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Published on October 19, 2010

“Hey, you guys were here last night!” shouted a mop-haired Aussie tout to my wife and I as we meandered past waterfront pub, JJ’s Playground, on Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach.

Never mind that it was 9am and we had our 4-year-old daughter in tow. In this guy’s world, there was only one reason anybody comes to Sihanoukville: To party.

“Yeah, sure, that was us, we shut the place down!” I responded sarcastically. 

“You have to come back tonight for our half-moon party,” he croaked, not grasping that we might not be his target market. The raspy voice and dangling cigarette betrayed what must have been a wicked hangover. I have to admit, his enthusiasm at this early hour was admirable.

He was me, 15 years ago, in southern Thailand. Life has changed, somewhat, since. I still party, but it’s usually good food, good scenery, and kid friendliness that I’m after in a beach holiday. Everybody knows Sihanoukville throws a good party. But can it placate a broader spectrum of traveler, including – gasp – young families?

Sihanoukville hopes to become Cambodia’s secret beach weapon. Authorities have granted development rights on prime beachfront real estate to local contractors and are beginning to develop some of the most beautiful islands in the region floating just off shore. Ko Rong, an island 20km offshore, is being tagged as the next Ko Samui, complete with an airport and a paved ring road.

But the best thing about Sihanoukville is that it’s wonderfully quiet.  The major developments, are still in the planning and a recently refurbished airport – the key to any real tourism boom in Sihanoukville – is still dark, as it waits for the masses.

While high-end resort, casino and golf course projects wait in the wings, the city has slowly evolved into a requisite stop on the Mekong backpacking trail. They come to revel, to drink cheap beer (a homegrown Angkor beer costs US$0.50-$0.75), to island hop, or simply to answer the call of the sea after temple-hopping at Angkor Wat.

Backpackers congregate soon after sundown at Utopia, just up from Serendipity Beach, then spill out into the night from there. Nightly beach-bar parties rage in the vicinity of JJ’s, and there’s some late-night club action up the hill around Utopia.

For the older and less debauched visitors, the islands are the main draw. Several dozen of them festoon the surrounding waters in the Gulf of Thailand – from small uninhabited islands within kayaking distance from subdued Otres Beach (5km south of Serendipity), to more distant Ko Rong and neighboring Ko Rong Samloem, which for now remain virtually undiscovered paradises, with decent snorkeling and scuba diving (albeit not on par with Thailand), sublime beaches and Gilligan-worthy resorts.

If you’re not up for the 2.5-hour slog out to those islands, Ko Ta Kiev and Ko Russei (the latter is slated for development) are less than an hour, by boat, from Serendipity Beach and have long stretches of pristine, powdered-sugary beach, with basic accommodation available for $10-$20. We did a day trip to Ko Ta Kiev, where we had the lovely beach fronting rustic Ko Ta Kiev Island Bungalow Resort to ourselves. Hiking trails lead into the lush interior, where the calls of monkeys and exotic birds resonate.

Sihanoukville has two hotels geared toward higher-end travelers: family-friendly Sokha Beach Resort, which has Sihanoukville’s best and whitest beach to itself; and the historic Independence Hotel, a classic piece of 1960s New Khmer Architecture. Both deliver on amenities and have doubles starting at $100-$200, depending on the season.

But we preferred Serendipity Beach, a colony of ultra-mellow resorts on a rocky sliver of shoreline at the north end of Occheuteal Beach. Here stylish bungalows ($15-$40) snake up the side of a hill and waves lap at your feet in beachside bars while you sip margaritas and watch the sunset. It has a hippy, trippy vibe reflected in resort names like Cloud 9, Tranquility and, our favorite, Above Us Only Sky.

Sihanoukville’s appeal to the midrange traveler it covets begins at Serendipity Beach. While the beach itself is no Phuket, here you’re within easy range of deserted Otres Beach and the islands. Come sunset, the bars throw in mood music, lay out cozy papasan chairs, and roll out fresh seafood buffets in the time-honored tradition of revered islands like Boracay, Bali and – yes – Phuket. Sihanoukville’s attitude is in the right place. With sensible development, perhaps it will someday be mentioned in the same breath with the giants of Southeast Asian tourism. 

Greg Bloom is a Phnom Penh-based writer and editor who has co-written Lonely Planet guides to the Philippines and Cambodia.