A relaxing Cambodian beach retreat, or are there better options for families?
While Phnom Penh met us with a sense of warmth and familiarity that invites you back, the town of SIHANOUKVILLE was more like a slap to the face.
One of our main reasons for choosing Cambodia as a holiday destination with our family this year – other than to visit the amazing historic Angkor Temples – was to experience something away from the popular tourist saturated destinations like Phuket or Bali and embark on a remote and relaxing get away with the kids.
Sadly, for us travelling with a 6, 3 & 1-year-old, this did not happen in Sihanoukville.
We love what south-east Asia had to offer for families. We love street stalls and bar hopping at cheap prices. We LOVE the food. We don’t mind the heat and deal alright with the humidity (a point I only differed on while pregnant!) and we love the friendly, welcoming hand that can be offered to children. We were willing to brave something new; willing to sit through the hair-raising 4-hour drive from Phnom Penh with a hired driver (6 hours if you take a bus).
I was not willing – at the time of booking at least – to “camp” at a remote beach away from a town with basic amenities.
We can all make misjudgements and mistakes when planning for an overseas vacation. This was one of them.
What we got wrong staying in Sihanoukville Cambodia
Not staying at the idyllic, dreamy and slow-paced Otres Beach, just 15 minutes down the road was my biggest booking mistake in arranging our Cambodia trip.
Instead, I became obsessed with finding a hotel with a family room that was cheap but near the main beach and shops. I wasn’t willing to stretch my bounds to what looked from research like budget, beach backpacker style bungalows – none of which would accommodate all 5 of us together.
Sihanoukville accommodation – not family-friendly!!
When we arrived at our slightly less than average looking hotel in Sihanoukville town, I tried desperately to seek out the redeeming features in this immensely dated and monstrously ugly building that we were going to call “home” for the next 4 nights. What we got was yes, cheap and as advertised the 3 beds could fit 5 of us comfortably (other than the two flights of stairs to lift the double stroller up…).
We thought the next redeeming feature might be the deep blue looking pool, Our kids (the older two confident swimmers) excitedly donned their goggles and jumped into the empty pool. They were immediately told off by the over-zealous staff as it was too deep and they mustn’t play there. The pool was 1.4m and not another soul around, with two competent adults watching them? They were degradingly placed in the one-foot-deep baby paddle pool before declaring this the worst place ever. I couldn’t disagree.
Don’t get us started on the “free” breakfast and shocking service. And the advertised “cot available” and “babysitting services” – the staff on duty couldn’t even understand what we were asking for; a night off during our “relaxing break” was clearly going to be out of the question!
If you do have the budget to spend, Shoka Beach Resort looked like a lovely alternative, still walking distance to town!
Beaches in Sihanoukville Cambodia
Remember we booked the hotel because it was cheap, not beautiful, so let’s crack on with it and get out and about – it’s only a place to wash and sleep, right?
The main reason I wanted to come here – to the west coast of Cambodia – was to experience the magnificent beach sunsets I’d been Instagram stalking. The sunset from Serendipity Beach was indeed beautiful. The beach itself, which was jam-packed with (mostly empty) restaurants and beachside hawkers, not so much. Any beauty was completely blighted.
I guess we were still reeling a bit from a nasty incident in Phnom Penh where our children were used against us in a bag snatching and this was shrouding our ability to sit back and relax. We dare not take our eyes off any of the children or our belongings, even for a second.
Within seconds of trying to “relax” at one of these same-same bars along the beach, Master J starts eating sand and the older kids have befriended some of the local street sellers who are trying to adorn them in friendship bands. Even one of the young girls, who spoke excellent English for about an eight-year-old, tells me “ma’am I wouldn’t leave your bag there” – just the baby supplies sitting in the bottom of the stroller about a metre away from our seats.
We forlornly head back past the massage parlours and casinos to our less than average hotel and rock hard beds.
So you can see at this point, relaxation did not seem it was going to be high on the agenda. Hubby by this point had broken out in some mysterious rash which required tracking down a “medicine man” late in the evening and returning with some bizarre concoction of pills.
I believe this may have been one of our family travel low points. What were we thinking coming here?
If you’re looking for a good guide to the different beaches around Sihanoukville then check out this post.
Why you SHOULD visit and stay at Otres Beach
So the following day – with renewed hope, we discovered our hotel’s one saving grace. They had a “complimentary beach club” at Otres Beach. We hopped on to their “shuttle” (a tuk-tuk they flagged from the side of the road) to their beach club; essentially a concrete structure with a tin roof and some beach chairs, along with an immensely overpriced drinks list.
But with a rather photogenic beach swing and free towel hire to keep the punters happy – at this point, it honestly felt like paradise! – Ok, this picture does make it look pretty nice!
Otres Beach is truly a breath of fresh air in all senses of the word. If we had our time again we would immediately choose this beachside retreat over the main township and Serendipity beach. Isolation and seclusion, while still providing a few basics were just what we needed. Let’s be honest, kids are in bed by 8.30pm pretty much every night before hubby and I take tag team turns to get massages and walk to the shops unhindered. We easily could have done that here too – and the food was amazing everywhere we went, best Khmer food we had in Cambodia.
Where to stay Otres Beach
Most accommodation at Otres 1 consisted of beach shacks and bungalows – brick walls are an unnecessary luxury though a few do offer private shower and air conditioning at a little added cost. We liked the look of Sahaa Beach Resort and Eolia Beach Bungalows Resort though taking this option would ultimately have cost us more as we would have needed two rooms, but I think we would have been so much happier in this quaint, quiet location than the badly tourist-afflicted Sihanoukville town. (NB “Resort” is used here very loosely!!)
See Trip Advisor Reviews for Sahaa Beach Resort | Eolia Beach Bungalows Resort
There are more accommodation options also at Otres Beach 2, a little further south that we did not investigate further but our Cambodian friend advised us to try Legacy Hotel and Resort. Again if you have a bigger budget then the Naia Resort or the Secret Garden at Otres Beach, both look divine!
Splashing at the beach club for three days with a spade set did seem to keep the kids amused. Bar hopping for lemonades, playing cards and a lot of idyllic touches like swings and hammocks over the water. We did get glimpses of the relaxing beach holiday that we hoped for but should have been prepared to push the boundaries more with accommodation choice.
What makes Sihanoukville just a little depressing?
Our driver back to the airport, who also operates a tourist shop while his wife sells clothes tells us times are very tough for them. He also has three daughters the same age as our three. He tells us a lot about the influence of the Chinese. Apparently, since cracking down on gambling in Macau, Sihanoukville has become a new hotspot for the gamblers with 14 casinos currently spread across town and more opening – he points to all the new monstrosities being built.
I ask if this is good for the economy – no. Good for the Chinese, he tells me but his rents have gone up immensely. His tiny little shop is now costing him 550USD a month. When he’s earning as little as 50c commission on selling a bus ticket sale, his frustration is clear.
Sihanoukville wasn’t always this way, he tells us, and this is sad.
(I went to see if he was still there when we visited 2 years later, sadly his little shop has been closed and bulldozed.)
I’m by no means writing off the Sihanoukville region completely (although yes I do come across as a complete Debbie Downer in this post, I know!). Sihanoukville has unfortunately already developed many of the unfavourable touristy characteristics that people loathe yet crave. No big hotel chains have set up here yet (read: nothing with a fully catered kids club) which I think will deter many families looking for a relaxing break for some time. But you can find your own little slice of heaven if you choose wisely and are prepared for something a little different from the norm.
Have you been to Sihanoukville or Otres Beach with kids? What are your top recommendations?