Home » The demise of Sihanoukville: Why we no longer travel there

The demise of Sihanoukville: Why we no longer travel there

written by Intrepid Travel January 15, 2020
Lots of boats crowded around a pier in Cambodia.

If you want to see the face of overtourism, take a plane to Phnom Penh and catch a bumpy five-hour bus to Sihanoukville – a once-sleepy town on a little peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand. Sihanoukville is the jewel of Cambodia’s tourism industry. Or at least it used to be. 

If you visited Sihanoukville five years ago, you might not recognise it today. The town has been swamped by foreign investment and tourism, mauled by construction. In fact, we’ve just made the difficult decision to stop visiting Sihanoukville altogether. As of this year, it no longer appears on Intrepid’s Cambodian itineraries, which is a terrible shame on so many levels.

A boat and island at dusk.

Sihanoukville used to look like this. Photo by Zahra Saleki.

For the vast majority of its history, nobody paid Sihanoukville much attention. The city doesn’t have any proper waterways, so during the Angkor Empire, most trade ran out of O Keo in the Mekong Delta. Sihanoukville was just a little peninsula, sticking out into the Gulf of Thailand, surrounded by jungle-covered hills and a string of golden beaches. It was only after Cambodian independence in 1954 that the government decided to build a port here; the deep water and easy access made Sihanoukville the logical choice. And when the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Sihanoukville became one of Cambodia’s economic success stories: a bustling trade town and fishing village, which slowly morphed into the country’s favourite seaside resort.

We started coming here back in 2007. At that time, Sihanoukville was still a blip on the average tourist’s radar. Serendipity Beach drew a steady crowd of unshaven backpackers, and there were a few bungalows popping up near Otres Beach, but most tour buses still made a bee-line north from Phnom Penh, shuttling visitors back and forth to Siem Reap. Cambodia’s coastline was kind of ignored, especially compared to Thailand’s archipelago, pulsing and flashing just across the Gulf. Sihanoukville was growing, but slowly. If people knew how good it was, they weren’t telling anybody.

A construction site in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Construction in Sihanoukville. Photo by diy13.

Unfortunately this is the story of overtourism, repeated like-for-like all over the world. The backdrop changes, but the plot is depressingly familiar. It starts with backpackers and bohemian, adventure types, then tour companies (like us) open up new routes and itineraries, making it easier and cheaper for travellers to visit. Local companies respond by investing in tourism infrastructure, building new hotels and resorts, and then there’s a flash point – maybe the destination gets featured in a Top 10 list, or some Hollywood studio decides to shoot a movie there (see Thailand’s Kho Phi Phi) – and demand suddenly soars way, way above supply. Travellers swarm in unsustainable numbers, overwhelming the locals and triggering all sorts of unintended consequences (crime, pollution and environmental damage being the big three). It’s happened in Croatia, Thailand, Venice, Barcelona and now (unfortunately) Sihanoukville.

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Sihanoukville today is almost unrecognizable. More than 70 individual casinos have been built here in the last three years alone. There are even plans underway for a new $1 billion, 65-hectare Chinese-Malaysian resort, Wisney World, set to feature “water parks, hotels, casinos, malls, gardens and churches” (according to the Phnom Penh Post.) Much of Ream National Park has been logged and cleared for development, and there’s a four-lane highway being forged between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. The town itself is now an almost-permanent construction zone. Bricks and construction materials litter the streets, the crime rate is growing, and Sihanoukville’s postcard beaches are now choked with plastic bags. The economic gap between the city’s rich and poor is widening – fast.

Litter-strewn pier in Sihanoukville

Rubbish litters the town. Photo by TheWalkingEye.

The cruellest irony of overtourism is the direct correlation between beauty and suffering: if Sihanoukville had been slightly less perfect, its beaches less isolated and sun-kissed, its waters less photogenic, tourists might never have come here, and developers would have nothing to sell. As one of the tour companies that opened Sihanoukville to the world, we have to take some of the responsibility for its downfall. It’s one of the reasons we’re pushing so hard for a new kind of travel: ‘undertourism’.

This year we released our first ever Not Hot List – a compilation of destinations that are on pretty much nobody’s dream itinerary. But they should be. Out-of-the-way spots that have never even seen a Starbucks espresso machine. We’re trying to alleviate the negative effects of tourism while sharing and spreading its economic benefit – introducing travellers to new communities in a sustainable way.

RELATED: A GUIDE TO BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA’S MOST UNDERRATED CITY

“We must be cautious of the effect that travel has on the health and wellness of locals and of the destination,” says Intrepid CEO James Thornton. “At Intrepid, we hold the traveller and the destination in equal respect, and believe one need not be sacrificed for the other.”

In Cambodia’s case, that means saying goodbye to Sihanoukville (for now) and looking to smaller towns like Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Battambang and Kampot instead. You can check out our new itineraries here.

Newsletter subscription bannerIn amending our itineraries to no longer include Sihanoukville, we considered the impact this would have on local businesses, but Cambodian-owned businesses are now a rarity in Sihanoukville , as most hotels and restaurants are operated by foreign investors. We weighed this up against the experience our customers were expecting in Cambodia, and chose to include lesser-known towns throughout Cambodia’s countryside instead.

We hope the travel industry – us included – can learn from the mistakes of the past. We hope that Sihanoukville can recover and bounce back. It’ll probably never be the sleepy town that it once was, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great again. There’s no reason that travel and sustainable, patient development can’t go hand in hand. There’s no reason travel can’t enrich local communities, instead of overwhelming them. There’s no reason it can’t start right now.

Explore our full range of small group adventures in Cambodia now

Feature photo by Stephen Parry. 

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48 comments

A Ryan October 1, 2021 - 8:29 am

A disturbing article, followed by oblivious comments. You are all a bunch of colonists at heart. Who are you to demand that these countries remain in a third world state, purely for your vacation enjoyment? Hate to tell you, Cambodia wants a better quality of life for its citizens, and unfortunately a magic wand and fairy dust won’t do it. There has to be a vast period of pollution , corruption and ‘dark satanic mills’. Just like the rest of us went through over the last two or three centuries, so now we can pretend to enjoy what we destroyed in our own countries. But our reality was not sylvan woods and crystal streams. More like sitting half starved with pitchforks around a bonfire of refuse, after labouring in the fields over a poor harvest, deciding which witch to burn next or which public hanging to attend. Even during the reign of our Great Aunt Victoria, having families of 10 children or more, knowing half of them will succumb to disease. Oh, how idyllic our own rural lifestyles were!

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Stephanie September 29, 2021 - 2:01 am

SUPER DUPER weird of you to “acknowledge” your part in overtourism, and then go on with a “Not Hot List”, doing the exact god damn thing again.

And it feels kinda cowardly to not mention the Chinese influence here. Shit article.

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Koen August 23, 2021 - 9:44 am

Well done Cambodia ! But please try to keep your forests OK ? Oh damned, too late.

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Koen August 23, 2021 - 9:39 am

I have been in Sihanoukville / Otres in 2016 to 2017 for 2 weeks. There was a lovely atmosphere, and stuff was in good equilibrium with the locals. The community expats/locals in Otres was really nice. There was already a chinese start of what has now exploded, I could see it coming. This is not a next step after mass tourism. I suspect the Government guys in Cambodia gave in to the Yen. What a shame. All is irreversibly destroyed in such a short time. We never learn as a species, destroying our own planet. Congratulations to the Cambodia government for your long term vision. Please try to keep your forests. Oooh oops, you have cleared them already in 20 years time… Try to.. uhm.. never mind.

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Michael B March 24, 2021 - 4:33 am

So happy to have landed there for a few days while on a motorcycle journey around the coast in 2005. Sad to hear the news.

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Steven L Carr February 6, 2021 - 6:40 am

We are planning a two up motorcycle tour of Cambodia and Thailand in November of this year, if Covid lets us go….We need a hotel in Sihanoukville for a night or two whilst we collect our motorcycle from the port facility. Our other option is to ship the bike to Thailand instead, and option out of Sihanoukville completely. We are looking forward to this trip as we have friends and family in Cambodia and Thailand. Thanks so much for your insights…IMHO, the Cambodians have sold their soul to the Chinese, and it’s not just here…

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Steven Barringham October 14, 2020 - 4:04 am

I just read this article. I think you give yourself as a tourism operator too much credit for Sihanoukville’s demise. To imply it has been destroyed by mass tourism would dismiss the obvious, which is it has basically been invaded by China. The Chinese will do what they do everywhere they go: support Chinese businesses. Does not matter what happens to the locals cause they don’t care. Throw in the money (casinos, land speculation, tax avoidance, criminal activity, etc) and it’s their holiday mecca.
I spent time in Sihanoukville in earl 2010 and loved it. Laid back, cheap and fun. No corporate cookie cutter tourism here. More like the hippie trail. And the locals were friendly beyond belief! Reminded me of backpacking thru Mexico and Central America in the early ’80’s. Now, it depresses me to even hear what is happening in Sihanoukville.
But if you are so inclined as to give it a shot and go there, support the locals and avoid all the Chinese enterprises. Won’t be hard!

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situs depobola October 10, 2020 - 9:22 pm

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Go September 29, 2020 - 11:19 pm

This is so misinformed, over-tourism was never the issue. Talk to the locals – it’s a port being completely taken over by mainland China.

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Jono July 23, 2020 - 11:00 am

The recent changes in Sihanoukville might be a reason to keep going there – have a discussion with your clients about what the town is like, why there are issues and what they are. As some people suggest you can escape town to the islands. Sihanoukville was never an idyllic paradise – it had terrible poverty and reputation for child exploitation. Those issues haven’t gone away, and will have been added to recently. It needs our help more than ever. There’s a wonderful organisation in Sihanoukville called M’lop Tapang, which has been working there for over 15 years to improve safety for kids and families.

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Amanda May 28, 2020 - 2:51 am

I lived in Cambodia in 2010 doing a volunteer program teaching English to orphans and visited Sihanoukville and Otres beach a few times. My heart breaks to see this and hear this. Humans are a virus and we destroy everything we touch in the end. I’m so glad I have my pictures and memories of the beautiful place it once was. So sad 🙁

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Greg April 20, 2020 - 12:32 pm

Good summary and I agree it’s an absolute scandel how badly development has been managed; even breaking Cambodia’s own (slack) land / environment laws in the process.

I spent many weeks in/around Sihanoukville and the islands from 2005-2011 and, whilst it was very rough around the edges, it had a unique charm. Many of those trips were absolutely idyllic. I have friends who first met on Otres and were swept away by the romance; later returning to be married 😉

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Tony G March 12, 2020 - 9:54 pm

I was on a Silversea cruise that stopped there early February 2020, and very few passengers even left the ship Having read about Sihanoukville I wrote to Silversea before the cruise to ask why on earth they were stopping there. They responded that it was too late to change the itinerary and there was no other deep water harbour in Cambodia as an alternative. Having also read about the Cambodian visa scam of charging US$30 for every cruise passenger even if they did not disembark, I told Silversea I was not paying, and, to their credit, they did not charge me the $30, although I was told by a cruise purser that Silversea paid themselves for my visa, and took the hit.

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Anon March 9, 2020 - 8:32 pm

Backpacker tourism isn’t the reason that Sihanoukville has been ruined, it’s Chinese investment as part of their Silk and Road initiative. They are then building all of these casinos, restaurants, hotels etc for their workers and citizens who are working there.

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Peter March 8, 2020 - 10:46 am

Calling out the comments : xenophobic and elitist …
Europeans invented mass tourism and the destruction of the environment at popular destinations.
There’s an implied ownership of the area and that any change is not tolerable.
Others countries peoples haven’t had the opportunity to travel previously and there’s a snobbery around the difference of the style of vacationing…

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Robert February 16, 2021 - 4:24 am

Stop virtue signalling. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and want China is doing to parts of Asia now is wrong.

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Greg September 5, 2021 - 6:28 pm

I’m yet to see anyone lamenting specifically Chinese tourism in Sihanoukville. Pretty sure what most are upset about is the absolute destruction of the town, its soul and the exploitation of its population by Chinese developers lining up the pockets of the local politicians who let this happen… These are completely different sentiments to the ones you describe.

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Martin February 25, 2020 - 2:49 pm

Find it very bizarre that the article doesn’t once recognise that it is specifically CHINESE investment, corruption, crime and over-tourism that has led to the city’s demise.

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Henzil Knight February 19, 2020 - 2:25 am

Just came back from cambodia.jan 2020 Shinoukville stinks. I’m not interested in how it used to look/ feel and smell. Right now, it’s a health hazard. Awful place. Rubbish, garbage, bottles and plastic everywhere Don’t know the answer. Feel so sorry for the people there.

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dano February 17, 2020 - 9:27 pm

my first visit was 2008 and then again in 2010 and 2012..so glad i got to see it when it was still sleepy little backpackers travel stop..putting any town on any list to see or travel to usually ends up being a death knell to that location..why? once the previous nearby town is destroyed basically by over tourism or chinese investment, then they move on to the next one on the list whether it be a not hot list or hot list or even word of mouth.

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Piotr January 20, 2020 - 3:41 pm

Visited in 1996 and Laos .Have visited all of SE Asia before its invasion anticipated this and demise by Mass Tourism..VERY LUCKY US
C’est La Vie Indochine

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Anonymous January 20, 2020 - 6:03 am

It isn’t tourists. The government sold its soul. The Chinese are there because of the port

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Helen January 19, 2020 - 9:21 pm

Is there anything being put in place to ensure these new destinations don’t follow the same fate? Maybe the destinations should be cycled every few months to prevent overtourism? If anything posting a ‘not hot’ list is the opposite of what you should be doing!

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Dashell January 19, 2020 - 8:28 pm

Not very good journalism.

Sihanoukville was experiencing a steady increase for 15 years and it wasn’t doing anyone any harm. Even Otres, where I lived for three years until recently, was slowly developing, not ever being overwhelmed by overtourism as you call it. In fact for a few of those years the numbers were stagnant.

The death of Sihanoukville is down to one thing: the corrupt government selling contracts to Chinese investors. They sold the soul of their country for riches and if it wasn’t for this, the positive influences that Foreign investment were bringing would be a success story. We brought money, jobs, created charities, schools, integrated with the locals, attended their festivities and weddings…

You do the Cambodian people no favours by misreporting this tragedy.

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Paulo Gaeta January 19, 2020 - 2:54 pm

My first trip to Cambodia and Sihanoukville was in 2002. The main are for travellers was still Victory Hill and there was this feeling of frontier tourism. The I went back in 2015 and it was already quite changed but still enjoyable. From what I know, now we travellers don’t belong there anymore. One thing though is that from what I read in the Phnom Pen post, the Cambodian government has outlawed gambling in Jan 2020! So I wonder how the Chinese casinos will be able to survive.

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Anonymous January 18, 2020 - 2:39 pm

My partner and I were there a week ago. The hotel we booked were good enough to cancel our booking. We couldn’t wait to get out of there. It is an absolute disgrace. I feel so sorry for the local people who have been screwed by a corrupt government. Shame on them.

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Eleanor January 18, 2020 - 12:55 pm

Your “undertourism” just sounds like the first steps in the overtourism process you just mentioned? Not sure your new approach makes much sense in terms of moral justification.

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Ash January 17, 2020 - 11:44 pm

Sure, you are not going back (for now) and all is good for Intrepid. Now you are looking at other small towns to include on itineraries… but what are you doing differently so the same does not happen again? And what about Sihanoukville and its residents? You contribute to ruining the town and now you just leave? What efforts have been made by Intrepid to help alleviate the damage done there? As you profited from visiting their location, I would think you are part responsible to make this right and something more should be done.

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Tchay January 17, 2020 - 8:31 pm

Well, it is sad to read that this article spreads wrong information.
Of course, now Sihanoukville has become a “no go” for people looking for quiet places …but it was no jewel either.
First, the first time i went there 4 years ago, the beach was extremely dirty because of what locals and foreigners left behind them. Of course, now it is worse, but still…

Second, it is not over tourism that killed the destination, but casinos AND chinese investors.
Please spread the right information before writing and sharing your articles.

Thanks.

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AB January 17, 2020 - 8:06 pm

Isn’t your ‘Not Hot List’ exactly the kind of thing that causes these small places to have an influx of tourism it can’t cope with initially until investors realise the demand for facilities is there and then come in and do the exact same thing again?
This entire article reads to me: ‘Our travellers are looking for a more authentic experience- now that we have helped cause the ruin of this small fishing village we are going to abandon it and move on to the next one.’ Not very impressed with that attitude at all and as an ex Intrepid traveller (to Cambodia amongst other SE Asian countries!) I’m really disappointed with your approach and I’m troubled that my custom at Intrepid has essentially contributed to this issue- that isn’t what I thought I was buying in to.

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Elizabeth Rochford January 17, 2020 - 9:40 am

I’ve just returned from Intrepid’ “Guatemala to Mexico” where we stayed on fabulous Caye Caulker but sadly the 2020 tours will no longer stop there. What a very disappointing decision. To all of my group this was one of the highlights of the tour. Unfortunately I won’t recommend the revised tour to my friends who wanted to visit Caye Caulker after seeing my photos. Two nights in San Iqnacio will be awful, there is nothing to do there except for a few who want to go to the ATM caves, which isn’t something everyone wants to do. Please reconsider your decision for future travellers .

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Craig January 17, 2020 - 1:39 am

Prancing around a bit in this post with the foreign investor language. It’s the Chinese, they’ve levelled it and called it their own.

The locals have been stripped of their land and turfed out by the Chinese and the Cambodian government has supported it.

Such a huge shame.

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Jack krenv August 20, 2021 - 11:26 am

Don’t believe this article written almost 2 years ago. Sihanouk ville is now clean with no trash and newly asphalted roads. New constructions along the beaches have finished.

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RJ January 17, 2020 - 12:20 am

I visited Sihanoukville in February 2019 and again in August 2019. During that short span, at least 3 new tall hotel projects began construction within .3km of the ferry port and the road conditions and accumulated garbage on the side of the road – probably because garbage trucks could not get through because of the road conditions – was like nothing I’ve ever seen. My kids and I refer to the city as “Sh*tville.” If the shoe fits…

On another sad note, the idyllic island of Koh Rong Samloem just completed its first paved road last summer. It won’t be long before this paradise is destroyed, too.

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Mark January 16, 2020 - 10:43 pm

Overtourism is not the major influence in reducing Sihanoukville to rubble but Chinese investment and the undenforcement of gambling restrictions by the Cambodian Govt, hence why 88 casinos have sprung up in the last two years. 90% of all businesses in the town are now chinese owned. You provide a link to a Guardian article which also highlights this problem. Traditional overtourism isn’t to blame here so using Sihanoukville to promote Ehtical tourism doesn’t really fit and cannot be comapred to the problems faced by Croatia, Thailand etc.

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Fred BORMAN January 16, 2020 - 6:30 pm

I went back there a few months ago. I blame rapid overdevelopment by Chinese more than tourists. The ruined streets smelled like garbage.

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James Murphy January 17, 2020 - 1:34 pm

I was wondering why no one had raised the obvious. The vast majority of construction is Chinese investment. Note the sharp economic fall there when online gambling was made illegal – 45,000 Chinese left the country.

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Andy January 16, 2020 - 1:39 pm

Ended up spending 2 nights on Otres Beach, sihanoukville to break up the traveling the Koh Rong, the place is absolutely awful. Makes Syria look like a exotic paradise.

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Victoria Marsden January 16, 2020 - 6:00 am

Sihanoukville is a tragedy.
Only reason to go there except for ferry to Koh Rong /Koh Rong Samloem Islands.
Better learn Chinese… I gave up trying to get a meal there

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Cynthia faulkner January 16, 2020 - 3:58 am

OMG what has happened to this beautiful place made me cry I’ve always called it the 8th wonder of the world it was almost untouched in 2018 10 so very sad to see.well I have beautiful memories with my friends there very very sad in my memory it will always be the beautiful place I knew and love very sad

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Bree January 16, 2020 - 2:20 am

It’s so sad to see what’s happened to Sihanoukville. I first went 4 years ago and it was still a lovely little beach escape. Returned last April and it was completely gone. The Chinese investment has wiped out anything authentic Cambodian there. The whole place is a building site. Otres Village is like being in a war zone – the power was cut off half the day – every day, casinos in the village – solely aimed at Chinese visitors, two brothels! Near enough everything that was on Ochheuteal Street has been knocked down and being rebuilt – I didn’t even recognise it as the road I’d stayed on previously. I couldn’t wait to leave the place, which is heartbreaking because I had always recommended it as a destination.

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What. Rot. January 16, 2020 - 1:16 am

So, your not hot list is the thing that will ultimately cause over tourism in the next place. *applause*

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Greg September 5, 2021 - 6:38 pm

100%! The hypocrisy of this article is rather astounding… Click on the link about the “not hot list” and you can read “(we’re) shining a light on less-travelled areas” and “we are encouraging travellers to consider less-visited destinations”… Absolutely unreal. Sustainability and mass-tourism are fundamentally incompatible. Kindly stop pretending you actually care about the places you are sending people to when you know full well that the more people visit, the more these places will change and not for the better…

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Anonymous January 16, 2020 - 1:03 am

I just came from there. I was also there in 2016, and now the place is a trashed. Chinese taking over and making it their own. The government has sold out the people of Cambodia.

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Paul Barton January 16, 2020 - 12:28 am

I breaks my heart to agree with you. Sihanoukville has been ruined by the explosion of Casinos catering to floods of Chines. I visited in November and decided not to return for the next 2 years. Unfortunately that also means I will not be going to the islands either where illegal structures are being built, torn down by the government planners and then another illegal structure replaces it. Fortunately, as mentioned, there are many amazing places to visit in Cambodia and Mondulkiri could be added to that list.

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J Howieson January 16, 2020 - 12:16 am

Its not overtourism by any measure its chinese expansionism and access to a deep water port via the road beltway program!
I have lived and worked in Sihanoukville for a number of years and feel very sorry for the city

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g shaped kitchen January 15, 2020 - 6:04 pm

Nice written blog. will wait for the next.

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A Ryan October 1, 2021 - 8:23 am

The next trail of tourist destruction.

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