In Cambodia, the ‘Next Phuket’?

Published: April 9, 2006

THE "largest and wildest" full-moon party, promised the yellow flier taped to a phone booth on Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Another installment of Thailand's girls-gone-wild bacchanal on the island of Ko Phangan? Or its bigger brother, Ko Samui? Or maybe it was the newcomer Ko Phi Phi, a remote island that is luring younger partygoers in the post-tsunami boom.

And, yes, every month there's a full-moon party, reminiscent of Ko Phangan's infamous drug-addled raves.

Yet, it's a far cry from, say, Phuket, where the sex trade rules the streets. Sihanoukville's white, sandy beaches may run riot with local girls, but they are selling only handmade bracelets and fresh fruit. Likewise, guesthouses here cater to backpackers, and they are significantly cheaper than those in Thailand.

At the popular foreign-owned Monkey Republic Bungalows, up the hill from Serendipity Beach (855-012-490-290), a night in a two-person bungalow costs 24,000 riels ($6.35, at 4,000 riels to the dollar; many merchants accept payment in United States dollars). The kitchen serves both Cambodian and Western-style dishes for just a few dollars a meal; tall bottles of Angkor beer — brewed just minutes away — are less than a dollar. For those feeling a bit homesick, the nearby British- and Canadian-owned Mick and Craig's Guesthouse (855-012-727-740) serves a Sunday roast for 20,000 riels. The rooms here aren't as comfortable as the Monkey Republic's, but at 20,000 riels ($5) for a double, no one complains.

Other pleasures can be had for a song. An hourlong massage on the beach costs about 15,000 riels. For about the same price, visitors can rent a motorbike and explore the palm-lined countryside. Sunsets, of course, are free and best seen from Sokha Beach, a 15-minute walk from Serendipity.

But development, no doubt, is coming. Ko Russei, one of about a dozen nearby islands, already has two resorts, and a cluster of midpriced bungalows is being proposed. By most accounts, it won't be long before the stretches of sandy seclusion are overrun with package tourists.

So assuming that the Cambodian government remains stable and the highway connecting Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh remains paved, expect backpacks to increasingly give way to rolling suitcases.

Not quite. This particular moonlight spectacle, in fact, wouldn't even be in Thailand, but across the border, in Cambodia's budding seaside town, Sihanoukville. It is "just nine-and-a-half hours from Bangkok," according to the flier, the work of Cambodian entrepreneurs hoping to turn Sihanoukville into the latest party hot spot.

Like bohemians colonizing a sketchy up-and-coming neighborhood, European and Australian backpackers have been blazing trails through Cambodia steadily since the mid-1990's. Although the last of the Khmer Rouge traded their machetes for plowshares only eight years ago, this nation of 13 million is fast becoming a companion destination to Thailand — that is, another seemingly safe haven of lush landscapes and warm embraces for Westerners.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the low-key but alluring beaches of Sihanoukville, where development is being modeled after Thailand's resorts. Along the touristy strip of sand known as Serendipity, several restaurants brazenly advertise "happy" pizza and "happy" pancakes, seasoned with a certain illicit herb. Nearby, Victory Hill is trying to become Cambodia's version of Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's more garish red-light districts.

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