Exploring Asia: Gritty, Authentic Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Named for former king Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012), Sihanoukville, Cambodia, or Kampong Soam, is a city of strong contrasts, where “significant change” is evident around every corner.

Sailing on a two-week Seabourn Ovation cruise through Southeast Asia in late February, I went ashore at this coastal city via Seabourn’sSihanoukville Highlights” shore excursion, priced at $99 per person. 

In the slide show above, check out my 35 original photos snapped on this tour.

Seabourn also offered other tours to the nearby Ream National Park and Phnom Penh, Cambodia's national capital (although that city tour was later cancelled due to highway issues during our day in port). Another tour took cruisers on an overnight journey to Siem Reap for touring ancient Angkor. 

During my half-day motorcoach tour of Sihanoukville, the very knowledgeable guide explained local cultural and religious traditions during visits to two very different Buddhist temples, Wat Leu, atop the town, and Wat Krom, also known as the Lower Wat.

Buddhist architecture can be highly appealing, but when I walked inside Wat Krom, it appeared somewhat dark. Initially, I was a bit disappointed. Many of my fellow tourists just stayed a moment and then walked out of the temple. 

But I used my S9 camera phone to snap a few photos and, amazingly, with the camera's adjustment for lighting conditions, brightly colored murals with gorgeous blue pillars and trim emerged. 

Let's just say this temple was absolutely gorgeous, as readers can see in the slide show photos above and this photo below.

Bustling Local Market

Our tour group also strolled with our guide through bustling Phsar Leu Market, still a traditional marketplace for “the locals,” rather than a tourist trap as some markets have become throughout Asia.

Yes, travelers might see a stall here or there with tee-shirts or flip-flops, but for the most part, you'll find stalls and shops with staples that the locals need and want. 

We walked by a woman examining live blue crabs held in metal tubs -- right in the middle of the main corridor floor.

Sihanoukville residents also picked through mounds of fresh produce looking for the perfect fruit or veggie. On the floor, we noticed Durian (very smelly but a tasty delicacy to the locals). 

Plastic bins filled with water displayed raw fish and seafood. The way the merchandise was displayed was very basic. 

Elsewhere in the city, we stopped briefly at the War Memorial, which pays homage to those who died in the fight against the Khmer Rouge in the last century. 

In addition, we stopped at the Sokha Beach Resort for a refreshment outside in the garden area. I plopped into a chair facing the beach and ocean and just admired the lovely view (see slide show photo). The beach seemed almost deserted.  

Our dose of wildlife spotting for the day came as we watched monkeys scampering atop the roof of one temple. In trees along the road, we also saw monkeys in the wild -- many with baby monkeys -- drawing "oohs" and "aahs" from our tour group..  

Gritty Yet Authentic 

Seabourn acknowledged in its daily program hand-out to guests that “Sihanoukville would never win first-prize in a pretty town competition.”

In other words, it’s gritty. Yet to me, it was simply fascinating. So, should clients journeying to Sihanoukville take this tour?

If cruisers have traveled in the past to exotic, off-the-beaten-path places in interior Asia, remote spots in South America or many countries in Africa, and understand conditions found around the world in undeveloped countries, they likely will enjoy time ashore in Sihanoukville, tolerate its “nits” and appreciate the kind spirit of the people.

Personally, I enjoyed my day ashore. That said, not all of Seabourn’s luxury guests taking this tour did -- especially those looking for a more pristine experience or designer shopping --  particularly if they'd never traveled to Third World countries in the past.

I have two words for their reaction -- "culture shock." For many of these guests, the motorcoach ride back to the ship couldn’t come soon enough.

“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” one woman told me as we walked through the market with our guide. Another said, “I just want to get back on the bus; it’s so dirty here.”

To me, it was simply a genuine experience in many ways. Odors of raw fish and shrimp wafted through the market. Local residents crouched on the floor or sat on small stools to eat rice or noodles. Beggars circulated here and there.  

Outside motor scooters going all directions congregated around the entrance -- creating a crazy scene.

That said, I actually liked my walk through the market -- taking cruisers into the heart of a teeming city to see a decidedly local experience. 

Change Is Coming

What's to come? In Sihanoukville and its adjacent beaches, deep-pocketed investors from China and other countries are building humongous hotels (many designed to cater to Chinese citizens on vacation) and casinos at break-neck speed.   

Mom-and-pop roadside stands already are dwarfed by massive development projects in many areas of the city. 

I couldn’t help notice a large public billboard displaying a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with a high-ranking Cambodian official – and Russian investment was evident in the area surrounding that billboard. 

Fellow guests on my tour remarked that nearly every block of Sihanoukville, both downtown and in the beach areas, were “under development" with office buildings and mega-hotels – not just 10-story buildings, but structures soaring 20 or more stories.

One Seabourn guest told me: “I never in my life have seen so much development. No one will recognize the place in two or three years.”

Today, Sihanoukville clearly straddles the line between maintaining past traditions and moving toward rapid-paced tourism development.

Parting Thoughts

Overall, this destination wasn't a particularly pretty port of call, but at the same time, I'm glad the ship called here -- allowing me to see another little corner of the world. 

Sometimes one has to look beyond the dusty look of a place. Sihanoukville had some fascinating things to see, including Wat Krom's beautifully colored, artistic murals and an authentic local market. 

Top tip? If clients opt to go ashore here, just tell them to bring an "open mind." 

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