The Truth About Life in Beach-Town Cambodia

Life would be simpler if I lived in Australia. Every day here in Sihanoukville I have difficult decisions to make… Which cafe shall I go to for an afternoon pick-me-up? Which sandy beach with inviting blue waters do I want to swim at? Tonight, shall I opt for local cuisine or choose from the dozens of international restaurants available?

Life wasn’t always this tricky in this bustling Cambodian beach resort. When I first moved here, in 2007, only two places sold cappuccinos. Now I can think of six off the top of my head. Back then, there were only three restaurants to choose from. Now I have to decide whether I want Thai, Mexican, Italian, Indian, Japanese or Greek food. We used to have only one place that served a decent hamburger. Now there’s at least half a dozen.

In Australia there’s no way I’d be able to afford to indulge myself so much. But here, with cappuccinos costing between $2 and $2.70, I have no excuse not to go out and treat myself every afternoon. Once or twice a week, I meet friends at a funky little cafe that’s made from two repurposed shipping containers. They serve great coffee and cheesecake. When I splash out there, the bill comes to almost $7, but the coffee is fresh-ground Laotian and I have a choice between lemon, chocolate or strawberry cheesecake that’s as good as any I’ve ever tasted.

As the sun sinks down on the horizon my biggest worry is where to go for dinner. The cheapest restaurants are on Telegraph Hill. A favourite spot is a Cambodian-run restaurant where, for $4.70, I get grilled fish, salad, mashed potatoes and a perfectly acceptable glass of wine.

My son and his girlfriend came to visit last Christmas. I recommended Maybe Later, a Mexican-style restaurant serving delicious dishes. When the bill—for our three meals and two rounds of Margaritas—arrived, my son burst out laughing.

“$47! Dad! That’s how much just one round of Margaritas costs in Australia!” he said.

“Yeah. Life’s tough here,” I replied.

Every beach restaurant in Sihanoukville offers free WiFi. As a freelance writer this puts me in another sticky spot whenever the weather is nice, which it is most of the time… Which beach will I work at today? I have several to choose from. I decide against Ochheuteal beach which is popular with tourists drawn to the lively party scene there. I love Otres beach with it’s relaxed-feel and white sands, but today I settle for Independence beach, just a five-minute motorbike ride from my home. I get down to some work in one of the restaurants where, in exchange for a $4 lunch and a couple of $1.35 coffees, they let me stay all day and look after my laptop when I take a break and go for a swim.

I built a two-storey brick house in Sihanoukville in 2007 that cost $67,500, including the land. True, I only own 49% of it because foreigners can’t buy ground floor property here, but I have a nice arrangement with my Cambodian partner. The house is worth over $108,000 today…things are on the up.

A lot of people choose to rent here. With costs ranging from $135 to $200 a month for a room, $270 to $330 for an apartment or $540 to $675 for a three-bedroom house, it’s not hard to understand why. On top of that, you could expect to pay $27 per month for electricity and $33 for internet. I do know someone who pays $1,350 a month for a four-bedroom house…but then, that includes a swimming pool and incredible ocean view.

It’s so easy to get around here there’s no need for a car. I own a small motorbike. It takes me everywhere I need to go and running costs come in at $6.75 a week.

So now you know the truth about just how tough things can get here in Sihanoukville. After a long day in the sunshine I’m off to splurge on Mexican food at one of the pricier restaurants, Serendipity Road. Whether I choose enchiladas, tacos or burritos I know it’s sure to set me back $6.75. Throw in a draft beer and the bill will be $8. What a life…

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