not), the old guys didnt seem to mind being ordered to buy more drinks for the 4 girls in the group.
    Anyway i won a game of pool i was now being turfed off the table, hmm im sure it’s winner stays on right? I stood my ground much to their disdain.
    Their attitude was piss poor and not very welcoming, i guess im at least 20 years too young in what they’re looking for – a guy who prefers girls in their midteens is not me!
    Feeling disappointed in the whole BG scene and a little tired i head up to bed around 1am.

    From the hotel room you could hear the party atmosphere in the reception/ bar area which pissed me off a bit.
    Then my friend goes down with the shits and spends most of the night rushing for the toilet – great!

    I seriously don’t recommend this place as the following evening i ate in the bar and went down with the shits later that night too.
    I can’t speak for the rest of the Pnomh Penh P4P scene, but this was really dire!
    I’m in no rush to go back to this city.

    Have any of you guys experienced the P4P scene in Cambodia? Would be interested to hear your tales of fun or woe lol.

  11. I agree with Vance.

    Get the blog up. I’m sure you been back to the gym enough that you caught up on some weight loss.

    its been what 6/7 months now?

  12. C & V — Thanks for the sentiments, but it ain’t gonna happen. Life is much more pleasant (and safer) now that I’m back under the radar.

  13. I went to Sihanoukville in 2001 and it was scary. Loads of paedophiles and drug addicts. During my 1 week stay a number of foreign visitors were violently mugged and hospitalised. I was chased through the streets one night by a crowd of loonies trying to rob me. Or worse. Hoping things are a bit better now.

    There were a number of “bars” up a hill in the main part of town which were actually just houses with girls hanging around. There was also a place just outside town in a swamp. I have no idea where exactly it was as someone took me there on the back of his moto but it was rough and only about 10 minutes from the town centre. A dirt road in a swamp with wooden shacks either side full of girls. The guy I went with stopped and took a girl inside and I did likewise as I thought I would be safer than outside where Khmer guys with guns were hanging around. A quick one in a room in the room at the back was $3 and I gave a $2 tip which was received as if it were a Mercedes Benz. Two condoms were apparently the norm there and after the deed the girl squatted and took a piss through the slatted wooden floor into the swamp below.

  14. Nok — Things have changed fast and the Snooky you saw is gone. Even the “happy pizza” joints have been pushed out of sight. The roads are paved and lined with huge casinos, the beaches are being privatized and built into hotels and the girl prices have gone up.

    The bars on the Hill is Victory Hill, which will be covered in the next part. The swamp was the “chicken farm” and is all but gone now.

    More to come folks. Stay tuned.

  15. Good read..entertaining. Hope Part 4 is as good, although I am sure it will be.

    Been to 2000. Didnt like it much then, but as you mentioned, I am sure it has changed beyond recognition.

    One thing I did read was that lots of atomic waste was buried in Sihaunookville..not sure if its true or not.

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