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The Beach Beyond: Asia's Secret Getaways

A sand-loving expat reveals his favorite little-known beaches in Southeast Asia, based on 12 years of travels and countless pictures of sunsets.

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Children ride makeshift toboggans down a giant sand dune in Mui Ne, Vietnam.

From the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

A sand-loving expat reveals his favorite little-known beaches in Southeast Asia, based on 12 years of travels and countless pictures of sunsets.

As I grew up in Buffalo, New York, on the blustery shores of Lake Erie, my daydreams often took me to tropical beaches of powdery sand. I yearned for beverages made with coconuts, served in places where ice is for drinks, not something chiseled off a windshield. Then, 12 years ago, my career as a travel photographer brought me to Singapore, and I found myself only a few hours by air from about a dozen Southeast Asian countries blessed with idyllic coasts.

I soon discovered, however, that most of the popular beach towns—from Phuket in Thailand to Kuta in Bali—were busy spoiling themselves with over development, replacing local charm with shopping malls and Starbucks outlets.

But over time I've discovered three little beach hideaways that still offer up authenticity and natural appeal—all within easy reach of the gateway cities of Phnom Penh, Saigon, or Bangkok, respectively.

Sihanoukville: The New Face of Cambodia

As recently as the late 1990s, much of Cambodia, site of the Khmer Rouge killing fields of the 1970s, was considered too dangerous for travelers. The seaside town of Sihanoukville was no exception, with a well-deserved reputation as a lawless haven for local bandits and Westerners on the lam.

All that has changed. This port named for Cambodia's King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, has evolved into a destination choice for Cambodians and globe-trotters alike, particularly those seeking uncrowded beaches.

Arriving by bus from Phnom Penh 115 miles away, I check into the Independence Hotel, a white, modern affair seemingly more at home on Miami Beach than here on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. In the early 1960s this was the favorite beach retreat for Cambodian royalty. Photos in the lobby show the royal family cavorting in the pool and attending formal parties. In 1969, as the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, the hotel closed. In 2007, it reopened, remodeled for the new millennium.

"Cambodia may still seem too exotic for most Americans," Werner, the Swiss hotel manager, tells me. "Too bad more don't come."

By evening I've found the hotel's tree-shaded Sunset Terrace situated over boulders, with the surf lapping under the main deck. I take a seat, order a drink, and listen to the breaking waves as the sky turns from red to orange to purple. I have this memorable sunset to myself, save for a couple from England sipping cocktails.

"Where is everyone?" I ask.

"I haven't a clue," the man replies. "The beaches here are quiet, no one around. That's the way we like it."

The next day I rent a small motorcycle to explore the fish barbecue shacks and friendly tiki-style bars along the beach roads. Here you can feast on fresh seafood with enough change from $10 to leave a fat tip. Some of the establishments are run by Americans hoping Sihanoukville will be the world's next great beach town.

The main beach, Ochheuteal, is already a clutter of huts, umbrellas, and touts. But I continue south a mile or so and reach another beach, Otres, that's shaded by palm trees and almost pristine. After a quick swim, I turn back, proceeding north out of Sihanoukville to check out Sokha and Independence beaches, where yet more quiet coves offer white sand and clear water. Back at Ochheuteal, I meet a kid nicknamed Dragon who tells me about his Full Moon party. "We have fire show and half-priced drinks," he says. "It happens every night, full moon or not."

The next morning, I board the three-tiered Sun, a party boat that cruises to the outlying islands. On the way out, a passenger fishing off the stern hooks into a big barracuda. Line starts whipping off the reel, and the rod arches like a bow. "Help!" he yells.

Robert Heiduczek, the boat owner, rushes over and grabs the rod, reeling the big fish in close enough to be gaffed and pulled aboard. "Now we'll have a good lunch," Heiduczek says. "This fish is so fresh his wife doesn't even know he's missing."

The ship's cook, Dao, prepares the barracuda in a crispy batter and serves it with Thai-style rice noodles and hot chili. We spend the rest of the day swimming around the offshore islands, which are mostly deserted, jungled, and ringed with sapphire blue water. As we return to port, Harry Belafonte is singing about his "Island in the Sun" over the ship stereo. How appropriate, I think. These lush isles are sunny, and they seem to be mine.

On my last night, I find the Chivas Shack hosting the Full Moon party that Dragon told me about. I arrive as the fire show is starting. There's Dragon, dipping the cloth-wrapped ends of his baton into a pail of kerosene. He lights the cloth and starts twirling the flaming stick around his body and over his head.

Later, Dragon smothers the burning baton with sand and passes around a coffee can. "Tips, please," he says. "If you enjoy, a small tip." Impressed, all of us toss in a few dollars. I order a beer and watch his next show as the last streaks of purple and orange fall below the horizon. Peace, at least for me, has come to Cambodia.

Mui Ne, Vietnam: From Fishing Village to Surfer Haven

I've been working on a photographic project in Saigon for so long that the drone of motorbikes is stuck in my head. I need to touch sand. So I board the "beach express" train bound for Mui Ne, an old fishing town five hours away. With miles of windswept coast, Mui Ne has become a haven for kitesurfers.

I check into the small Sailing Club hotel, where the back door of my room practically opens onto the beach. Next morning, I step outside at dawn, while the sand is still cool, and take a quick swim in the ocean to clear my head.

Mui Ne's traditional way of life, centered around fishing, is most evident at this time of day. Small teams of fishermen—young kids in soggy jeans, men chewing on unlit cigarettes, older ladies in cone hats—pull on ropes to haul in drift nets. They've been working much of the night, and their catch (mostly eel, squid, and mackerel) is substantial. The fishermen divide the fish, still living, into little pools dug in the sand, where cooks from local restaurants come to haggle over the biggest specimens. I've never seen anything like it. Mui Ne is just one of many fishing towns along Vietnam's 2,000-mile coast. Many specialize in making fish sauce, nuoc mam, a vital Vietnamese condiment made of fermented, crushed fish. As I cruise the beach later that day, I catch powerful whiffs from fermentation barrels along the road.

Mui Ne owes its other identity—as a kitesurfing haven—to a freak of geography: Towering brown sand dunes, absorbing and releasing heat, create a microclimate with constant winds. The high dunes also attract local kids who slide down the powdery sand on sheets of linoleum sheets cut into toboggans. For a small price they rent their sleds to anyone wanting a slide. So what was a sleepy fishing village only a decade ago has grown into a community of beachside resorts and bars with names like the Blue Ocean, Coco Beach, and Dune Riders. Each day, as the wind picks up in late morning, the fishermen give way to the kitesurfers.

"When do you think the wind will start blowing?" I ask a Vietnamese woman in her 20s who is putting her surfing rig together at Windchimes, a kitesurf shack on the beach. Her name is Trang, but she prefers a nickname, Roxy, taken from the English rock band Roxy Music., a big smile, and a habit of using words like "psyched" and "awesome."

"The wind is rising now," she says in almost perfect English. "I can see the waves beginning to stand up. Awesome!" Roxy tells me she is only one of a few women Vietnamese kite surfers. I can't get the famous Apocalypse Now "Charlie don't surf" line out of my head. "Charlie" does surf and she's a 5-foot-tall Vietnamese woman named Roxy. Her friend and fellow surfer, Julia (real name, Thu), agrees. "Wind will be strong today," she says. "I love kitesurfing."

I ask her how long it takes to learn the sport.

"After five hours of instruction," Julia replies, "you can ride a bit. It's longer to get really good. "With my bad coordination and lack of athletic skills, it seems impossible. But for Julia and Roxy, both 20-somethings, "kiting" as they call it is like walking. They both fit the part of surfer girls: sun streaked hair, tans, big smiles, slang that include words like "cool" and "awesome." Julia sports a few tribal-pattern tattoos.

Later that evening I meet Roxy and her fellow surfers at Jibe's, a beach bar right out of Maui, with posters of surfers, kitesurfing boards in stacks, sails propped in a corner. We chat over drinks. Roxy tells me she used to live in Montauk, New York, but came home to Vietnam after a few years, in part because she missed the surfing. "I learned to ride a water buffalo when I was a kid," she says. "That could be why I'm so good at kitesurfing."

The Andaman Coast: Thailand's Sandy Paradise

A Thai friend told me about the remote southern Andaman coast an hour's flight from Bangkok. "It's a 'get away from it all' kind of place," he said, adding that I should fly to Trang and start my visit in a town called Sikao, south of the party town of Krabi. The area is famous for its elusive dugongs, Asia's version of the manatee, he said, not to mention having one of the most dramatic seascapes on Earth.

I book a trip and ask another friend, Napha Hehir, from Phuket, Thailand, to come be my dugong spotter. "Sure," she said. "And I can work on my tan." We hire a guide and a boat known as a longtail, common along Thailand's coasts and rivers. These colorfully painted wooden boats are usually powered by old Toyota car engines. The propellers are stuck on long steel shafts that make the boats very maneuverable, ideal for exploring islands.

Thailand's southwest Andaman coast is still wild, a lush, undeveloped gem that runs a hundred miles or so south from Sikao to the Malaysian border. Much of it is national park or rubber plantation. The local landowners make more money selling rubber to the likes of Michelin, than selling out to big resorts. Most striking are the exotic karst islands with columns of limestone jutting from the ocean, from jungle-covered Koh Mook south to the tiny resort island of Koh Lipe. You find scene after scene reminiscent of South Pacific, complete with dense jungle and waterfalls. Most of the islands, it turns out, are still deserted. Hire a longtail, head out with a cooler of beverages and a towel, and you'll find your own private paradise.

"The harder you look, the less you see," says our Thai guide, Lookme, who has always lived near these inviting waters full of swarming fish. He's referring to the timid dugong we hope to encounter. We're on our second day of dugong-spotting and aren't having much luck. Our first time out, a few days ago, we did spot a dugong, but it appeared as a white patch in the blue ocean, about 30 yards off the side of our boat. "See it?" Lookme said, pointing. Well, sort of. "Is it always this easy to find them?" I asked. "Sometimes easy, sometimes like a ghost," was his reply.

Today we're on a strait of water between Libong Island and the mainland, about three hours south of my hotel—the Anantara. These are shallows where dugongs often come to feed on sea grass. But this time they're like ghosts, and my dreams of swimming with the gentle marine mammals go unfulfilled.

"We're looking too hard," Lookme says. "Not today."

So we shift gears. Our driver turns the longtail toward Koh Mook island for a substitute experience that promises to be just as special. An hour later we arrive at the mouth of the Emerald Cave in late afternoon. "No one will be here this time of the day," Lookme says. "All the Thai tourists are gone."

Indeed, there are no boats moored outside. We swim through a hundred yards of dim cavern opening onto a sandy beach walled in by limestone cliffs, the blue sky overhead. As we soak in the shallow, bath-warm water, my companion, Hehir, says: "I feel like Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity with my own tropical grotto."

My last evening in Sikao, Hehir and I head down to Pak Meng, a beachside town where the Thai like to feast on seafood, cheap and fresh. We hitch a ride in the back of a small pickup driven by a local fisherman, sharing the space with his kids. The truck pulls up in front of some seafood joints, and we jump out. I thank the man in my basic Thai, "Khawp khoon khrap." He smiles.

Hehir and I walk down to the sand and order chili prawns from a roadside restaurant. We watch kids make sand castles and cycle on the empty beach, the nearby islands providing a dramatic backdrop.

"Who needs dugong when you can have this?" Hehir asks. I reply: "Yeah," I agree. "This may not be paradise, but it's close enough."

Sihanoukville, once a haven for bandits, has evolved into a destination choice for Cambodians and globe-trotters alike, particularly those seeking uncrowded beaches.

At Windchimes, a kitesurf shack, a sign on the wall sums up the town's new laid-back ethos: "The 4 Cs of the Wind: Did you cause it? No. Can you change it? No. Can you control it? No. Then chill out!"

Most of the islands, it turns out, are still deserted. Hire a boat, head out with a cooler of beverages and a towel, and you will find your own private paradise.

Kris LeBoutillier photographed "Indochine: An Affair of the Heart," a feature story on Hue, Vietnam, for our September 2007 issue.

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