Lost in their own little world

The backpacker retreat of Sihanoukville is an interesting place to watch the social interactions of the backpackers. It all centres on Serendipity Beach.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I knew it wouldn’t be long until I found the backpacker commune in Cambodia. In all these Southeast Asian countries, where life is cheap and foreigners can live in drunken carefree abandon, the young itinerary-less travellers tend to naturally gather somewhere.

In Cambodia, this somewhere is the beachside resort of Sihanoukville.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

They’re not looking for culture or a connection with the country. It’s more about where they’re not than where they are.

They’re not at home, where the kind of lifestyle comes with a financial cost. They’re not at home, where a level is acceptable behaviour is expected. They’re not at home, where the stresses of life can be like shackles on bohemia.

The commune of backpackers here at Sihanoukville are not the hippy type, though. They won’t be content just relaxing and letting the world go on around them.

They need to create an environment with social interactivity, events and purpose. Finances, behaviour and employment are just as present here as at home… but it’s on their terms.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

It’s called Serendipity Beach but there’s nothing serendipitous about ending up here. It’s the centre of action and this is where most young travellers naturally gravitate to.

Along the sand is a long line of bars and restaurants, each one almost indistinguishable from the next. During the day the establishments put out deckchairs and sunbeds for people to use (while they buy food and drink, of course). Cambodian vendors wander amongst the tourists, trying to sell them snacks, sunglasses and manicures.

It seems reasonable that local people would come here and try to make some money from the foreigners. What I don’t understand are the young foreigners who join the locals peddling their own wares.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville
sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

Young men and women, usually uncovered on the torso except for a bikini or tattoos, trudge along the sand handing out flyers promoting restaurants, hotels and bars.

They’re not rude or forceful and often they’ll stop for a chat with someone who catches their eye. But in some ways they are just as annoying as the Cambodian woman who keeps telling me I have too much hair on my shoulders to be attractive (probably a true statement – but an unwelcome one nonetheless).

But this is what gives meaning to the months they choose to spend in Sihanoukville. It gives them employment, in a sense, because they get free accommodation and drinks in exchange for the spruiking.

It gives them interactivity, because they can invite the new arrivals to the parties that are happening that evening. And it gives them events, because the nights at the bar will now have the regular long term crowd and the novel addition of some sunburnt fresh arrivals.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

When you go to the bars along the beach in the evening – which is inevitable if you want to experience tourist Sihanoukville properly – you can see the cliques which have formed with the long stay backpackers. They exchange tales from the night before, claim their free drinks, and try to create tales to share the next day.

But even then many of them are still working. They’re trying to talk the new arrivals into a booze cruise (from which they presumably earn some kind of commission) or explain why one bar is better than the other.

Like with the jobs they have or will have back home, it’s hard to sometimes switch off.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

Now, I’m sure these people have a good time and it’s not for me to judge. I am concerned about their livers and the mental health, considering what they do to their bodies night after night, but that’s not the point I wish to make.

What I find odd is the attraction in coming to a foreign country just to work – and work for a bed worth a few dollars a night and some drinks worth about the same at that! Added up, it’s probably less than they would earn in an hour waiting a table back home.

sihanoukville, cambodia, serendipity beach, bars, parties, backpackers in sihanoukville

So it must be something more. True, there’s the beach and the sun, which would be very attractive this time of year for the northern hemisphere travellers (which most seem to be). But I think the core of it must be able the issue I referred to earlier – being in control of the society.

They’re not working because they have to pay the rent, they’re working because it makes them part of a community where the biggest stress of the day is whether they should hand out the next flyer to the cute blonde or the cute brunette.

I knew it wouldn’t be long until I found the backpacker commune in Cambodia. They have existed for decades and they always will. Some people travel to see the world – some travel to create their own.

31 thoughts on “Lost in their own little world”

  1. The first time I saw this was in Copacabana on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Two completely burnt out hippie backpackers stringing plastic beads into necklaces that had NOTHING to do with ANYTHING local and peddling them to tourists. I found myself pitying them as I would a feral cat.
    Also, I rarely learn a new word anymore, but SPRUIKING made me dive for my on line dictionary. Thanks, I will be sure to use it without giving you credit 😉

  2. We’ve not encountered a backpacking community yet, but then again we don’t travel long term. With limited amounts of time to travel, we’re too busy exploring.

    • A few days is fine. It can be nice to have a break from culture-heavy travel. But it does get pretty tiring in itself if you’re not that kind of person. And, if you’re anything like me, you feel like a bit of an outsider the whole time.

  3. You’re definitely spot on calling out this spot as a place more or less devoid of culture. One can’t help but notice a sea of bulbous bellies in which sporting thongs is apparently de rigueur.

  4. I could do it for a week and would then need to move on. I suppose these people are just at a place where it seems cool to hang out, get drunk, and then do it all again.

    • There are some nice ones down south but you have to get away from the usual tourist haunts. The good thing about the backpackers sticking together is that they tend to avoid a lot of the other ones (at least the big groups of annoying ones do).

    • Oh, cringe I did. Don’t you worry about that! It’s not the first place I’ve come across that’s like this and I’m sue it won’t be the last. They are all over the world, really…

  5. to each his own I guess… I stayed in Sihanoukville for a month because I wanted to be near the beach but seldom went out for the party… the BBQ buffet at one of the restaurant is awesome and the fresh seafood… the grilled baby squid and the fried fish with free mango salad 🙂

    the locals became more friendly too when we stayed longer and they stopped offering anything that they’re selling to us, sometimes they give it for free but we refuse to accept knowing how little the earn in a day…

    • The beach itself was lovely so I can understand why people would want to stay there for a long time. I guess if you avoid all the debauchery, like you seem to have been able to do, then you can make of it what you want. And I did get the feeling the locals are pretty good at picking the newbies from the longtimers!

  6. I would love to live and work in sihanouksville .I am a very fit 44 year old Scottish male please send me any correspondence regarding jobs as I have friends in snook ie and can get a flight within a fortnight love to hear back stebe

  7. So after all these negative comments I think it would be best to put the backbackers to the Gas Chambers.
    Just drinking and having no money. What a evil crime!

    • I’m not quite sure if there’s supposed to be sarcasm in your comment. While it’s not the way I would like to travel, I don’t know if I would call it a ‘crime’. It’s certainly not appropriate to make references to genocide either.


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