'Undeveloped' Cambodian Town Draws Visitors

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Sihanoukville, a once-sleepy town on Cambodia's shoreline, is fast becoming an international tourist destination, including a five-star resort. So far, the spot on the beach has not been overrun by developers.


Now let's move from North Korea to Cambodia. You think about that country and one of two things probably come to mind: the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat and the murderous reign of Khmer Rouge.

As NPR's Michael Sullivan reports, there is now a new destination in Cambodia for tourists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: In the port city of Sihanoukville there's a little something for everyone.

Unidentified Woman: Hello. Come inside. Play.

SULLIVAN: Sihanoukville's bars and beaches have long been popular with backpackers and sex tourists, a cheaper, easier and less crowded version of similar haunts in neighboring Thailand. But Sihanoukville is now drawing a newer, more up-market crowd that's threatening to transform the sometimes sleepy and sleazy port into something more respectable.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Unidentified Woman #2: I may have your goggles if you want.

SULLIVAN: The Sokha Beach Hotel is Cambodia's first and only five-star beach resort, with a huge swimming pool and a private three quarters of a mile-long beach less than a three-hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh. It's popular with the weekend ex-pat crowd from the capital and increasingly with visitors from abroad. Like American, Debbie Wooten(ph).

Ms. DEBBIE WOOTEN: Beautiful beach. It's a new hotel. It's only been open for a couple of years. When it was full, they had some service issues. But, you know, they're working through it and it's gorgeous. In fact, my children and my husband caught a little octopus this morning and several starfish out there. So it's been lovely.

SULLIVAN: Wooten came to Cambodia mainly to see the temples at Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, and tacked on a few days at the beach for her four kids. The Sokha Beach general manager, Pierre Bernard(ph), says many tourists - mostly Europeans - are now doing the same. He says business has never been better.

Mr. PIERRE BERNARD (General Manager, Sokha Beach Hotel): The people go to Siem Reap, stop in Phnom Penh and end up their vacation in Sihanoukville, whereas a few years ago they would go to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and then finish their vacation in Thailand.

SULLIVAN: Vicky Leah(ph) came as a tourist a few years ago and never left. She and partner now run a dive shop in Sihanoukville, an idea she admits she would have thought absurd before she came.

Ms. VICKY LEAH: I would have been tempted to say, does Cambodia even have a coastline. I would never even have considered that. There isn't even a translation word in Cambodian for scuba diving, it's swimming underwater while breathing. You have to say it in a whole sentence.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

SULLIVAN: These days, Leah and her partner have almost more business than they can handle, running their boat on day trips or longer live-aboards a few hours out near several islands close to neighboring Vietnam.

Ms. LEAH: We've got a couple of (unintelligible) that are world-class, no to ways about it. You get staghorn coral, table coral, (unintelligible) coral, massive big coral bommies, damselfish, angelfish, barracuda; we get bumphead parrot fish, turtles, lot of nudibranchs, different anemones. It's really - it's a very, very pretty place.

SULLIVAN: A pretty place and an exotic stamp in a diver's logbook, and a new beach destination not yet overrun by developers. Sokha Beach general manager Pierre Bernard, though, predicts that will all change and fast.

Mr. BERNARD: You know, in 10 years, it will be such an impact with hotels and resort and villas and things like that, you know. I can see it when I'm looking at the number of people and investors coming every week here.

SULLIVAN: Several high-end resorts are already under construction.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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