Sihanoukville, in southwest Cambodia, is an oft-misunderstood town. Seen as sleepy by day and seedy by night, this coastal bolthole has earned itself an undeservedly bad reputation. But Sihanoukville should not be overlooked – and with tourist numbers once again on the rise and a constant threat of further development, the time to go is now. Here’s everything you should know before a trip.

So, what’s the deal with Sihanoukville?

It’s been Cambodia’s only major beach resort since 1955, when the country’s first deep-water port was built here during French colonial times. Previously Kampong Som, it was renamed Sihanoukville after King Sihanouk.

Isn’t Sihanoukville a bit “seedy”?

Sure, the town does have a big party scene, but it’s easy to avoid if that’s not your bag. There’s been a clean-up in recent years, too. You can see this along Ochheuteal, the town’s most popular beach, and in Otres Village, where a creative community has emerged.

Sunset over Sihanoukville, CambodiaPixabay/CC0

And isn’t it plagued by construction work?

True, some parts of town are less than beautiful than others. The concrete casino resorts really are a blight on the landscape, not to mention the impact of development on local people and the coast.

But despite encroaching developments, many places do still cling to their charm. In response, artsy hubs have flourished around Otres and some guesthouses (such as Chochi Garden and Patchouly Chill House) offer a more laidback experience. It’s still not unheard of to have a whole beach to yourself either.

OK, it doesn’t sound too shabby. Which are the best beaches?

Ochheuteal is the most popular. You’ll receive plenty of massage offers by day and sunset signals happy hour, barbecues and late-night parties. Further west, Victory Beach and Hawaii Beach are a little quieter.

Otres is the go-to place, however. Otres 1 and Otres 2 are lined with beach bars, restaurants and guesthouses. The busier stretch is Otres 1 and there is a blissfully empty patch in between the two.

Woman selling produce on Otres beach, SihanoukvillePixabay/CC0

What else can I do?

Sihanoukville’s downtown market, Psar Leu, is worth a wander – particularly the seafood section if you’re not too squeamish. For views over the bay, head to hilltop Wat Leu pagoda – and time your visit for sunset if you want to be truly awestruck.

Out of town are Kbal Chhay waterfalls and Steung Hav fishing village, while the beaches, jungle and mangroves of Ream National Park, 17km east, are beautiful. If you can, stay at Monkey Maya, a gorgeous collection of bungalows perched above Ream Beach.

There’s plenty of chance to get active, too. You can see the countryside on horseback or go off the beaten track (literally) on a dirt bike. Island day trips are fun, and if you’re a diver or snorkeller, there are plenty of dive shops on and around Serendipity Beach Road. On Otres 2, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards at Otres Boat Club.

Kbal Chhay Waterfall, CambodiaMr & Mrs Backpacker/Flickr

Where’s best for some dinner?

Sandan, staffed by former street children, serves up interesting Cambodian dishes. Over in Otres, there’s fine dining at fancy hotel Tamu on Otres 2, while on Otres 1, Papa Pippo’s pizzas are delicious. Otres Village is something of a food hub, too, with creative vegan food at riverfront Pacha Mama, French crepes and Cambodian curries at Sok Sabay Resort and Italian food at Heart of Venice.

Surprisingly, vegetarian places are increasingly popular; Peace Café and Dao of Life stand out. If you’re looking for something easy on the pocket, Ochheuteal’s beach bars serve $5 barbecues.

Cambodian curryPeter/Flickr

And where should I drink?

It’s busy, but you can still enjoy a happy-hour cocktail at sunset on Ochheuteal, or at the lower-key bars on Serendipity Beach, the shorter stretch west of the pier. On Serendipity Beach Road, a party atmosphere prevails at The Big Easy and Utopia hostels.

Otres 1 has a more relaxed bar scene; try Dune or Sunshine Café. Wish You Were Here is always busy – perhaps because of the 4pm–10pm happy hour. For live music, try Straycats in Otres Village or, in high season, Saturday’s Otres Market has live music until the early hours.

Bar on Otres beach, SikounvilleLaura H Knight/Flickr

Where should I stay?

Serendipity Beach Road is lively and convenient, with bars, restaurants, spas and travel agents. Onderz proves hostels can be both sociable and spotless, and has a pool, while backpacker favourite Monkey Republic offers private rooms. Victory Hill, once the backpacker area (now better known for its relaxed bars) remains popular; new hostel-with-a-pool Backpacker Heaven is a welcome addition here.

Otres has a dizzying number of places. It’s budget-friendly on Otres 1 with Pat-Pat Guesthouse’s spacious dorm and poolside rooms, and Sea Garden’s beach bungalows. You’ll find some slightly more upscale options on Otres 2 with boutique hotels such as Ren Resort and Naia. The one hostel here, Footprints, comes recommended and hosts weekend parties.

For a different vibe, head half a mile inland to Otres Village. Top picks include Boho’s ensuite dorms, the bright blue cabins at Blue Sky Bungalows and fairytale-designed bungalows at Mama Clare’s.

Downtown SihanoukvilleAxel Drainville/Flickr

Sold. How do I get there?

Improved roads and connections have made it more comfortable to reach Sihanoukville by bus or minibus (private taxis are good value for groups) and you can fly from Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. You can also take the train from Kampot, Takeo or Phnom Penh: a new route launched in 2016 but it only runs on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.

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