Port of Sihanoukville
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If you don't want to risk encountering urchins hawking trinkets or adult beggars maimed by landmines, head straight for a private beach, or stay onboard. If you're ready to immerse yourself in the rich cultural swirl of Cambodia with all its warts, you've come to the right place.
Sihanoukville, originally called Kompong Som, is the only deep-water port in the country. It's located in the south of Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand, 115 miles southwest of capital city Phnom Penh. The town and its surrounding province are named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a major force behind Cambodia's push for independence from France, gained in 1953. In the 1960's, Sihanoukville's beaches became a magnet for jetsetters, counting Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve among visitors.
That all changed in 1970, when the king was deposed and Cambodia fell into civil war. The Khmer Rouge used Sihanoukville's once-chic Independence Hotel for target practice and destroyed local temples. By 1993, elections were restored, and the country began its recovery. Although Cambodia quickly became known for Siem Reap in the north, home to spectacular Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other ancient Khmer temples, backpackers also began to discover Sihanoukville's beaches.
In 2004, the first luxury beach property opened, and more development followed. In 2006, the New York Times labeled the area "Asia's next trendsetting beach." Now it's possible to drop more than $1,000 per night at a private-island resort, yet the majority of the local population remains quite poor. The Sihanoukville (Snookyville or Snooky for short) of the backpacker crowd still exists, along with sleazy sectors of clubs and sex workers. But there are also temples to see, as well as a vast, bustling, dirty, fascinating market in Sihanoukville town. International organizations are working to get child beggars off the street and into school, and they have created businesses that employ disabled adults.
There's luxurious Sihanoukville and local Sihanoukville -- just remember to choose carefully which one (or maybe both?) you want to see.
Top Sihanoukville Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is two miles from Sihanoukville town and 11 miles from Kang Keng Airport. It's an industrial port with no passenger facilities.
There's really nothing worth walking to from the port. It's about a five-minute walk to the entrance gate, and the few nearby businesses appear targeted to local dock workers. Sihanoukville town is about a 10-minute drive inland, southeast of the port. The beaches are all south and southeast of the port. There's a fair amount of sprawl (casinos, huge wedding banquet halls, budget lodgings) that will likely someday fill in any empty spots between downtown and the beaches.
Good to Know
At beaches and temples, you'll likely encounter children begging or selling little trinkets. They can be charming and engaging, but international nonprofits advise that you should never buy from them or give them money, because if their begging is profitable, they won't be allowed to attend school. Rather, give to a charity like The Cambodian Children's Painting Project (see "Best Souvenir" section above), which helps kids get an education.
There have been some reports of tourist robberies in the Sihanoukville area. Don't carry a lot of cash, and consider wearing a money belt. Don't tempt drive-by motorbike thieves by carrying a purse.
If you're on foot in Sihanoukville town, be on alert for drivers who don't follow traffic rules, and should you leave the ship for an overland trip, be aware that the road to Phnom Penh (three to four hours away) has seen lots of accidents.
But bad driving doesn't stop at the water's edge. Several tourist deaths have been attributed to unsafe Jet Ski drivers, so be careful when you go for a swim.
Now that we've thoroughly scared you, know that you should also be on the lookout for the Cambodian smile, which is friendly and welcoming -- as are most Cambodians.
On Foot: Nope, don't do it. Cambodia can be extremely hot, and there's noting of note within easy walking distance of the port.
By Shuttle: Free shuttles typically operate between the port and Sihanoukville town; check with your ship's staff for details and timing. The shuttle drop-off point is across from the main market.
By Taxi and Tuk-tuk: There will be a pack of taxi drivers, tuk-tuk operators and motorcycle-taxi drivers waiting outside the port gates. Negotiate fiercely, and make sure you and the driver can understand each other. We got an all-day taxi with an English-speaking driver for $20 (and liked him so much that we tipped an extra $5).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollars are universally accepted. In fact, when you use an ATM, it surprisingly spits out dollars. Euros and Thai baht are also accepted by many establishments. Just be aware that even a small tear in a U.S. dollar renders it useless, so don't accept any bills as change that are damaged if you intend to use them there. You may receive some small change in the local currency, the riel, so for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are several banks with ATM's along Ekareach Street, the main commercial hub of Sihanoukville town. Near Serendipity Beach, there's also an ANZ Bank ATM in front of the Golden Sands Hotel on Tola Street, plus other stand-alone ATM's in various locations. Higher-end restaurants and resorts generally accept credit cards, but be prepared to pay cash elsewhere.
You'll do fine with English at higher-end resorts and the many local restaurants run by expats. Some enterprising taxi drivers have also studied English. Chat up any potential driver to make sure you'll be able to understand each other. When it comes to shopping, non-English-speaking sellers will likely whip out a calculator or cell phone to propose a price. Children hustling for a handout are some of the most astonishing linguists we've ever encountered, able to hit you up in five or six different tongues.
The country's official language is Khmer, a term which also refers to the country's ethnic majority. In Khmer, "hello" is Sew sadday. To say "thank you," tell someone, Awk koun. Khmer isn't tonal, so it's a bit easier than Thai or Laotian. Written Khmer is based on an Indian script, so it's artistic-looking but indecipherable. Fortunately, most relevant signs in Sihanoukville are also written in Roman letters.
Food and Drink
It's often said that Khmer cuisine is like Thai food without the spice. While that's a bit of a generalization, ingredients and techniques can be similar to those used for other Southeast Asian cuisines. You'll find spring rolls, mild curries, noodles, dishes made with pumpkin and, of course, lots of seafood. If you can, try amok, one of Cambodia's best-known dishes. A fish fillet is covered in a mixture of shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, peanuts, coconut milk and egg. That's all wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to an almost souffle-like texture. Cambodians also devour plenty of rice. In fact, the Khmer phrase for "Have you eaten?" is actually, "Have you eaten rice?"
No matter what your nationality, there's probably a Sihanoukville restaurant that caters to your tastes, thanks to the large expat community, and many establishments offer multiple cuisines. That's why it's strange that, in this area, it's not always easy to find authentic Khmer cuisine. On the plus side, no matter what the cuisine, prices are generally very reasonable, which is why few establishments accept credit cards.
Chhne Meas, on Victory Beach, is an open-air restaurant close to the surf. It serves a wide range of fish and seafood, as well as Khmer curries and stir-fry. (No credit cards are accepted; check their Facebook page for the rather complicated opening hours; +855 12 340 060.)
Chner Molop Chrey, also on Victory Beach (look for the distinctive Chinese-influenced roof), is a huge, open-air, Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant where you choose what you'd like -- clams, crabs, shrimp, scallops, unknown finned things -- from aquarium tanks. You'll practically be sitting in the lapping waves to dine. Photos of dishes help with ordering.
Cabbage Garden (or Jumka Spay in Khmer) is a non-touristy restaurant frequented by locals and expats in the know. Some (but not all) menu items are translated into English, and service may not be up to international standards, but fans rave about the flavors in dishes like steamed fish or squid with Kampot pepper, as well as the astonishingly cheap prices. The only caution: Don't visit the restroom. It's located on Makara Street, a bit off the beaten path. If you use its Khmer name, it may help drivers know where to go.
Beach shacks serve seafood BBQ and other fish dishes at Ochheuteal and Victory Beaches for bargain prices. Look for items like grilled squid or shrimp with lemongrass or Kampot pepper.
Snake House Restaurant provides a real change of pace, as you might guess from the name. The jungle-like setting up on Victory Hill (behind Victory Beach) houses a menagerie of exotic birds and reptiles, including crocodiles. The Russian ownership serves up cuisine from the mother country (pelmeny, borsht, chicken Kiev), as well as sandwiches and other international fare. (Soviet Street; +855 12 67 3805)
As long as we're veering toward the unusual, you mght take a gawk at the Airport Fashionable Disco Flight Beach Bar, the hard-to-miss hangar-like structure on Victory Beach (not at the airport!) that houses an old Russian AN-24 airplane. There, you'll find drinks, an international assortment of food (salads, shakes, BBQ, seafood, hotdogs) and beach massages. (open from 8 a.m. until "late"; +855-70-771-557)
If you happen to be in port long enough to eat dinner, Sandan gets glowing marks, not only for its creative Khmer cuisine (vegetarian amok, for example), serene atmosphere and good service -- but also because it's run by a nonprofit that helps train street kids to work in the service industry. (Street 10311, one block south of 7 Makara Street; open Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Rectangular scarves, known as krama in the Khmer language, are an integral part of Cambodians' lives. Basic cotton scarves are used for everyday wear, while patterned silk scarves are reserved for special occasions. You'll find a selection of scarves, additional textiles and other handicrafts at Rajana (Building G, Street 502, Village 4; +855-034-6755551; 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily), operated by a nonprofit that teaches handicraft skills to young Cambodians.
Or, you might buy a work of art at the Cambodian Children's Painting Project (Serendipity Beach Road; +855-17 500 402), a support system for local children, which helps them get an education and provides an alternative to selling bracelets on the beach or being lured into the sex trade.
Sihanoukville is home to the Angkor Beer brewery, set atop Sihanoukville Mountain. So if you want to drink local, skip that cocktail, and order up an Angkor.
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