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EXPLORING SIHANOUKVILLE & THE ISLANDS – Travel Asia

EXPLORING SIHANOUKVILLE & THE ISLANDS

Travel Asia a la carte General Manager, Steve Lidgey just returned from a visit to the fast developing Sihanoukville with also visits to the two main beach islands, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem.

It’s fair to say there is massive change going on in Sihanoukville. A huge influx of Chinese tourists has seen the status quo changed forever for Cambodia’s leading beach destination. However, not all of it is negative for the non-Chinese visitors. For sure roads, the airport and general infrastructure is going to get a whole lot better in the future.

I spent a day walking around the town. The construction work is quite phenomenal with hotels, casinos and condominiums springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Nearly all of these are dedicated to the Chinese market. Western clients will not feel at home sharing hotels or even beaches where there is a high Chinese percentage of tourists. It looks like Sihanoukville will become the ‘2nd Macao’ of Asia. Though certainly the town today is a huge building site and quite ugly. However, let’s hope it turns out well. Whatever Sihanoukville looks like now it will look completely different in 6 and 12 months from now. We will keep an eye and plan more inspections. Though the mainland still has a couple of pockets of quiet areas without many Asian tourist so does not need to be ignored.

The Chinese are coming/are already here!

My first stop was at the old timer, the classic Independence Hotel by Dara. The hotel has been around since 1964 when it became Cambodia’s first beach resort. Standards have varied over the years but rooms in the main building have been refreshed and have some wonderful sea views. The recent addition of an ocean side swimming pool has added a very sexy touch. It’s definitely one of the top pools in Cambodia now. Independence remains a good option for couples or groups. A new addition of pod rooms offers a different style and more economic room, however the location in the hotel gardens needs some time to blossom and become more green. The mix between Asian and Western guests seemed to work well at Independence.

Ocean Pool at Independence Resort by DARA

Around the corner is the Sokha Beach Resort. The hotel continues to develop with a large multi-storey building being constructed at one side of the resort. It’s not clear if this will be intended to house Chinese guests or not. New villas were also added last year which are beachfront or behind. I stayed in an Ocean Wing Deluxe room and that is the best option for Western guests with views of the beach and ocean. I wasn’t so fond of the cavernous breakfast room. The best point remains with Sokha Beach – the wonderful beach at its doorstep which is more or less private. A huge Chinese development at one end won’t have access so long will that remain. There were more Chinese tourists staying than other nationalities. And of course the Sokha Casino is at the back of the car park/entrance. Sokha Beach Resort is best for groups and for corporates. They manage MICE groups well with a few nice venues for dinners/parties within the resort.

I headed next to Otres 1 beach area. This beach sees a mixture of backpackers and a small number of boutique hotels. Our favourite is the Sahaa Beach Resort which has a pretty pool, nice gardens and small but nice rooms. The only downside is the lack of private beach area. Guests need to cross the beach road and then use the facilities of one of the beachfront restaurants. Buying a drink or two will be enough.

The area between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is seeing a lot of development. Namely a Chinese town (!) is being built. The actual beach area is a pleasant place to walk but less clean than other seafront areas as no one seems to be in charge of collecting the litter from mostly domestic tourists.

Otres 2 area is, as ever, a relaxing place to be. The beach is clean and most hotels offer private areas where guests can use sun loungers. They are not allowed to block people from walking up and down the beach of course but there is not a large amount of people traffic. The beach chairs and umbrellas are only allowed for the hotel guests (or people consuming food and drinks). There is some development at the end of the beach and also behind the beach road. Though no large projects at time of writing. The hotels and bars are definitely ‘Western friendly’ with few Chinese tourists in that area. Of course that could change if Chinese buy up hotels. At the moment all is well and Western guests can enjoy a relaxing stay at some of the better run hotels and enjoy a nice beach.

I revisited one of my favourite hotels, Tamu. Such a lovely, stylish place. Minimalistic in almost an Aman way but nicely designed with good management.

Otherwise I had a short but sweet stay at Naia Resort. It really was a shame to check out after one night. The hotel is well run with some nice food at the beach front restaurant. It is highly recommended for couple or families. My recommendation is to get a Seaview room as the Garden rooms only look at the back of the main building.

The beach at Otres 2, Naia Resort.

It was off to islands next with the first stop being Koh Rong Samloem. In the case of the islands it is important to select the right beach for the right clients. Generally speaking Koh Rong Samloem is the least developed and quieter island, certainly at the beautiful Saracen Bay where I spent 2 nights.

The main issue on the islands is that hotels are especially ‘travel agent friendly’. Either they don’t think long term, prefer the ease of using OTA’s and in many cases just poorly run. Most do not sell to agents much cheaper than their own online rates so ideally rates shouldn’t be broken down to clients. There are a few exceptions to the above which is what I looked at on both islands.

At Sweet Dreams Samloem I had a pleasant stay. The small hotel is Ukrainian owned and managed, though of course local Cambodian staff doing the day to day jobs. Breakfast was ok. The beach in front a delight. The sea depth was very shallow at this time of year (other times the water can be higher and the beach narrower) and a pleasure to have a swim at any time of day. Very clear water and also clean. Definitely pay for the beachfront huts at this hotel though rooms whilst small, are just a few footsteps to the beach. Rooms are about $100/nt here in high season.

Another Saracen resort is Sol Beach Resort who are the most established place. The wooden house rooms go from Family Villas in a row at the back (duplex) to Tree Villas (also duplex) to Beachfront Villas at the front. The latter is recommended for couples and are right on the beach. Rooms are $200 and up a night and availability is very tight here.

Next door to Sol is The One Resort. At the back of the resort and up some steps is the new lead-in category which has a pool in front. Cheapest rooms start from $80/nt. Then downwards the beach in different rows are Garden/Jungle, Treehouse (i.e. stilted), Family Bungalow and lastly Seaview which sell at about $200/nt. Staff seemed friendly and knowledgeable. The main difference from Sol Beach is that The One Resort has two swimming pools. The beachside one is small but oh so inviting…

Seaview rooms at The One Resort.

A newer option called Moonlight Resort caught my eye. They seem customer focused. 2 jacuzzi pools are on the beach. Though not the place to be in the midday sun. Moonlight has two distinct room types, deluxe at the back and dome rooms towards the front. Deluxe is a standard beach style modern room. Domes are VERY honeymoon friendly with the moonlight shining in through a hole in the domed roof.

Besides the above there are a series of huts and small hotels with rates from $40-80 per night. None seemed particularly well run or interested in travel agents. Perhaps they didn’t know what a travel agent is! I also didn’t visit the backpacker friendly beach called M’Pay or a new resort called Mafiya where they spent millions of dollars but probably didn’t think about how the name sounds to the Western clients!

From Koh Rong Samloem it was an easy boat ride across to the larger of the two islands, Koh Rong. Indeed it is larger than Hong Kong. However, its only the beach that interested me so there were only a few locations to visit. From the main pier at Koh Toch I made a quick escape. This really is a backpacker and party area and we wouldn’t send any guests to that beach.

I stayed at a simple place called Starfish Bungalows on White Sand Beach. It is below the standards which Travel Asia a la carte would use. However, the stilted wooden huts were more than adequate as part of an inspection visit and personally I enjoyed the bungalows and would return again.

The next beach is called Long Set or 4K Beach. Pure white sand that got better the further along the beach I went. Which is where Long Set Resort is located. This is definitely the best on the beach with 33 rooms (garden or pool view) so availability can be an issue (book early!). Rooms start at $100/nt. This is a good choice for people who want a quiet resort and a lovely beach at their doorstep. Besides a boat trip (or possibly diving) guests are likely to spend all day on the beach or at the pool. Long Set Resort is European friendly. One small inconvenience is larger boats from the mainland stop at the nearby pier with day trippers. Though this is only for a short time and the (mostly) Chinese guests are not allowed to use the sun loungers at Long Set.

Beach at Long Set Resort.

A new resort was under construction on Long Beach called Koh Rong Hill Beach Resort. It has its own pier, rooms looked solid and a pool will be located next to the beach. Whilst I didn’t get to meet the GM or owner I was not convinced the resort would suit Western guests. It might turn out to be one for the local market. Let’s see how they progress in the next six months.

I next headed to the west of the island at Long Beach (not to be confused with Long Set). This is home to the two top resorts. Soksan Beach Resort originally started out as a base camp for film crew working on programmes such as Survivor that were filmed on the island. Only later did it become a hotel which is its main focus now. That explains why rooms are not necessarily laid out for leisure guests. Soksan Beach Resort is located right on the beach with its own pier. A neighbouring village has a range of budget hotels and a few simple restaurants. The lead in category is Pavilion Garden View. I found these rooms a little tightly packed in with less light entering what are small spaces. More 3 star quality but selling at a high 4 star level. Whilst still small the next category is Pavilion Sea View. These get more light and are beachfront with their own reserved sun loungers in front and my preferred option at Soksan Beach Resort. There are other categories such as Chalets (two rooms together in a block) and Loft rooms with upstairs area. Nice options but I would book Pavilion Sea View first or possibly upgrade to the neighbours. Soksan Beach Resort does not have a pool (but obviously the sea) or spa. They do offer a large range of activities to keep guests busy. Plankton viewing, snorkeling, cycling, kayaking and watersports are all available.

I was also fortunate enough to spend my last night at The Royal Sands Koh Rong, Cambodia’s newest deluxe beach resort which opened late 2018. PM Hun Sen had visited just a few days before for the official opening ceremony. I skipped that party. The resort has a squeaky white sand beach which stretches several kilometres, to Soksan in fact. The investment is supposed $40 million USD and seems in the good hands of a GM who worked most of his career at Aman hotels. The room categories are quite simple here: Beachfront at the front and Ocean View at the back. Then either with or without a pool. Lead in is Ocean View Villa and at 79sqm lots of space including the terrace. I wouldn’t describe it as super luxurious but very nice with outdoor and indoor bathrooms, king size bed, couch, TV etc. No bathtub which is only in the pool villas. A beautiful beachside pool means swimming can be year-round, even if the sea is rough. Two restaurants offer casual and fine dining options. And of course they didn’t forget a spa. You can be enjoying a massage whilst watching fish swim below the glass floor. Which there was no specific ‘kids club’ there are plenty of activities around the resort suitable for youngsters. The Activity Club offers biking, trekking, kayaking and their own diving centre. It’s also great to see the resort will soon be bottling their own water and avoiding plastic waste from disposable bottles. Overall I would give Royal Sands 8/10 currently. The less than perfect score as it is still a little barren. The trees and plants need time to grow and turn the resort into a true paradise. After the rainy season it will look a lot, lot better for sure.

Inside an Ocean View Villa, The Royal Sands Koh Rong.

As of today only Song Saa Private Island which opened a few years ago and Royal Sands are the only true luxury resorts. Song Saa has a higher price and all rooms have private pool. In many ways that is the more exclusive of the two and ideal for people who want to spend most of the visit inside their luxury villas. Royal Sands is more of a resort with lots more space being on the mainland. Importantly it has a big beach. The one at Song Saa is quite small. When choosing between the two consider the clients profile. They want exclusively and privacy? Then choose Song Saa. If they want comfort, good service and beach then Royal Sands works best. For families with young children the definitely Royal Sands.

A few small points to remember when selling the beach:

  • Remember islands are surrounded by water! The water goes up and down and beaches have high water periods at some times of year and other times quite low. It’s not always possible for ferries to stop at the resort. Sometimes they have to stop on the other side of the island or around the corner and then transport is by a simple road to resorts. Check with us for more details.
  • Diving: usually Padi-certified divers know more than travel agents about the quality of diving and dive sites in Cambodia even if they haven’t visited the country before. Diving is not world class in Cambodia but there are several excellent dive sites suitable for people of different experience, from starter up to Padi-certified. Options exist year round on both Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. We partner with a reputable agency such as Koh Rong Dive Center to ensure safety is adhered to and a good level of service is provided. They will need to know the ability of the diver, when he/she last dived etc to know if a refresher dive is required before doing a Padi dive elsewhere.
  • Boat transfers: they have improved a lot over the last couple of years. They can be larger or smaller boats according to supplier. Life jackets are always on board. Nowadays there are enough services that logistics are not a headache. However, we do not suggest having a transfer out from the island, a four hour + transfer by road to Sihanoukville and then an international flight. Too much potential for problems, especially if the sea is not calm. A final night back in Phnom Penh removes the worry for clients and gives them chance to refresh before a long flight home.

 

Last, but not least, November should see the opening of not one, but two new luxury island beach resorts. Both of these will have access from Ream National Park area providing quick access from the airport to the resort. Six Senses Krabey Island and Alila Villas Koh Russey will both bring luxury and their own unique styles. And also they will provide a lot of exposure for Cambodia’s coast in the coming year for which agents such as ourselves will be grateful.

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