Sihanoukville: A Gross Stop En Route to Paradise

Sihanoukville is located in southern Cambodia, along the country’s quite small stretch of coast. While Lonely Planet generously says it “certainly won’t win a beautiful city contest,” the photos and other descriptions of outer beaches were quite appealing. And so, I thought I’d stop en route to the islands at the more rustic Otres Beach for a night or two. This was a dire mistake.

Getting There: Stranger In My Bus Bunk

My sister and I split as I’d already seen Angkor Wat, and I headed south. I took another night bus, and my very first bed bus solo. As you might recall, this came with the threat of sharing a bed with a stranger. I boarded with bated breath, answering “alone” when the driver asked me if I was traveling with someone. I admit, I was hoping he’d take pity on me for no reason whatsoever and give me a prime seat by myself. I was feeling good as we pulled out of the station and my bedmate was nonexistent. Others clearly also felt good, as they abandoned their assigned bunks for unoccupied ones.
Then we stopped at another station. I pulled my curtain up and feigned to sleep, as if that would somehow prevent a stranger with a ticket they paid for from laying down. Right. I heard my curtain moving and a girl climbed into my bunk. It wasn’t that bad; she was nice, stayed in her space as much as she could, and only video chatted with her boyfriend loudly for 6 out of the 12 hours.

Sihanoukville: Not So Beautiful

Sihanoukville is located on Cambodia’s small swath of coast. The city itself is not a charmer, overrun with seedy casinos and accompanying seedy hotels full of equally seedy looking individuals. In a rare situation, the downtown area near the city/pier actually looks nicer than the remote beaches. The entire city is under major construction – there is some big project backed by foreign (Chinese) investment – underway. Dozens of buildings are going up, and workers live in makeshift tents and wooden shacks off the highway. It isn’t pretty. For travelers, the main attraction is hopping a ferry to the islands.

Sihanoukville: Otres Beach (1)

Upon arrival I got off the bus in the dark in the midst of a downpour and stepped into a literal river of trash. After an aggressive tuk tuk negotiation – and a man attempting to take me in a random private pickup truck (no, thanks) – I was on my way, bags soaked, spirits down. Thoughts of a beautiful remote beach kept me going. Outside the hostel I navigated some more puddles and trash piles. I hit the deserted beach to… a dreary sight of capsizing boats from the night’s storm, planks floating in the water, and men in their underwear scrambling to scoop out the water as fast as possible. There was more trash than I’ve seen on a beach, and the atmosphere was beyond depressing no matter how far I walked.

Goodbye, Sihanoukville: When Making the Best of it Fails

As someone who’s excited to see anything new – good or bad – I’m not usually one to ditch a destination. Even if it’s pretty awful I attempt to make the best of it. I also hate wasting money. So when I left Sihanoukville only a few hours after arriving, forgoing my $4 hostel fee in the process, you know it’s bad.

After 3 hours of “making the best of it” I determined to not waste any more time in Sihanoukville and just leave. Making the most of it included hours walking through literal mounds of trash. There are rivers of rust-colored pollution running into the ocean which smell (with pipes that looked alarmingly similar to the pipes coming from the nearby sewage plant my tuk tuk drove past). Groups of men were everywhere; some offered me beer at 9am, one followed me for about ½ mile and then laughed as he presented me with a sprig from a pine tree, which I assume was either a joke or akin to flowers. I don’t know I accepted it and just kept going. Swimming was out of the questions in the dirty water.

Sihanoukville: The Village

Hoping for a reprieve I headed into “the village,” which was worse. Rust-red potholes dotted the muddy main road, a swamp of filth, mud and garbage. Debris, glass, broken furniture and – wait for it – garbage spilled out of dilapidated buildings onto the street. A few mini marts sold dirty foods, a few small restaurants looked unappealing. I love local spots, but this was something else. There were some other tourists milling around looking as alarmed and dejected as I felt. After 20 minutes I’d seen it all, and more than enough.

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