Dazzling white sands and swaying palms lapped by the warm, translucent waters of
the Gulf of Thailand make Kompong Som the perfect weekend retreat from Phnom Penh.
Renamed Sihanoukville during its heyday in the 1960s, the resort is becoming fashionable
"Share taxis" leave early each morning from around the capital's Olympic
Market and charge around 10,000 riel per person for the 232km journey lasting three
to four hours.
More adventurous travellers can catch the train which takes approximately 15 hours.
And, while the scenery is an attraction, the route is not recommended as guerrillas
have attacked the line on several occasions.
Route Four, linking the capital to the sea and Cambodia's only deep-water port, is
one of the best-maintained roads in the country.
The route is noted for the ever-present "road blocks" where armed men oblige
travelers to pay small fees of around 200 riel or a few cigarettes before proceeding.
In the case of share-taxis, the drivers take care of all additional costs.
Until the port - which can dock four 10,000-ton vessels at any one time - was built
in 1960, the town consisted primarily of a few thatch houses along a ribbon of silver
sand bordered by dense jungle.
"A town is born!" proclaimed the French-language magazine Kambuja in June,
Under the direction of the then-Prince Sihanouk, Kambuja declared of Sihanoukville:
"Born of the sea like Venus, she wanted to be the most beautiful."
The article was illustrated with one of the Prince's own photographs of the beach
together with one of his poems: "No more shall I roam/Where the ocean waves
comb/Their crests barbed with foam."
The paper praised the port's scenic location, facing ten tropical islands, including
Poh and Coudee.
It also raved about the new city's layout, comprising 7,830 hectares ("so much
land for a city of 14,000 souls"), with eight beaches, four public gardens,
a royal residence, a primary school, a hospital, two clinics, a bank, an oceanographic
institute, 19 bars and restaurants, 500 villas, an airport and a railway station.
Sihanoukville's white sands were ideal for diving enthusiasts and beach-lovers.
The resort's elegance was established when the Prince opened the Sokha Beach Motel
Krung Preah Sihanouk (now somewhat faded) in a coconut grove in 1964.
For the height of luxury, it charged 250-900 riels per person per night. Today, to
relax in complete dilapidation, the hotel charges $35 a night.
The resort's bright future faded during the Pol Pot years when villas were razed
and the town all but destroyed.
Today the jungle has also vanished. As trees come down, walls grow in their places,
sprouting signs announcing the imminent construction of hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
Overseas entrepreneurs are buying up land for development and the first bank - Cambodian
Farmers - has opened a branch office.
Now Sihanoukville is undergoing a revamp.
"Fax service now available in Kompong Som," declares a notice in one hotel.
"Access to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and...the World!"
A new business center is set to open soon offering information on local property
and real estate.
"We serve the biggest pizzas in Cambodia," boasts Kelly Wilkinson who,
with David White and Dominic Chapel, has reopened Café Rendezvous in the center
Its' red and white striped awning has a Mediterranean allure at night. Candles flicker,
music drifts out on the balmy air and the smell of pasta with garlic and "vegetarian
special" proves an irresistible draw. An evening meal costs around $9.
"Things are really picking up now," says White who reopened the place in
November after a temporary closure of three months.
For my vote, Sihanoukville's best restaurant must surely be Koh Pos situated on the
beach past the gaudy tower of the Independence Hotel.
In unpretentious wooden surroundings, with a verandah open to the sea and ideal for
sunsets, every table is crowded.
Monsieur and Madame Teng Mech delight their customers with enormous servings of steamed
shrimp or squid in garlic and lemon.
Madame carries armloads of freshly-caught fish up from the beach every morning from
a nearby fishing boat. She then tosses it in spices and herbs and lays the result
on beds of mint and cucumber, together with delicious bean sprout pancakes.
The restaurant opened 18 months ago following the success of their Crocodile Cafe
on the next beach. Dinner costs around $5.
For good accommodation, the New Hong Kong Motel, near Sokha Beach, costs $35 a night
with TV, refrigerator, air-conditioning, and long bathtubs with hot water.
Less expensive at $6 a night is Sam's Hostel run by an Englishman called Vick.
The wooden house on the hill overlooking the sea is signposted. For directions, ask
at Maly Chinda's restaurant on the beach near the port which also has two rooms available
for rent at $4 per person.
For more leisurely stays, the Villa Rendezvous on Ochateal beach (also known as "UNTAC
beach") offers eight bedrooms all with en suite bathroom together with nearby
mediteranean-style restaurant and terrace bar.
Rooms, which cost $25 a night, can also be rented weekly and monthly. The enterprise
is run by the Café Rendezvous team and the owners of the De ja Vu restaurant
in Phnom Penh.
The sandflies can prove a serious nuisance and snakes have occasionally been spotted
on the beach.
Local fishermen will take visitors out to the islands for a negotiable fee where
the full possibilities for diving have yet to be explored and where coral reefs teeming
with iridescent fish abound.
Further east along the coast, Kep-sur-Mer, founded in 1908, was the fashionable resort.
Just 165 km from Phnom Penh and 90km east of Kompong Som, it was known as La Perle
de la Cote d'Agathe .
Beautiful offshore islands include Ile du Pic and Ile Tonsay. In the past, King Sihanouk
maintained his own private island, known as Ile des Ambassadeurs, where he entertained
Kep is situated on a sweeping bay with a palm-shaded cornice and a wooded hill behind
but lacks the gleaming white sands of Sihanoukville.
In its heyday, Kep was noted for its elegant villas and entertainments, including
miniature golf, basketball, pedaloes, chic restaurants and one casino.
The Khmer Rouge razed the resort to the ground in 1975 after herding all the French-speaking
people into the town's petrol station and setting it on fire.
The charred remains are still there, as are the ghostly forms of the burnt-out villas,
giving Kep a neglected and haunted air.
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