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Sihanoukville is the closest thing you get to the Costa del Cambodia, but fear not, development here is light years behind most Thai resorts, let alone Spain. The charmless town is fortunate enough to be hemmed in on all sides by palm-fringed, squeaky, white-sand beaches and undeveloped tropical islands. Visitor numbers have sky- rocketed in the past few years and the coast here is set for a facelift, particularly if the much vaunted flights to Siem Reap actually take off.

Named in honour of the then-king, the town was hacked out of the jungle in the late 1950s to create the country's first and only deep-water port; the USA provided the money for NH4 linking Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. During the 1960s, it experienced a mini tourism boom and some large hotels were constructed, but Kep remained the most popular beach resort. With the over- throw of Sihanouk in 1970, the town's name was changed to Kompong Som and didn't revert back to Sihanoukville until 1993. Cambodians refer to the town by both names - royalists preferring to use Sihanoukville, and old-guard former communists choosing Kompong Som.

The big attractions around here are the four beaches ringing the headland. None of them qualify as the region's finest, but on weekdays it is still possible to have stretches of the beach to yourself. However, as traveller numbers increase, this seclusion is unlikely to last. Sihanoukville is extremely popular on weekends with well-to-do Khmers heading south from Phnom Penh. Beyond the immediate beaches sur- rounding the town are the virtually empty beaches of Ream National Park and Otres, and a dozen more islands that see less than 0.1% of the visitors received by their counterparts in Thailand.

The battle continues for the heart and soul of Sihanoukville. Some Cambodian businessmen and their associates from neighbouring countries want to turn the town into a concrete Casino town of mega resorts, while some expats from nearby Pattaya want to turn it into a sort of sex, sea and sun go-go resort. On the other side, younger expats are hoping to make a new Ko Pha Ngan on Cambodia's southern coast with the birth of Serendipity Beach, while other investors rub their hands and hope for a Ko Sarnui gold rush and pleasant garden bungalows set among swaying palms. Whoever wins out in the end, it's certain that Sihanoukville is evolving fast. Like Siem Reap, this is another place in Cambodia that doesn't stay still.

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