The Cambodian Coast
The final piece of our Cambodian adventure had to be oceanside, so we decided to visit the towns of Sihanoukville and Kep. From Siem Reap, we took a night bus to Phnom Penh then on to Sihanoukville (after about a 30 minute “layover” in PP – just enough time at 1am for T to tuk-tuk to our PP hostel to pick up our point-and-shoot which we had accidentally left there). The night bus is a new concept in these parts, though by the age/condition of the bus, you wouldn’t know it – it looked ancient and was probably some Russian throwaway (an educated guess). I’m honestly at a loss to describe this particular bus experience. It wasn’t downright horrible, surprisingly, but it was easily the weirdest transportation experience of my life. The night bus is equipped with 3 rows of double-stacked beds – I think 48 in all. The “beds” are flat except for your head which is a bit elevated and has an attached pillow cushion thing. They are reasonably long (though T is probably as tall as you’d want to be on these things), but are certainly not wide and not meant for the stereotypical fat foreigner. We were both on top bunks, next to each other, T next to a window and me in the precarious middle aisle. Fortunately our beds had railings to prevent us from falling out, but others were not so lucky. There were blankets and bottles of water provided – but no food and no toilet on board – only pit stops in the darkest of night in the most bizarre of locations so you could use a porcelain hole in the ground while the driver told you to hurry up. Thank all of the Gods our stomachs cooperated on this trip. The roads were truly treacherous at parts, particularly thanks to it being the end of rainy season – but the highways in/out of PP were actually quite lovely and smooth. The journey was about 12 hours, door-to-door, and surprisingly, we actually got some sleep despite the obnoxious Camodian/Chinese/electronica music starting way-too-early in the morning. The temp control was fairly decent too, though at times whatever air was being ventilated into the bus definitely reeked of gasoline…. We’re contemplating buying a travel carbon monoxide monitor….
Sihanoukville is a somewhat bizarre town. It’s certainly home to the nicest beaches on mainland Cambodia and is the necessary departure point if you want to visit any of Cambodia’s islands, home to some of the best beaches in the region. Sihanoukville is also Cambodia’s main (and only) real port. The town has become a popular ex-pat destination, particularly for older divorced/single/widowed European gentlemen (especially Russians and Germans) who want to live off their retirement pensions in a very cheap country. To make the expats feel welcome, there is a large “taxi-girl” (aka call girl) community & culture, especially in the Victory Hill neighborhood (where we stayed – but on the non-girls street). There’s a ridiculous number of backpackers and their associated enterprises all along Serendipity Beach – helping to make Sihanoukville the meth capital of SE Asia. There are so many different types of drugs available – things T&I have absolutely never heard of – and it certainly doesn’t help that you can buy any prescription you could ever want over-the-counter at the pharmacy. Not only did some of these guys feel the need to escape their physical surroundings, but once they accomplish that, it seems they need more and resort to altered states of reality. In my opinion, the whole scene was pretty pathetic, and I just feel sorry for the townspeople who have had their area changed by the influx of gringos.
Not that they’re all bad. Some have found love again in a young Cambodian wife/girlfriend (because under Cambodian law, a foreign man over the age of 50 cannot marry) and are using their business expertise and pension money to set up tourist businesses that their wife/gf can run in the future, thus giving her some financial stability and security. We actually saw this a number of times, including at our own guesthouse (Divers Inc. Hotel – highly recommend).
The highlights and “must-dos” of our stay in Sihanoukville:
1. We went on a day-trip to the island of Koh Rong Samloem which included a bit of snorkeling (mediocre) and a lot of time at the absolutely stunning white sand beach. The water at this time of year in the Gulf of Thailand is a very clear green and contrasts beautifully against the white sand. The boat we took is owned by a German who, on our return to the island, was giving out free beer to those who would funnel it through a snorkel. T represented the USA well.
2. A day at Otres Beach – the most pristine beach in Sihanoukville. It also has less businesses and hawkers than the much more popular Serendipity Beach.
3. Watching the sunset at QueenCo Casino – with their happy hour specials, delicious food, and prime location on Victory Beach, it is the perfect place to unwind at the end of the day.
4. We were lucky enough to make friends with Terri (Cambodian gf of Robert, the owner of our guesthouse) and be visiting during one of the biggest Cambodian holidays. On Saturday, Terri took us to a local favorite hang-out where families were out in droves having picnics near waterfalls. This place is off the gringo-trail and we were literally the only non-Cambodians there. We spent the afternoon with Terri and her friend’s large family, eating delicious local food (including fish, chicken, morning glory, & lychees), drinking Anchor beer, and having a generally merry time.
5. Cambodian club scene – Terri took us to 2 locals-only nightclubs – one called Skyline and the other LV (for Louis Vuitton, of course). We have little interest in doing the typical backpacker party scene – quite frankly, it’s gotten old – so we were excited to see how Cambodian kids party. We heard Gangnam Style no less than 4 times and listened to quite a few traditional Cambodian songs remixed with dance beats. The scene was standard from around the world – young girls dancing groups while boys hovered nearby waiting until the alcohol kicked in to give them the confidence to make a move.
We probably spent too much time in Sihanoukville, but we got sick after eating bad Indian food so it worked out to just stay there and rest in our comfortable surroundings. On Tuesday, we left for Kep, a tiny seaside town close to the Vietnam border. We’ve spent 2 days at the remote and peaceful Masada Resort communing with nature, swimming in the awesome pool, hiking around the national park, visiting a pepper farm (Kampot Pepper is apparently the 2nd best in the world behind Madagascar’s), and eating that which Kep is most famous for – green pepper crabs. We could easily spend a week here – the town is tiny and extremely laid back, the scenery is breathtaking, and our hotel is exceedingly comfortable, but we’re off to Vietnam this morning.
We only spent 16 days in Cambodia, but have really fallen in love with it. I honestly think when we’re leaving Asia in February, we’ll look back and say this was our favorite country