As I mentioned in my last post, Otres Beach was a bit of a bust, a far inferior experience compared to what I’d enjoyed a couple years back at Serendipity (Ochheuteal) Beach. So, obviously, the remedy is to go back to the same place I knew and loved.
I hire a reumork for the bumpy ride back to the Golden Lions roundabout, then hike down Pub Street towards the pier. At first it seems not much has changed – a familiar pub or two, a new guesthouse replacing an older one. But a couple hundred meters in, it becomes clear that the wrecking balls have been working overtime since I was last here.
The beloved Blue Sea Boutique is smashed into smithereens, as are the funky outdoor beer gardens I had enjoyed. As is just about everything else. Everywhere is the rubble of what used to be a bustling backpacker area, replaced by bulldozers and cranes. Heaps of garbage obstruct the footpaths, piles of broken tiles in the gutters. It’s the kind of large-scale demolition that I’ve only seen in one other country – China.
And then it dawns on me what’s happening here – Chinese construction companies have either bought out the entire area or are financing it, with the intent of turning it into a Chinese package tour destination. Looking closely, there are signs everywhere touting the construction of a casino, or a resort, or a gigantic restaurant, all with Chinese names, all built by Chinese construction companies.
I’m saddened by this turn of events. I’m not anti-Chinese, and I know a poor country like Cambodia badly needs Chinese tourist dollars. Proximity and size means that millions more Chinese tourists are likely to visit Sihanoukville’s beaches in a year than European or American backpackers will in a decade. It’s just that when a locale decides to go ‘all in’ for the package tour crowd, the funky local vibe that once attracted the solo traveler disappears forever. Humble and happy lodging in local huts and wooden houses is replaced by colorless 3-star hotels. Local eateries are pushed out to make room for Chinese buffets. And the quiet alleyways and deserted beaches are replaced with flag-waving tour guides barking schedules over their megaphones.
Heading west from the pier down the beach, I’m disappointed to find that the row of tin-roofed shacks that had provided cheap food and drink on my last visit – nearly all gone. Most of these were run by local-laowai couples, European men who’d met and married local gals, and enjoyed running a beach-side pub or restaurant together. Most were charming hosts, and several had brought excellent culinary skills with them from home. The one or two joints that still remain are – you guessed it, Chinese – but the roar of bulldozers from not far behind them means their days may be numbered as well.
Overall, the scene at Serendipity is pretty bleak. But there is one bright spot – a tiny corner of the beach that still retains the hippy/backpacker ambiance I so enjoy.
Heading west from the pier, the beach becomes rocky, with limestone crags jutting from the shore, waves crashing against them. Crabbers scale the boulders and wade the waters around them, rounding up the day’s catch. A narrow trail here winds between the rustic shore and a steep headland. The incline of the hill and the lack of a proper swimming beach make this land useless to hotel developers – and so a collection of mom-and-pop guesthouses and funky bars are able to thrive here.
Cloud 9 and Above Us Only Sky have ‘tree-house’ bungalows with spectacular views of the water, starting at around 30 USD in the off season. The latter has one of the best damn beach bars you’ll find anywhere in the world – very long list of cocktails, all expertly made, served with a smile. And when $4 cocktails become 2-for-$4 for happy hour, the pain of what’s been lost on the other side of the beach is somewhat ameliorated.
There are maybe a dozen bars, restaurants, and guesthouses in operation here, all with backpacker-friendly prices, a chill vibe, and a killer view. It’s a great spot if you’re already here, but I can’t say I’d brave the 4-5 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh for this tiny corner of beach alone. Since it’s next to the pier, you might stay a night or two before heading out to one of the islands – Koh Rong, Bamboo Island, etc. But I haven’t visited these spots yet, and I’ve heard almost nothing about them from other travelers.
I’d now have to put Serendipity / Ochheuteal Beach in the same category as Otres Beach – wait a couple years before you go. For Otres, wait to see if this moldy, muddy village develops enough of a scene – and infrastructure – to make it worth the time. For Serendipity, give them time to clear out the rubble, and see what arises from the current chaos.
If you simply MUST spend a day or two at the beach after your Angkor temple trek – you’ll want to read my next post – where I review the true gem of the Cambodian coast.