I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach a couple of years back, and I enjoyed it so much that when the opportunity to return presented itself last month, I couldn’t resist. Back then, a long row of tin-roofed pubs and restaurants faced a long, white sandy beach and gentle surf, making it absolutely one of the best backpacker beaches around. You’d stumble down the beach mid-morning to find recliners and umbrellas already set up. Order breakfast – or a cocktail – and the whole set up, along with free WiFi, was yours for as long as you wanted.
In the evenings, the umbrellas were replaced with multicolored paper lanterns, charcoal fires were lit to grill up fresh fish, squid, and scallops, drinks were two-for-one, and the latest dance music and club mixes filled the air. Hippie heaven.
Two downsides: 1) the volume of the club music increased DRAMATICALLY after 11 pm or so, and kept going until sunrise. This made it impossible to sleep anywhere within 500 meters of the beach – even with earplugs. And 2) the all-night parties tended to create quite a trashy beach front the next morning, spoiling what was otherwise a near-perfect beach.
Staying at the Blue Sea Boutique (now closed), a ten-minute walk up from the beach, solved the first problem. As for the second, I decided that if I ever got the chance to come back, I’d head further out to Otres Beach, which I’d heard was cleaner and a better place to chill for a few days.
August, 2018. The ten-dollar, 4-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville terminates at the Golden Lions roundabout, which, appropriately, centers around a couple of huge and somewhat gaudy statues of gold-colored lions. Above one of the streets radiating out of the intersection hangs a sign which reads ‘Pub Street’ – that’s the way to Serendipity Beach. But this time I’m heading to Otres, so I need to flag down a taxi or reumork to take me another 20 minutes or so further out from the city.
It’s rainy and dark when I arrive, which puts me at a serious disadvantage in negotiating a fair price out to the beach. But I’ve never understood the cheapskates that will argue over a dollar for ten minutes, so I pretty much agree to the driver’s price straight away and load my gear up into the reumork. These are old wooden carriages that can be hooked up to just about anything from a horse to a motorcycle, and are the main source of transport pretty much anywhere in Cambodia outside the capitol.
Ten minutes into the ride, we leave the paved road and hang a left onto what I assume in the darkness to be the surface of the moon. The little two-stroke bike engine shrieks like a wood chipper as it hauls us across the collection of potholes, my bags and me making like toddlers in a birthday bouncy house. Just when I’m thinking the fish amok I had for lunch is going to run amok for real, we arrive at my lodgings for the night.
The Sea Breeze Resort is just exactly what I’m looking for. A collection of bungalows arranged around a charming swimming pool, breakfast included, beach just across the road. The attached indoor/outdoor dining area has a good selection of local and western style food, very reasonably priced. With local beer on draft for a dollar a mug – let’s just say there aren’t many places in the world where five dollars can make such a huge improvement in one’s mood.
Unfortunately, I awake the next morning to find that the Sea Breeze is about the only bright spot on a rather dismal, over-rated beach. The muddy access road (I jokingly refer to it as ‘the strip’) has a pothole to pavement ratio of about 5 to 1, and the rainy season has turned it into a shallow stream. The shanties posing as shops here smell of mud and mold – can’t imagine buying a bag of chips from most of them, let alone having a meal. There are no street lights, so mucking around (literally) after the sun goes down is precarious. I’d like to say the scene is quaint or picturesque – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that forlorn is more accurate.
The beach itself is also disappointing. It’s less than half as wide as Serendipity, and in fact, at high tide, disappears completely. The rundown collection of guesthouses and restaurants directly on the beach have built seawalls of sandbags, ratty sheets of plastic, and broken rattan furniture to keep from being swept off into the ocean with the next storm. It would be a vast improvement if they just gave up and let nature take its course.
There’s not a scintilla of a beach scene, day or night, at least for the couple of nights I’m here. No hippie vibe, backpacker vibe, not even a colonial-Australia-as-prison-colony vibe; just the feeling I’ve arrived here either ten years too late or too early. There are one or two bright spots, but they’re not enough to warrant a visit here, at least not just yet.
Conclusion: Otres Beach just isn’t there yet, and while the infrastructure and amenities are likely to improve over the next couple of years, I don’t see the narrow strip of sand that constitutes the beach getting any bigger in the time frame. If you’ve got some friends staying out here long-term and they want you to come over for a visit – and you’re already in Sihanoukville – then it’s an OK place to make your own fun. Otherwise, I’d have to say give it a pass.
Next up – back to Serendipity.
Apologies to the Sea Breeze Resort for discouraging people from heading that way. Truly lovely place, cozy bungalow, very professional staff. When I was there, bungalows were going for 40 USD / night, with breakfast. Great food and drink in the evenings at crazy cheap prices. Further down the road is the very lovely Sahaa Beach Resort, around the same price range.
A reumork ride from the Golden Lions to Otres Beach cost me $7 at time of writing – if weather is decent and it’s a seller’s market, you could probably do it for $5.