Most tourists visit Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, then scram. But here’s a persuasive reason to stay: posh new beach resorts that rival Bali’s
Mention Cambodia to a reasonably worldly traveler and she’ll invariably picture Angkor Wat, the sprawling temple complex in the jungle’s depths. Tourists tend to squeeze the millennia-old site into a grander tour of Southeast Asia, their sole whistle-stop in the country. But for a 21st-century perspective on Cambodia’s assets, you’d be wise to look to the coastline, which unfurls some 275 miles between Thailand and Vietnam. Over the past few years, the southern stretch, dotted with islands, has been morphing from bucolic backwater into a bona fide beach destination, with resorts rapidly materializing.
The area’s main gateway is Sihanoukville, a port city named for a former king. An increasing number of regional flights bring in a hodgepodge of sunseekers—weekenders from the capital Phnom Penh, European tourists on package holidays and backpackers looking to disconnect on the beach. Not too long ago, this small seaside city had the languor of a sleepy beach town. Now, casinos with names like Wisney World dot its blocks, the constant whine of grinders and circular saws backdrops conversation and new construction is swallowing up public beaches. Fortunately, you needn’t stay long: High-speed ferries deliver visitors to nearby islands and the hotels that line their powdery, more meditative beaches.
Take the island of Koh Russey and its new Alila Villas Koh Russey resort, a 15-minute speedboat ride from the mainland. Opened last November on a previously uninhabited nature reserve, it’s Singapore-based Alila Villas’ first high-end property in Cambodia. Since guests catch the boat on a jetty just outside Sihanoukville, they can largely avoid the noisy city en route to the resort’s 63 beachfront rooms or villas rooted among the pines, coconut and ironwood trees and thickets of bamboo. (Koh means island and russey means bamboo in the national language, Khmer.) In each room, vast glass sliding doors open to the sounds of waves and views of the Gulf of Thailand’s jade-green water rolling until the horizon.
This March, the hotel group Six Senses—known for combining wellness with upscale swellness—will open its 16th resort (its first in Cambodia) just a hot stone’s throw from Koh Russey on a neighboring island. Spread across 30 acres on a forested rocky hill, the 40 villas, all free-standing and chicly modern, come furnished with private plunge pools. The 21,000-square-foot spa and fitness center will offer aerial yoga (practitioners contort within hammocks) and facials with a gold-leaf mask, among all the more standard fare.
Just under an hour’s high-speed ferry ride from Sihanoukville lies the Koh Rong archipelago. Spread over a dozen or so islands, the accommodation options range from cheap-and-cheerful beach bungalows to Song Saa, a glamorous all-villa retreat housed on its own pair of private islands (linked by a footpath). Song Saa, which opened in 2012, may well have kicked off coastal Cambodia’s makeover as a luxury travel scene. Some of the 27 villas, all with sea views, are overwater; others have private beaches. There’s a spa and a waterspouts center; the poolside-restaurant surprises by offering “Cambodian Street Food” (From $1,440 a night, all-inclusive, songsaa.com)
On Koh Rong, the archipelago’s largest island, the main village reliably lures backpackers. It’s filled with affordable places to swig a beer, arrange boat tours and eat beachside coconut-milk curry. On the island’s Long Set Beach, you can swim at night with the bioluminescent phytoplankton that light up in the dark as soon as you brush past them. And now, for travelers who enjoy the backpacker vibe but not their lodging choices, there’s the Royal Sands resort. Opened last year on another of the island’s bays, it brings a touch of Santorini to Cambodia, with its 67 whitewashed bungalows facing a long stretch of deserted beach.
Back on the mainland, a couple of hours east down the coast from Sihanoukville, sit a couple of equally attractive destinations. At Kampot, on the Tuek Chhou river, you can stroll around the old town’s grid of French colonial buildings or take a sunset cruise for an unprincely $3 a person. Kep, a 30-minute journey past Kampot, was a trendy haunt during the French colonial days, then was all but destroyed during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Today Kep is making something of a comeback thanks to its picturesque national park, vital seafood markets (fresh crab is a big deal here) and a clutch of fine resorts. Among the most stylish, Knai Bang Chatt, a seaside compound of renovated modernist villas, was one of the lone high-end hotels in the region when it opened in 2006. Now, it’s just one of many reasons why travelers may choose to linger in Cambodia a little longer.