Why Sihanoukville Was Not For Me

Sihanoukville: blissful idleness, or something more sinister going on?
Sihanoukville: blissful idleness, or something more heinous going on?

“Hey! Hey hey! Hey you!”

The voice jerked me out of my contemplation of the emerald waters as I walked along Serendipity Beach the afternoon I arrived in Sihanoukville. A shirtless, dreadlocked guy was standing in front of me, arms open as if for a hug.

This was my introduction to the seasonal “workers” at JJ’s, a bar/club whose fixture on Sihanoukville’s backpacker party circuit I had read about long before I stumbled upon it that afternoon. I put “workers” in quotation marks because it was hard to tell which of the several dozen tanned, fit, young white people there were actually working there and which were just “hanging out.” Everybody looked like they had woken up barely an hour ago, still shrinking from the suffocating 2pm sun. Some were clearly hung over and trying to stave off the pounding head and parched mouth by beginning to drink already. Others looked like they hadn’t even reached the hangover stage of the previous night’s partying. Perhaps pot allows you to skip the effects of a hangover? For the medicinally sweet scent could be inhaled every block or so.

JJ’s clearly went for “frat house basement” decor–graffiti on the walls, concrete floors (making it easy to mop up spills), upturned wooden furniture.  This is apparently acceptable because you’re partying like a college student in Cambodia instead of partying like a college student back home. Oh, wait. Anyone older than 22 should not actually want to be back in a frat house basement with their sticky floors and discarded plastic drink cups multiplying on ledges and table corners. But when backpacking, it seems that any postgraduate maturity one has managed to collect is inversely proportional to the product of the population density of beautiful young people and the number of miles away one is from home.

The Golden Lions Roundabout--marking where the strip of hedonism begins.
The Golden Lions Roundabout–marking where the strip of hedonism begins.

The “highlight” of my midday experience at JJ’s was being dragged into a very bad game of beer pong on a shaky picnic table right on the beach—only it wasn’t beer we were using, it was gin and tonic, because the motor needed to operate the beer dispensers were out of gas. The ping pong balls kept dropping into the sand and rolling into a tepid pool of standing water filled with decaying plastic and unidentified hairs. Our audience? Half a dozen Cambodian children between three to eight years old, who didn’t bat an eye at the daytime drinking, culturally insensitive semi-nudity, and swearing.

That very interesting afternoon represented, for me, what Sihanoukville is about: a system set up for you to gorge on indulgences. The days of the Serendipity and Occheuteal areas of Sihanoukville being considered beachfront idylls were long gone, no matter what the guidebooks said. Even Otres Beach, often touted as the “chilled-out” alternative several kilometers southeast of central Sihanoukville, seemed overrun by lounge chairs, calls of “tuk-tuk?” or “manicure?”, and droopy-skinned middle-aged European men wearing Speedos.

Serendipity Beach in the daytime. Empty because everyone is resting up for a night of partying.
Serendipity Beach in the daytime. Empty because everyone is resting up for a night of partying.

Were all of my beach experiences in Southeast Asia going to be like this? Fortunately, paradise–the natural version, not the commercialized, sterilized, and fed-to-the-masses one–was to be found just a few hours away….


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