Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sihanoukville, the small beach town you should skip if you are ever in Cambodia.

Cambodia was rated as my favourite country so far until we hit Sihanoukville. I had a bad feeling before we even arrived, but I tried to tell myself it was silly. Looking for a hotel online was frustrating which was my first red flag — many hotels had bad reviews and grumpy travelers complaining about bad service and overpriced accommodations. For me the reviews I read online are better than any guidebook. They are from yesterday, not last year, and they are very frank. The Lonely Planet had recommended diving and snorkeling. I wasn’t buying it. Diving to the bottom of the ocean with a tank of air in Thailand was scary enough for me. Cambodia? Well let’s just say it was not a proven quantity. Being on the water in a boat in Cambodia is problematic enough, never mind under it.

To give us a bit of an advantage, I booked us into a slightly more expensive hotel (we have been getting away with $28. a night these days. This hotel was $40) called the Cambodian Resort. Five minutes from the beach was the claim. Breakfast included.

Nothing is ever as advertised in South East Asia (pick a country, any country and it is the same). It is very consistent. So it is funny that we are always surprised and disappointed when things don’t go as we had anticipated they would.

Getting from A to B around here is usually by bus. There are dozens of bus companies and sometimes there is a proper bus station. But usually, tour companies act as agents and sell you tickets. It is all very easy. You choose a tour company (there is one on every corner and in every budget hotel), purchase the ticket and someone picks you up at your hotel and delivers you to the bus wherever it happens to be leaving from. Usually you have some kind of receipt that gets traded for a sticker or another piece of paper and somehow you get to your destination. But the mode of transportation, length of the ride and where you get dropped off is rarely what you thought you paid for.

Every tourist riding with you has the same puzzled look on his or her face for the whole journey. The crazy part is that every few days you go through the same rigmarole again and are as surprised as you were the first time when things go sideways. That’s because you really believe that the cute travel agent, who really seems to know her stuff (much cuter and more knowledgeable than the last one that screwed you over), this time will certainly be putting you on that big air-conditioned bus she is pointing to in the photo behind her.

After our experience on the smelly bus in Thailand, we always ask for seats at the front of the bus. Our cute (all smiles) travel agent in Phnom Penh assured us that seats 27-28 on the bus heading for Sihanoukville were not by the toilet since the toilet was at the back of the bus, which had 45 seats. Even though there were several other buses leaving at other times of the day that may have had seats closer to the front, we somehow got convinced that we were fine. These girls are very convincing. The tickets were $6 each.

Marc woke up in the middle of the night with a bad stomach ache and things had not improved by the morning. It was supposed to be a four-hour bus ride. The minivan picked us up more or less on time and delivered us to our waiting bus. But of course, I am sure you already surmised, seats 27 and 28 were in fact right in front of the toilet! Marc looked at me and said softly, “Maybe in my condition, this may prove to be a good thing”.

The toilet was just below the screen, down a few stairs.

The road was very bad and we hit a stretch of road construction, so four hours very quickly became six, but we made it to Sihanoukville without need for the toilet or the barf bag. “There is a god!” I said to myself as we left the bus.

Sihanoukville, unfortunately, was as disappointing as I had imagined. The Cambodian Resort was not bad, but it was not worth what we paid and was on a very uninteresting street. I was bummed. I had been on a winning streak with my hotel choices and this was a dud. The walk to the beach was in fact five minutes, but the most uninteresting five minutes imaginable. The beach was very narrow and full of young people getting drunk. Tuk tuk drivers and motos (scooters here are a taxi service serving single passengers). You hop on the back of a scooter with a strange man and put your life in his hands — just my style) are on your back every step of the way to and from the beach and when they are not bothering you, the restaurant and bar people take over.

And then of course there are the travel agents. Marc, feeling quite a bit better went in search of a dive shop and we also looked for a day trip for the next day. To give everyone the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that we spoke to so many agents that we confused some of the details, but maybe that is the way they get you. There were basically two different day trips available. Both of them are on boats and there was a lot of discussion about fast boats and slow boats, big boats and small boats. There is always talk of air-conditioned buses that never really materialize and promises of gear, towels, lunch, water and English speaking guides, which must be taken with a grain of salt. The activities are also explained, but rarely end up being what has been described. It is an adventure every step of the way and this trip was no exception.

We were headed out to Ream National Park the next morning by minivan (I thought by air-conditioned bus) that brought us to the dock where we transferred to a (slats for seating) motorboat (I thought on a big, slow boat with real seats with back rests) covered with a tin roof. We did have an English speaking guide and a Park Ranger with us on the boat, so I was encouraged. There were lifejackets in the boat, but no one was bothering to wear them. Marc kept reminding me that the water was only shoulder deep and we could see both sides of the riverbank so no worries. After we all got seated, our guide loaded the boat with coolers and jute bags with fixings for lunch so there would be food and water. Looking good!

I think we heard three words from our guide during the more than two-hour (very uncomfortable) ride to the park. We were supposed to see wildlife, mangrove forests and learn about the park. I think we managed to see three eagles and were told the rangers are in place to educate the villagers about the reasons why they should not cut down the forest, but that was the extent of the educational part of the trip. We were told that there would be optional swimming or jungle trekking when we arrived at our destination. What they really meant is that you walk through the bush from one side of the island to the other to get to a filthy beach where there is no shade unless you want to pay the restaurant that just happens to be at that particular beach for chairs under their umbrellas. Our English-speaking guide, it ends up was really our cook, and he left us with the ranger once we docked at the Island.

The scenery was quite lovely despite everything.

Marc made an attempt at swimming. Me, I thought it was a really long way to come to swim in dirty water and have to sit for two hours on slatted wooden seats in a wet bathing-suit. I found a more or less clean piece of beach and laid out my sarong and tried, as comfortably as possible, to pass the hour allotted for swimming on our itinerary.

The beach actually looks quite nice in the photos. I guess we were just cranky tourists!

Lunch was the highlight of the day, but only if you try to get the thought of the pack of wild dogs licking the plates out of your mind. A big fish had been barbequed for us and we were served fresh baguettes, rice, salad and cold coca cola with hearty portions of fish. The food was really good and the drinks were ice cold, but after the pack of flea bitten wild dogs appeared and were being fed the scraps as well as being given plate-cleaning duty, I could see Marc’s stomach turning. The dogs were now inside the shack where our food had been prepared and both of us had many frightening thoughts about what went on in there as the food was being prepared.

The park ranger was bailing several pails of water out the boat as we all re-boarded for the next leg of the journey. We were headed for a watchtower that we could climb for a 360-degree view of the protected park. Our guides dropped us off at the beginning of a path that led to the tower. They didn’t accompany us or explain any of the things we would see if we actually made it along the sketchy slatted boardwalk over the bog in the jungle, and up the less than safe or sturdy staircase leading to the top of the disintegrating tower. When we all made it to the top platform, we noticed that someone had apparently built a small fire there at some point and there was a burned out hole a small child could easily fall through right in the middle of the platform. One of the women on the trip with us commented, “I guess they were not really thinking ahead when they built a fire up here!” We all laughed, but at the same time tried to get the hell out of there before it all came tumbling down.

We asked one of the other passengers to take a photo of us through the burned out hole in the platform.

Safely back in our boat we settled in for the rest of the ride back to the dock. Our guide/cook pulled a cold watermelon from the cooler and skillfully cut it up into bite sized pieces and handed it around the boat. Funny isn’t it, how good food and cold juicy watermelon can make almost any situation tolerable?
This young boy was diving for clams instead of going to school!

We saw a lot of fishing boats along the way.

And I haven’t said anything yet about the people on the boat with us. In fact, I could write an entire post about the three Russians sitting in front of us in the boat. I was planning another screenplay about them. It would have been absolutely hysterical. But who has the time. I will just say that voluptuous Natasha (of course I am making the names up!), with her beautiful white skin and thick shiny black hair done up in a bun on top of her head, did not stop receiving calls on her iphone. Boris, with his soft curly head of redish blond hair, wearing Indian pajama trousers, sat cross-legged at the bow of the boat smoking, admiring Natasha and once in a while getting a word in while she snapped photos of him with her iphone, giggling at a high pitch each time she reviewed the photos of her adorable boyfriend. Sleek bronzed Katarina (who must have had a Mediterranean or South American ancestor) seemed to be as attached to Boris as to Natasha. She was much softer spoken, but an integral part of the ongoing Russian rhapsody (or maybe Opera is a better description) playing out on the boat in front of us. For the short intervals that they were not in ongoing conversation, they were sharing earphones from the one mp3 player they had with them (one in Natasha’s ear, one in Katarina’s for a while and then Boris got a turn), gyrating to the music. And when we hit the beach, well let’s just say they did not have the same impression of the beach as we did. Much frolicking, picture taking and sarong readjusting, until they were forced to pack it in to return to the boat.

Natasha checking her photos.
The truth of the matter is that when I look back at the photos, I can see that we were really in a beautiful place and when I think about the laughs we had with the other people on the boat who were as amazed at what was going on around us as we were, it was a very memorable day. More and more as we get deeper into this travel rhythm, it becomes more about the people, than the places. Our guide/cook was a very soft-spoken kind young man, who was trying his best to give us a good day. We both had a fairly long talk with the ranger who is trying very hard to get ahead in a country that has few opportunities. The rest of the tourists on the boat each had their own stories, which we only learned a little about, but it all adds to the richness of the day.
Marc in deep discussion with the Park Ranger.

That evening we decided that based on our experience that day, diving may not be the smartest thing to do in Cambodia. We made plans for an exit to Vietnam the next morning. I hope you are not getting tired of hearing about our crazy travel days, because the next one was the craziest to date.

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