We debated for a long time on how to plan our itinerary after Vietnam. Thankfully we spoke with many travelers along the way and heard recommendations. Because we flew twice and skipped a few cities, we moved through Vietnam in 10 days rather than our planned two weeks. Since we had some extra time we decided we needed to visit the beaches of Cambodia. We also contemplated on scuba diving while there. We heard mixed reviews on the diving conditions, as some of the waters have been damaged from dynamite fishing and over fishing. But Cambodia is also one of the cheapest places to dive, so after visiting a dive office in Phnom Penh we decided to go for it. From Phnom Penh, we booked a five hour Mekong Express van to Sihanoukville, the main town on the southern coast.
We arrived in Sihanoukville around 1 pm. Our hostel had a bar and restaurant in the front that was decorated for St. Patrick's Day. Most of the hostels in Cambodia have an open-air restaurant, with a hostel reception around the back (or at the bar itself), which is a bit strange the first few times you see it. We checked in and then walked to Scuba Nation to get outfitted for our $85 pp dive trip the following day. In the afternoon, we walked to the main beach in town which had hundreds of chairs for rent that would serve drinks, but it wasn't too busy this day. We grabbed two chairs to enjoy the late afternoon sun.
Sihanoukville is known as a party beach, and has many pubs owned by Westerners serving familiar food. The draft beer is 50 to 75 cents during happy hour and dinner runs $4-5. Cambodia uses the US Dollar, but small change is given in the local currency. The town has a major spring break vibe and music from pubs filled the streets late into the night. A college student would be in heaven here, but we needed to take it easy and be at the dive shop at 7am the next morning. Luckily our private room was near the back of the hostel property on the third floor so we had a decent night's sleep.
Probably due to St. Patrick's Day partying and the priorities of the visitors to this area, our boat was very empty for our dive trip the following morning. We had a very nice Swiss guy on our boat and Luixi, our guide. For the price, this kind of diving seclusion could not be beat!
We took the boat two hours to tiny Koh Koun island. Our first dive was around nine meters deep for one hour. We were surprised at the beauty of the reef on this dive. We didn't see a lot of large sea life, but we saw a barracuda, crab, shrimp, schools of small fish, and many sea urchins.
During our lunch break we did some snorkeling near the shore of the island where some other packed tour boats were anchored with snorkelers. Crowded boats make us thankful four our scuba certifications that let us get deeper and away from the crowds. Our second dive was around six meters deep for another hour and we saw more beautiful fish and coral, and a huge starfish as we followed the coastline of the island.
Note: Litter in Southeast Asia
We were reminded of the problem when seeing garbage dot the bottom of the ocean during our dive. The people in this part of the world have little understanding or respect for their environment. Maybe they have no other options, but the roads and waters are covered with garbage and we constantly see locals littering. There are no regulations on fishing, so the size of fish has shrunk over the years. When walking markets in Vietnam and Cambodia we see an abundance of meat and produce that would be impossible to sell in a single day, so we presume much of the food goes to waste. A woman will have a grill full of meat skewers but few customers. Cambodia has a ton of western businesses, and we didn't notice any effort from the western expats to encourage responsible tourism or become involved in improving the local communities. There is a stereotype of older western men coming here to drink cheap beer, buy a female companion, and escape the rat race back home. They don't seem to care about their local impact or become members of a community. Hopefully our stay just wasn't long enough to witness it. At home a local organization would tackle these trash problems immediately and organize beach walks to pick up trash and place signs to encourage tourists to act responsibly. Our dive guide mentioned lots of corruption in the government, so it's clear there is much work to do politically in Cambodia. But considering the historical turmoil they have made progress.
After our beautiful dives, we were glad we decided to see what underwater Cambodia had to offer. After a nice boat ride and suntan on the way back to shore, we transferred to Otres Beach, a 20 minute Tuk Tuk south of Sihanoukville. This is known as a quiet, hippie beach. Still with many young backpackers, but a laid-back atmosphere. Our neighbors were casually enjoying a joint when we checked into our nice bungalow across the street from the beach.
Our final day in Southern Cambodia we lounged on the white sandy beach and enjoyed the calm waves and views of islands in the distance. It was truly heaven on earth. An afternoon thundershower hit which was a surprise during the dry season. We walked to a beach-side bar and enjoyed some cheap cocktails to take in the sunset. Otres Beach faces west and delivers one of the most amazing sunsets we have ever seen. If you come to this part of the world you must experience Otres.
Chris & Taylor
Read our travel blog as we visit three continents in 2017.