Pristine, with squeaky clean stretches of sand, uninhabited islands, mangrove forests and fish laden seas, Cambodia’s south coast may be one of South-east Asia’s last untouched coastlines. It’s now all up for grabs.
When, two and a half years ago, newlywed Australian couple Rory and Melita Hunter chartered an old wooden fishing boat and set off to discover Cambodia’s coastline, they had no idea it would change the course of their lives. They thought they had found paradise: uninhabited islands with white-sand beaches framed by old-growth jungle, pale turquoise water teaming with multi-coloured fish and the occasional stilted fishing village. “We absolutely fell in love” says Rory, sitting on the beach of one of these islands, which after more than 18 months of government negotiations and US$500,000, he now owns.
The Hunter’s spent two weeks cruising Cambodia’s coastline, stopping off at remote uninhabited islands, diving for crab and sleeping under the stars, before stumbling across the Song Saa Islands (meaning “sweetheart” in Khmer)- two tiny islets for sale off the coast of Rong Island. For now, one of the islets is uninhabited, the other staffed and home to the Hunter’s holiday house. But three years from now it will be a sumptuous US$35 million Per Aquum resort (a Maldives-based group who also developed Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives and Desert Palm in Dubai) with 40 overwater villas designed by Bangkok based landscape gardener turned architect Bill Bensley.
Almost 30 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge reign, Cambodia is becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations in Asia. The magnificent 11th century temples of Angkor Wat are now the fastest growing tourism destination for any World Heritage monument; the country has Asia’s second fastest growing economy after China and real estate is rocketing. Now the government has earmarked the countries southern coastline as Asia’s next big tourist destination; “making it just like Phuket” one developer tells me optimistically.
“We are hoping to build a tourism corridor from Thailand right through to Vietnam”, says Cambodia’s Tourism Minster Dr. Thong Khon.
The list of developments on the table is staggering, with 61 of Cambodia’s islands tagged for development. Of the 22 islands off-shore from Sihanoukville, the coastline’s biggest town, 13 have already been leased; one will have its own racetrack, another a casino and shopping mall. Malaysian group KSKW in partnership with China’s Zong Rong Group will spend $2 billion building a resort and casino on Ta Kiev Island. On the outskirts of Ream National Park – 21,000 hectares of virgin mangrove forests, uninhabited beaches and jungle an hour’s drive east of Sihanoukville- a dozen more projects are underway. City Star, a Singapore-based group of French investors, has 500 hectares earmarked for eight to 10 five-star resorts and two golf courses. Ream Beach and Golf have scored 140 hectares with two kilometres of beach front and are planning several high end resorts, a 400 berth mariner and -naturally- a golf course.
Four years ago, there were only three places to stay at Sihanoukville’s Ochheuteal Beach. Today its full with European backpackers baking themselves while Khmer ladies and their children stalk the sands selling everything from lobster to hair removal sessions. Further along the beach, petrochemical company Sokimex- which has Sokha Hotels and Resorts and the ticket concession for the Angkor Historical Park in its portfolio- has announced plans to build a 1,000-room resort.
Recently reopened, Sihanoukville’s airport is slated to become the country’s largest, its second runway currently being lengthened to handle 747’s. For now, only small charter planes fly down from the capital, Phnom Penh.
Officials are also hoping to lure cruise ships to Sihanoukville’s deep-water port, flying them off to the temples of Angkor Wat before dazzling them at a string of new casinos opening in Siem Reap. Build it and they will come: The government says 320,000 tourists visited Sihanoukville in 2006, 30% more than in 2005. Local tourist businesses say these figures have now doubled.
“Nobody ever expected the numbers that have arrived this year,” says Werner Mennel, General Manager at the Independence Hotel, which recently reopened after 25 years. “Visitor numbers have doubled from last year”. Towering above 7-Chann Beach (meaning “hotel seven storey” beach), the Independence Hotel was built during Sihanoukville’s 1960’s heyday. But then came the Vietnam War- the last battle fought on nearby Koh Tang in 1975.
Although most of the country’s south-coast boom is centred on Sinahoukville, the jet-set crowd are veering east to quieter, prettier and classier Kep, once the darling of the sun-seeking Phnom Penh society crowd, who built their mansions and holiday villas along the town’s rocky beaches. Many of the buildings are still there, their burnt out skeletons and crumbling facades a ghostly reminder of town’s past: Kep was the first town to come under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime.
Others, like Knai Bang Chatt, have recently been returned to their former glory. Renovated by Boris Vervoordt, the son of Belgium interior designer Axel Vervoordt, three unpolished minimalist Miami-style villas offer the coolest accommodation on the coast, with raw concrete set against pastel shades and antique furniture. Nearby, the former colonial govenor’s mansion is being converted into an all-villa resort.
Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay), a dazzling little white-sand island wedged between Kep and the Vietnam border, has also been tagged for development. For now, simple thatched bungalows offer accommodation to tranquillity-seeking intrepid tourists, but rumours circulate about resorts and casinos. At nearby Bokor Hill Station, the once favourite haunt for French colonialists escaping the steamy summer heat, there are plans to revive the former casinos.
Given Cambodia’s war-torn past and current poverty and the price of beach properties in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, it’s little wonder the government is selling as much as they can. But some feel it’s too fast. “The government is so out of their depth”, said one property developer who requested to remain anonymous. “They threw everything onto the market in 12 months with no master plan and no thought on how they want to develop Cambodia’s coastline. There is a tremendous amount of speculation running around, and most are just brash statements”.
Back on Song Saa Islands, fishermen are reeling in their anchors and preparing to head out for the nights catch. One stops by to offer some fish and refuses payment. The bay is serenely beautiful, almost ethereal; a place, thankfully, before golf clubs and casinos, karaoke bars and fast cars.
Veranda Resort: Cute wood and stone bungalows on the hill above Kep, with sublime views across a sweeping bay; book Le Villa for privacy and space. Rooms from US$25; +855 12888619; www.veranda-resort.com
The Independence Hotel: Sihanoukville’s original beach resort, recently reopened after 25 years, still has the town’s best views. Rooms from US$110; +855 34934300/3; www.independencehotel.net
Sokha Beach Resort: Sihanoukville’s most luxurious hotel verges on ostentatious, with a ten meter stretched Excursion SUV in the lobby. Rooms from US$130; +855 23988075; www.sokhahotels.com
Don’t miss the crab shacks lined up along the shoreline at Kep; the crab with green peppercorn from nearby plantations is sensational.
Treasure Island: Seafood and Cantonese with ocean views in Sinahoukville. +855 16876618
The Sailing Club: An old fisherman’s revamped in brilliant seaside-blue. Steal a table on the deck for one of Kep’s famous sunsets with crepe, salad and fish and chips. +855 12879486; www.knaibangchatt.com
Bokor Mountain Lodge: Charming colonial-era mansion perched on the edge of the river in Kampot. Local Khmer food and crab. +855 33932314; www.bokorlodge.com
The Riel: Grungy garage style bar and cultural centre operated by French expatriates with free concerts by visiting musicians. www.kep-riel-bar.com
Sunset Bar: Wooden white terrace with indoor/outdoor seating on a quiet stretch of Sihanoukville sand. +855 34934300/3; www.independencehotel.net
Rikitikitavi: Stylish new bar with views over the river and mountains in Kampot; +855 12235102; www.rikitikitavi-kampot.com