Cambodia is quickly coming of age on the Southeast Asian tourism scene, enjoying annual double-digit increases in international tourist arrivals every year this millennium.
Cambodia has a lot to offer, from a rich culture to accommodating and gentle Buddhist hospitality, great food, and, best of all, possibly the lowest prices of any country in the world.
In 2016 more than 200,000 Americans came to discover the Kingdom. They were among about 5 million total international visitors.
To put this into perspective, neighboring Thailand saw about five times that number of overseas tourists last year.
So Cambodia is positioned right where we want it. All amenities you could want and decent infrastructure but low prices because it’s still mostly undiscovered.
Electricity is reliable, international cable television is available cheap, the internet works, the water flows…
The roads need work. For example, the national highway from the capital Phnom Penh to the beaches of Sihanoukville is only two lanes for much of the trip. The journey between the two cities takes at least four hours even though the distance being traveled is only 135 miles. That’s right. You’re traveling at 35 miles per hour…
Sihanoukville (sometimes affectionately called “Snookyville”) is the oldest and largest seaside resort city in Cambodia with eight gorgeous beaches. The allure of unspoiled and beautiful islands just leads many tourists to transit quickly through the city and jump on a boat to those offshore points where they can party the night away. Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Ta Kiev, and Koh Thmei are the most popular islands, with Koh Rong being only 30 minutes from Sihanoukville by boat. Most of that group are younger backpackers on a party vacation.
We older folks tend to focus on Sihanoukville, which is quieter and more peaceful.
In fact, Sihanoukville is home to a large expat population. Thousands of mostly French and American expats call this city home.
The big draw? It’s the cost of living and the great beaches.
Cambodia is probably the cheapest place to live not only in Southeast Asia but perhaps in the world.
If your budget is shoestring, you can rent a furnished room with fan, private bath, international cable television, and internet for US$100 per month or less. A more up-market studio with air conditioning, balcony with a sea view, and all other amenities costs in the range of US$150 to US$200 per month, without a lease or long-term commitment.
Food is a ridiculous bargain. It’s easy to find a full Western meal for US$2 or US$3. You can enjoy a beer out for as little as 50 cents, depending on the place and time, and you’ll never pay more than US$1.
If you stick to a simple life, it’s difficult to exceed US$400 per month on food and drink, plus another US$175 on rent and visa, making it easy to live here on US$600 or less.
If you select low-end but still acceptable accommodation and cook at home part of the time, your budget could come in for US$500 per month or less, making Cambodia even cheaper than Vietnam and Laos, with those two being probably the second and third cheapest countries in Asia.
If your tastes and budget are more luxury, you can find villas and homes for rent, fancier restaurants, wine at US$3 per glass, and lots of leisure activities.
The cost of a high-end lifestyle in this part of the world? Easy to live in relative luxury for US$1,000 a month at most.
Living in Cambodia, you’ll find a noticeable absence of red tape and rules, which can be both good and bad. For example, I met a man who loves to sit outside a small family convenience store and drink his 35-cents-per-can beer. He appears each afternoon, and the family pulls out a table and chairs for him. Presto, you’ve got a super cheap bar. No liquor license or approval of any kind.
You’ll also see a young man from Vermont with a simple food cart on “Food Street” (141st Street) in the evenings. He sells big, juicy tacos, two for US$2.50, absolutely authentic and delicious.
I’ve talked to him a few times. He has explained that he had been hanging around town not working, got the taco idea, and just set up the stand and started the business. No permits, red tape, health inspections, etc.
Scams, rip-offs, deposits, advanced payments, hidden charges or fees, shakedowns, and bribes are practically nonexistent. Such is the beauty of life in a country still in its infancy as an expat destination. When a destination becomes more developed, you can find a more jaded expatriate population, frustrated by daily hassles, but the scene in Sihanoukville is laid back and happy. Why wouldn’t it be? Nobody here bothers anyone.
Within just a few days of your arrival and frequenting local cafés, restaurants, and bars, you can easily make friends and join in the community. On my first trip, I knew nobody, but I met dozens of interesting and unique expats, mostly the crusty veteran traveler type, folks who have been around the block a few times.
Medical facilities in Sihanoukville are limited, making visits to Phnom Penh necessary for anything other than routine illnesses.
Another downside can be a lack of hygiene. Personal residences and businesses are clean for the most part, but some restaurants are cluttered and dirty even though the food is delicious. You can find lots of garbage accumulated on uninhabited and public property. Garbage collection must be managed privately.
It’s possible to stay in Cambodia indefinitely, and, as is the case for every expense in this country, for a very low cost. Visas are cheap, and many can be extended indefinitely for a total cost of about US$25 per month (or US$300 per year).
Ekareach Street is the main road leading from New Beach to the big traffic circle at the top of Victory Hill. Two streets are noteworthy: Street 141, aptly nicknamed “Food Street,” the home of a dozen or so low-end restaurants offering delicious and cheap local and foreign food… and Street 139, “Bar Street,” a low-end drinking street with a down-market but comfortable feel.
The beauty of Sihanoukville’s city center is it’s large enough to have everything you could need yet small enough to retain a provincial feel. No hustle or bustle, no traffic jams, and no huge crowds to deal with. The Sihanoukville International Clinic is situated in the center and has a competent team of English-speaking care providers.
The big draw, again, though, is the coastline. Surrounding Sihanoukville are eight white-sand beaches stretching along 25 kms of coast.
The northernmost beach, Victory Beach (locally known as Mlop Chrey), is frequented mostly by locals. Victory is also one point of embarkation for travel to Koh Rong by fast ferry.
Next comes Hawaii Beach (Ratanak locally), followed by Independence and Sokha beaches, each with its own local flavor.
Otres Beach is a collection of beach huts stretching for about 1 km, about 20 minutes from the center of Sihanoukville. Most of the huts are large restaurants and bars with indoor seating plus beachfront lounges along the narrow beach. The big attraction here is the daytime peace and calm. However, come evening, this becomes a party beach.
Serendipity and Ochheuteal, connecting beaches in the southwest of the city center, are the most developed and popular among foreign visitors. These are both beautiful, wide, white-sand beaches with sparkling water, fishing boats just offshore, and islands forming the backdrop.
On the whole, Sihanoukville strikes just the right balance between world-class white-sand beaches and the amenities of a city, including quality dining and shopping at the lowest prices in the region. The French-Indochina fusion cuisine at rock-bottom prices alone should be enough to make anyone want to visit.
Plus, the climate is pleasant year-round.
In Sihanoukville, you’ll find enough variety and action to keep you from being bored, but, at the same time, the pace is slow and peaceful.
Now is the time to enjoy this excellent destination. It’s on the way up the list in Southeast Asia.
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