A beach is a beach is a beach…

Southeast Asia is world-renowned for one thing in particular; its beaches. If you’ve watched Danny Boyle’s The Beach then you will have seen the extent of how beautiful this part of the world can be. One of the first blogs we wrote was about Koh Samui in Thailand and its beach Mai Nam. Now, that was just truly exotic and a real delight.

As we have travelled through this part of the world we have always been drawn to the coast. Laos, being a land-locked country, has the Mekong flowing right through it so we were still able to experience some kind of beach. However it was nearly two months from leaving Koh Samui before we were stood on a coastline again. This was at the Cambodian town of Sihanoukville.

The main beach of Sihanoukville, Serendipity Beach, is quite literally the opposite to Mai Nam; crowded, a constant flow of hawkers up and down the beach (this also includes western hawkers handing out flyers for bars), a clubbers haunt at night and by day lots of flies, partly due to the scattering of left over crab and other local delights.

A lovely pair of coconuts
Now you might think that this sounds truly awful, but it wasn’t, it was something we were prepared for as we’d both visited this same spot when we’d travelled previously. We knew that when a hawker accosted us that unless we really wanted to have a handmade bracelet or a pedicure or grilled squid then we would be blunt and to the point i.e. become very un-English. It is the only way that you can avoid being swarmed by half a dozen people trying to sell you something because you’ve just engaged in conversation a sweet little girl trying to sell you three said handmade bracelets. I’d learned my lesson from the last time I was in Cambodia after I told a little 12 year old girl that ‘I might want a bracelet later’. BIG mistake. She came back later and because I had been very English and ambiguous in my dealing with her (Of course I didn’t want to waste my money on a friendship bracelet!!) she yelled at me, started crying and called me a f***ing c**t! She knew exactly what she was saying and said it with pure venom. So this time, there would be none of this making children cry.

The beach itself has improved greatly since we were both here last. It is actually much less crowded and there is very little litter left on the beach compared to the years before, although we are at the end of the tourist season now and entering the rainy season. There used to be just a dirt track leading from the main road to the beach but now this has been tarmac-ed with an assortment of western style restaurants and hotels built up along it. It is clear to see that Sihanoukville is on the Ministry of Tourism’s agenda. I can imagine in the not so distant future, probably within the next five years, it will rival much of Thailand’s better-known resorts.

At night, if you love Vang Vieng then you will equally love Serendipity Beach. Loud and brash, it becomes one long party. You can start the night at the many beachside restaurants with some grilled fish and a cocktail then work you way down to JJ’s which is the main club on the beach and watch the hypnotic Thai fire dancers while you get a bit of déjà vu and think ‘I’m sure I have seen this all before.’

Cambodia’s main beach resort is clearly something of pride for the Cambodians; Pres Obama is even expected to visit in November (Although, with the elections on at that time I am not sure if this is altogether true). There are quieter beaches in Sihanoukville but we didn’t want to pay the fairly hefty tuk tuk prices to get there.

We mainly visited Sihnoukville so that we could get super-fast Vietnamese visas while having a bit of a beach holiday, so within a couple of days we moved on south to the lesser-visited sea-side town of Kep.

Kep has a small red-sandy beach, 1000 metres long, with barely a soul in sight. When I say barely a soul in sight, I really mean that. It is nice and quiet. Not spectacular or teaming with life, but a remedy for the spirit.

View out to Kep Beach from our balcony
The town itself has countless abandoned French villas that suffered damage during the battles between Khmer and Vietnamese forces in the 70’s. They have been left for nature to run its course it seems. Locals have occupied some but others are clearly uninhabitable. We went inside one such villa. It was covered in lewd graffiti and the floor in one of the rooms had caved in. The peeling and greying paint made it feel almost post-apocalyptic.
A French villa left to the elements
There was no need to spend too long in Kep, it is lovely and has a great crab market to visit, but the food prices here are literally extortionate. I made the mistake of ordering a chicken soup without taking in the price when we had stopped at an innocuous beachside hut after a stroll along the coast. The soup was $6! Nowhere else on our travels has food been so ridiculously expensive without any real justification. It didn’t matter where we ate it was always between $4 to $8 for a meal.

After three days we were refreshed and ready to take on our next challenge, Vietnam. The border is only a 40 minute drive from Kep so the journey was probably one of our quickest so far. We arrived at the border an hour after we departed Kep due to an unforeseen flat tyre. Our driver and his assistant were well equipped so the spare was hauled on in no time, I dare say that neither of them even broke out into a sweat which is quite remarkable in the 32 degree heat (Did we mention that it’s hot here?). On the Vietnamese side of the border we found ourselves waiting for the next mode of transport for a while. Our plan was to be taken to the port of Ha Tien in order to pick up a ferry to our next destination but the minibus didn’t turn up, so we paid a couple of motorbike taxi drivers to ride us and our four backpacks to the port instead. We made it to the port just in time to pick up the ferry to the island of Phu Quoc.

The largest island of Vietnam, Phu Quoc (pronounced foo kwok… not poo cock) is 12km off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand and 40km from the Vietnamese port of Ha Tien. You can only get to the island via Vietnam however there are rumours that soon you will be able to sail from Cambodia. But these rumours go back years now.

In my personal opinion, Phu Quoc is probably the best place I have ever been in my life. Go. Just go. Before it all goes tits up and turns into some ugly over-developed island resort, please go. There’s an airport with lots of flights from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only an hour away by air, or, as we later found out, 13 hours by land. You have no excuse now, other than available funds and time, but honestly, trust me, YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS PLACE.

Long Beach
Ok, this is why we loved it so much: We stayed beside a beautifully long beach called, funnily enough, Long Beach, in a hotel complex called Lien Hiep Thanh Hotel, for $10 a night – about £6.50 a night – although we had to sacrifice by having cold showers and a fan to get this price, and no bungalow this time. The owners, a very sweet Vietnamese family, had five dogs, three of which were puppies and the two others were the mum and grandma of the puppies. By now you should realise that any hotel with animals has us hooked. The beach was 50ft from our door and we could hear the powerful crashes of the waves even from our room. With a bottle of Vietnam’s very own Dalat wine we spent our evenings stuffing ourselves with locally caught seafood that was brought out onto a large model boat, where we would select whatever we wanted and have it barbecued on the beach. Just a wonderful existence, so we stayed for two and a half weeks, sunning ourselves by day (when there weren’t torrential storms) and gorging by night.
My tummy is going crazy for this fish!
There is a lot to do on Phu Quock if you decide to do it, for example, a visit to the calmer Sao Beach with its white sand and barely any hint of a wave, or Coconut Prison where Viet Cong prisoners were held during the Vietnamese War. There’s snorkeling, diving, fishing, basically everything a tourist expects to find on a tropical island. We were really really lazy, hardly ever stood up to be honest, although we did venture to Sao Beach for about 30 minutes until we noticed the price of steamed rice at one particular restaurant (50,000 dong i.e. nearly £2!!) and quickly got off.  Nevertheless, we had an amazing time just being there.
Aren’t they just adorable?!
So, a beach is a beach is a beach, right? Well, no. A bit of sand parallel to open waters might look like a beach but what really matters is who and/or what else is in close proximity to said beach that makes all of the difference. If you love a beach full of energy and life, then Serendipity is for you. If you enjoy the seaside days of old and have a hefty bank balance then by all means, visit Kep, you might really love it. If you want to visit a beach that is beautiful and take a piece of that beauty home in your heart forever, then please visit Phu Quoc. It is stunning.