Heaven Must Look Like Otres
If you want to catch a glimpse of heaven
watch the sunrise on the beach in Otres.
Fluffy clouds absorb a delicate pink glow
as the sun escapes the horizon.
The ocean sits as still as a monk in meditation.
Boats reflect on its blue pane of glass.
Thatched roofs shelter colorful strewn hammocks.
Loungers wait in lines for lazing.
Locals and tourists, children and adults, stand in the ocean nightly
watching the colors of the sun explode.
But in Cambodia
a country full of extremes
is hardly what it seems.
Squeaky white sand and crystal clean water stretch for miles and miles
strewn with keg cups, shampoo bottles styrofoam containers, roofing tiles.
Plump pale tourists tan and drink cold beers
skinny brown children hawk the beach with overpriced souvenirs.
Business is booming, like one big construction site
yet the whole area loses electricity every night.
Islands in the distance beckon observers to come explore
before their foreign owners develop casinos and resorts.
Delectable grilled squid and fresh tropical fruit pass by
balanced on the shoulders of women so slight in size.
White palaces provide luxury, cocktails, and comforting treats
beside shanty villages; I wonder what the children there eat.
Runners and kayakers, healers and yogis
bring energy and life
expats and locals with alcoholism and meth addiction are rife.
Phosphorescence and stars glitter in the sea and the sky
but beware the darkness, not everyone is a nice guy.
Otres may be as imperfect
as any other place on earth
but who wants sterile anyway?
I prefer real, rough dirt.
So I made a home in Otres
with locals who loved me like family
and travelers who became lifelong friends
I allowed the ocean to cradle me
and the sand to support me when I needed it most.
Sleeping in a treehouse and living in the sea
taking cold showers and walking barefoot on the beach
I felt peace and contentment.
I guess Otres was heaven to me.
How to Get to Otres
Otres Beach is a short motorbike or tuk tuk ride from the popular tourist destination Sihanoukville on the coast with the Gulf of Thailand. You can typically negotiate a moto taxi for around $3 from Sihanoukville, more for a tuk tuk. Buses depart regularly from Kampot, Kep, Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, and Siem Reap for Sihanoukville. My favorite bus company in Cambodia is Giant Ibis. Overland travel from Thailand and Vietnam is available to Sihanoukville, but beware plenty of scams. From Thailand travelers typically start in Koh Chang and take the ferry/minibus to the Koh Kong border then minibus from the border to Sihanoukville. You’ll likely pay double the visa cost here but there’s practically no line at this chill border. There is also an airport in Sihanoukville that connects with Siem Reap and Phnom Penh operated by Cambodia Angkor Air.
Travelers planning to head to islands nearby can book directly from Otres and shuttles will take them to the appropriate piers. Boats leave for Koh Ta Kiev directly from Otres I and boats to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem leave from Sihanoukville (shuttles bring passengers to the boat pier.)
Otres I vs Otres II
A common debate among travelers is whether it’s better to stay in Otres I or Otres II. Coming in from Sihanoukville, you first reach Otres I which has plenty of guesthouses on and across from the beach with beachfront restaurants. It feels much more laid back than Sihanoukville, but is not nearly as quiet as Otres II, located a couple of miles down the beach. Personally, I prefer Otres II, no contest. Because it’s so much smaller Otres II has more of a community vibe, the beach is quieter, more laid back, and more beautiful, plus you have easier access to Otres III which a completely undeveloped beach further south. Otres II often gets labeled as the “Honeymooon Beach” which gives the impression that it’s expensive. While there certainly are upscale resorts, Otres II has a few inexpensive guest houses and even a hostel with dorm beds. The advantages of staying in Otres I are more options for food, activities, nightlife and accommodation.
Where to Stay in Otres
There are plenty of guesthouses on both Otres I and Otres II and unless you’re coming in peak season it’s easy to just show up and find a place. Options range from super basic bungalows and dorm beds to luxury rooms with air conditioning and hot water. Whenever possible I recommend supporting locally owned and run businesses.
$10-25 for rustic beach hut
Castaways is hands down the best place I have stayed in 2.5 years of travel. My room had mosquitoes, after one day my bed was full of sand, and I often woke up in the morning to the sound of geese or one of the kids screaming, but I didn’t mind. It felt like staying with family, real people who welcomed me and cared about me. I actually felt like I was in Cambodia. I first discovered Castaways while walking down from Otres I. I stopped in because it had the most inviting atmosphere with colorful hammocks and thatched roof huts making me feel like I reached a deserted island. They were having a party and invited me to come and eat their seafood and drink their beer… for free. Over the weeks I spent at Castaways the young women became my sisters, holding my hand and telling me they loved me. The little boys were like my nephews, climbing on me in the ocean like monkeys and accompanying me on my morning run. The owner, Mr. Ox, looked out for me and was someone who I could trust. His older sister brought me treats to my room and told people I was her daughter. Castaways is essentially a homestay, a rare opportunity as beach towns tend to be whitewashed with tourists. If you want to meet a community of mature, interesting travelers, get to know welcoming, open hearted locals, and be on the most beautiful stretch of beach in Otres, stay here. No contest.
$5 for dorm bed, $15-$25 for private
Footprints is a mecca for young traveling beach bums. It has a great location at the end of Otres II with a big beach bar and lounge. The rooms are clean and the facilities are pretty incredible including a boxing gym, a lounge with daybeds and flat screen televisions, and while I was there they had daily yoga classes overlooking the beach. I met a lot of great people here, especially the long term work traders. Even if you don’t stay, be sure to come on Friday night for $5 BBQ, music, and socializing. Every night of the week that have a great selection of Western and local food, even hummus with raw veggies.
$7 for dorm bed, $15-$25 for private
If you decide to stay on Otres I, Wish You Were Here has nice, cheap digs and a social atmosphere for meeting other travelers. It’s clean and well designed, though keep in mind the bathroom floors are nearly always flooded and they are not located directly on the beach. However, they do have a great hang out area and some of the best food in Otres, including healthy options like carrot beet ginger juice and raw salads. Sunday nights they host live music, DJs, and sometimes open mic.
$50-$200, big discounts in the low season
This higher end hotel is elegant without being overdone and seems to blend in well with the other businesses. The design is beautiful and rooms range from basic to luxurious. The beach restaurant is gorgeous and cozy, with modern Khmer fusion food. The superbowl is lovely with all kinds of vegetables and a spicy broth and the Elephant Garden salad with fresh mango and whole green Kampot peppercorns is unusual and delicious.
$60-$140 for private bungalows
Just two doors over from Castaways, Secret Garden is on a beautiful quiet beach. Bungalows have hot water and air conditioning and guests can use the shared swimming pool and hang out in the beach club. Personally I find the place a bit commercial, but if you want a certain level of comfort it’s a good option. It seems to be quite popular with Western families and couples. The restaurant is good (mix of Western and Khmer food) with treats difficult to find in Otres like homemade brownies with ice cream and creme brulee.
Where to Eat in Otres
Otres is hardly a foodie mecca and restaurants tend to be mediocre and overpriced compared to cities like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but there are some decent places to find Western and Khmer food. All of the hotels and hostels listed above have good food, probably the best around, but here are a few more options.
Street food in Otres is scant but you can easily get food on the beach in Otres I. Women often make the rounds with freshly cut tropical fruit for $1, fresh spring rolls, amazingly good grilled squid with kampot pepper, and fried langoustine. Otres II has less of this but you will spot them especially in the high season.
Behind the beach on the street are food carts catering to construction workers and local staff. Here you can order some basic Khmer dishes like baguette sandwiches, rice soup, and fried noodles.
$5-$10 for main dishes
Arguably the best restaurant in Otres I, Pappa Pippo serves authentic homemade Italian food like gnocchi, pizza, and homemade pastries.
$3-$7 for main dishes
I came here nearly every day for one reason… their salad. Finding vegetables proved difficult in Otres but Strawberry Huts has a huge raw shredded cabbage, carrot, green papaya, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato salad with lots of fresh basil and a healthy lime olive oil dressing. I ordered it with a hard boiled egg every day for lunch. Otherwise I recommend getting the local food, not the Western food here. They have probably the largest vegetarian menu of anywhere on Otres II.
What to Do in Otres
Generally the best thing to do in Otres is nothing at all. My routine there was to run on the beach early in the morning, take a long swim, check out yoga at Footprints late morning, then spend the rest of the day reading in a hammock until the sunset.
$5 per hour
You can rent kayaks on both Otres I and Otres II for an hour, a half day, and a full day. Castaways has nice new ones and is very close to a river with a local village you can explore. Some people even kayak to the nearby islands.
3 Islands Day Tour
$15 for a full day tour includes lunch
Everyone and their mother on both Otres I and Otres II offer boat trips to three islands which includes snorkeling and lunch. You can easily book a tour through any hostel or guesthouse or walk over to a tour guest. Agents often troll the beach looking for people to sign up for the next day. These tours are a great option for those who don’t have time to actually spend a few days staying on the islands (which include Koh Ta Kiev and Bamboo Island). I took my tour with Legend Boat Trips run by a seriously dynamic South African/Canadian duo. We stopped to snorkel, went cliff jumping, visited an organic absinthe distillery on Koh Ta Kiev and watched the sunset on the boat ride back. I’d recommend going with them if you’re looking to meet other young travelers and throw back some beers on the boat.
Walk to Otres III
South of Otres II is the wild, undeveloped Otres III. To reach it wade across the river, which is never high and at times nonexistent at low tide, and continue walking past the fishermen on the big rocks. If you’re adventurous this beach appears to last forever, one small bay flanked with rocks after another. Watching the fishermen at sunset beyond the first cove is magical. Ideally I’d recommend going with another person as there were some scary dogs when I went alone and an expat told me never to be there at dark. The long stretch between Otres I and Otres II is also a nice walk, just don’t do it after dark, I heard several reports of robberies and worse.
Watch the Sunrise and Sunset
Otres has the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Not catching it every single day is sacrilegious. The sun rises behind the beach, but it’s pretty darn beautiful too.
Swim with plankton
Otres beach and the neighboring island are blessed with phosphorescent plankton. Go for a night swim to see the sea light up like stars, just be sure to keep all of your belongings inside and if you’re going anywhere beyond the main, busy stretch make sure to go with a group for safety.