A huge boom in the hospitality trade is making the seaside city of Sihanoukville an even more enjoyable and inexpensive option for tourists and ex-pats eager for a weekend away.
Always a favorite for locals, Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som, has undergone a facelift in recent years and is rapidly shedding its image as a less-than-glamorous haven for bohemian backpackers, escapees from Thailand and, well, worse.
Nothing defines the town's transformation better than the famous Independence Hotel. Once a fixture of 1960s decadence, the Independence was an architectural marvel with an illustrious interior designer: King Father Norodom Sihanouk. It was abandoned during the 1970s and at one point housed Khmer Rouge officials. Later, it was abandoned and inhabited by squatters.
But after a $35 million upgrade, the modernist Independent is again serving guests high above the beach, and it is among dozens of new luxury hotels being opened in Sihanoukville. New, increasingly hip restaurants, bars and nightclubs are also popping up as hundreds of millions of investment dollars come pouring into the coast, and the town does its best to reinvent itself.
According to the Sihanoukville governor, the newly opened Kong Kang Airport will begin accepting flights in the near future. Cruise ships are beginning to arrive, a new road to Thailand is almost complete, and the government estimates that by 2010, petroleum will be getting pumped from the seabed.
It's heady times for a town that until 1956 was a sleepy fishing village, then gained prominence during the Vietnam War for allegedly being the point of entry for much Vietnamese weaponry. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured an American-owned container ship, the Mayaguez, prompting the U.S. to bomb Sihanoukville's naval base and industrial areas.
Today, the sprawling town designed by architect Vann Molyvann is in intense transition. And just as new options for wining, dining and relaxing are sprouting up in a competitive frenzy, so too are the options for things to do.
The town's six beaches are set for an overhaul, with the most popular Ochheateal Beach scheduled for a complete renovation next year. Still, there are plenty of places that remain uncrowded, and for the most part, undisturbed. The southernmost Otres Beach is a relaxing combination of three kilometers of golden sand and quaint seafood shacks nestled next to lapping waves.
Like their mainland counterparts, the 20 or so islands off the coast are also rapidly being developed, and the future promises an even wider array of beach going, sight seeing and jungle trekking. Fishing expeditions are now readily available, with impressive catches boasted about at bars around town. Diving trips are equally accessible, with jaunts to bright coral beds, shipwrecks and schools of exotic fish.
For the hardy adventurer, many eco-travel options exist in nearby Ream National Park, also known as Preah Sihanouk National Park. The 210-square-kilometer preserve includes mangrove swamps, stunning birdlife and bands of monkeys.