'Undeveloped' Cambodian Town Draws Visitors

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.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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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