How investment transformed Cambodia’s coastline – and where to find the good bits

A rash of new luxury hotels have been built on the pristine shores of southern Cambodia and its islands. But at what cost, asks Rosemary Behan?

Ten years ago, the Cambodian coast was referred to as “Thailand without the crowds”, its laid-back beaches providing a welcome budget break for backpackers travelling between Thailand and Vietnam.

Back in 2006, I enjoyed a week-long stay at the Serenity Guesthouse in Sihanoukville, a welcome stop after seeing the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh and a sweaty bicycle tour of Angkor Wat. Back then, a lovely private room in a small, locally owned hotel in a relatively luxurious treehouse-like setting overlooking the sea cost the princely sum of £4 per night.

In the evenings we’d stroll along Serendipity Beach, eating at one of the beachside shacks, many of which specialised in “Happy Pizza” (very, er, generous toppings) and very cheap beer. As one idyllic sunset led to another, I’d extend my stay by the day, and arranged equally cheap day trips to Ream and Bokor national parks and a lovely, uninhabited island known as “Bamboo Island”.

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