Where on earth can you combine deep fried spiders, picturesque coastlines, Buddhist temples and the chance to try your hand at fire-breathing? Answer: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Flour white sands, small offshore islands, and a guaranteed sun lounger for everyone make Sihanoukville Cambodia’s premier coastal location. But this is no ordinary sun, sea and sand tourist destination. Far from it. With family-run restaurants in the shape of grass huts, and funky chill-out bars only a few steps from the shore, there’s no shortage of quirkiness about this place.
It amazed me how much Sihanoukville had to offer as a small yet charming seaside town. Trekking around Wat Leu (or upper Wat) I found myself admiring the beauty of the traditional Khmer sculptures, both old and new. Ten feet Ganesha carvings dug into the enclosing cliff-face, along with an eloquent number of spiralling nagas and a healthy dose of gold-painted stone-etched dancing girls, served to more then satisfy my relic hunter-esque cravings.
But if Ganesha, nagas and dancing girls don’t tickle your fancy, then there’s always the picture perfect view to soak up. Wat Leu, positioned dramatically atop Sihanoukville Mountain allows for a sweeping scenic view of the sky-blue ocean, the lush greenery of the forests, and the arching stretches of sandy coastline. This was an ideal place to watch the waves roll into shore.
On a slightly different tack, when embarking into the town centre for dinner one night, the opportunity arose to eat a local Cambodian speciality: tarantula. How could I resist? I picked a plump, hairy black spider out of ‘the spider bucket’, and lo and behold, about 10 minutes later it appeared before me on a plate, deep-fried. To my utter surprise, the arachnid seemed to whet my appetite, as opposed to emptying the contents of my stomach. But what does it taste like? My answer: chicken, no joke.
Apart from from my spider-eating antics, I found the restaurants in Sihanoukville had a wide range of Western and Khmer dishes. So if you don’t think you can deal with eating a spider or two don’t worry - you won’t starve! The majority of restaurants in the town centre overlook the street below and I found this, combined with the superbly spoken English of the waiters and waitresses, helped to create a considerably relaxed ambience about the place.
After thoroughly enjoying the local cuisine, I headed back to Independence Beach, Sihanoukville. Things start to kick off around seven o’clock in the evening, with fire breathing and fire dancing continuing throughout the night. Having consumed a few mojitos, I asked one of the guys performing the fire trickery if it would be possible for me to try my amateur hand at the art of fire breathing.
The muscular, heavily dreadlocked entertainer shot me a wry smile and handed me a jar of gasoline, and a flaming wooden torch. “No swallow, spit,” he informed me, motioning towards the flames of the burning torch. Having never tasted gasoline before, it came as an initial shock to my system, as I held a sufficient amount of flammable liquid in my mouth like a chipmunk. From studying the guys on the beach, I had managed to pick up a few hints. Apparently fire breathing was all about using your cheek muscles to propel the gasoline sharply out of your mouth and into the humid night air.
I was ready. Spitting the gas straight in the direction of the torch it instantly set fire, and temporarily lit up the shadows around me. My mouth did not set on fire (as I had initially feared), and all I needed was a decent shower, as I stank like a leaky petrol pump. But it was more than worth it! Besides a shower could wait until the morning.
Accommodation is Sihanoukville is very flexible. I stayed at the Reef hotel, in near proximity to the beach, for three days. But the other four days on my stay I simply hooked up my hammock at the bar, where accommodation was free. The bar owners were more than happy with this, and I wasn’t the only backpacker with the same money-saving ploy. In fact, I managed to meet a few new faces in the process, and brush up on my poker skills.
When morning arrived I crawled out of my hammock and settled myself on a nearby sun lounger in wait for my daily dose of sun. Whilst nursing a considerable hangover, I’d strongly recommend investing five or six dollars on a beachside traditional Khmer massage. At one point I had three separate masseuses massaging my legs, back, and neck whilst I bathed myself in the glorious sunshine and sipped on an ice-cool beverage. Ah the guilty pleasures!
Where to stay
The Reef Hotel is located between the imposing Golden Lions roundabout and Serendipity Beach. Apart from boasting clean, affordable rooms, the Reef Hotel also has a large swimming pool, free professional pool tables for all punters and a fine selection of ice-cold beverages on tap at the poolside bar.