28.03.2016 - 02.04.2016 38 °C
On a cloudy Monday morning in Phnom Penh we got on our mini-bus to Sihanoukville; a province in Southwest Cambodia. For the whole 5 hour journey the bus played a wildlife documentary on a fold-down screen up front based on Cambodian's native wildlife; specifically the Giant Ibis bird. It was odd but quite interesting and we found ourselves watching it on a loop at times.
Half-way through the journey we had our usual rest-stop where I picked up some BBQd bananas and Lauren managed to wangle some stir fried veg and tofu.
We arrived mid-afternoon and walked from our drop-off stop to our hostel which was only a few hundred metres across the infamous Golden Lion roundabout. One Stop hostel was down a little alleyway and the staff were incredibly welcoming and helpful. We shared our dorm with 3 German girls and one other Welsh girl called Sammy. The hotel was clean and well-maintained with a pool in the middle (that we never used because it was always full and we're anti-social like that).
We took a short orientation walk to Serendipity beach which was only 10 minutes away. Sihanoukville is just like any touristy cheap beach town. There are endless bars, pubs, cafés, clothes shops and travel agents. There are also a few curious digital-based establishments such as a shop that puts illegally downloaded films, TV series and music on your device (phone, tablet, iPod etc) for a price as well as a 'cinema' that I'll mention shortly.
The first noticeable feature of the beach front itself is the depth of it. It was probably nearing high tide while we were there but there must have only been 30 feet between the sea and the shop fronts. Walking along the boardwalk we came across some affronting sights. There were, as we'd expected, plenty of beggars, many of which were disabled (amputee predominantly) but a few were very young children. We managed to weave our way through being as polite but firm as we could. As it was getting into early evening there were also a few mildly annoying bar/club touts (European) sniffing around. The next disheartening view was a chained-up monkey on a little platform whose eyes screamed "kill me now". The element that made us squirm with most fervour though was the presence of many Caucasian, middle-aged single men sat in bars, chain-smoking and drinking beer. It was difficult not to judge these men as sex-tourists; why else would they have chosen a Benidorm-style beach as far away as Cambodia? Maybe we've read too much about the rife, exploitative and downright inhuman sex-trade of the country that both natives and barangs (foreigners) take full advantage of.
After a 15 minute stroll we'd seen enough and so wandered back to the Lion roundabout to have dinner in Samdan restaurant; a non-for-profit centre that trains up young, underprivileged Cambodians in cooking and serving. I went for the local dish Lok Lak which is usually made with beef but this one used buffalo meat (I was craving animal). It was absolutely delicious and also incorporated a good portion of Kampot pepper; another famous local ingredient. Lauren had a lovely bean curry (oh how we've craved legumes!).
We had an early-ish night as I was still really run-down and had broken out in nose-herpes (typical). We chatted to Sammy for a while who, similar to us, had quit her job (as a high-school teacher) to go travelling. She was very athletic (which only emphasised our laziness by comparison) and had just completed some diving training in the town.
The following day we both felt a bit fed-up. Whether it was the lack of privacy, tiredness, vitamin-deficiency or just the usual ungrateful, entitled Western attitude, we just couldn't help feeling a little down. We tried our best not to dwell in the blue but we both knew that realistically, we weren't going to be 'up' and enthusiastic every single day and that we shouldn't criticise ourselves for that.
We did the only thing we know what to do when we're feeling a bit depressed; eat. After a beige brekkie at the hostel we chose the only veggie/vegan place in the town called Dao of life. While waiting for our oh-so-trendy raw, vegan, organic, fair-trade, rip-off dishes we made the most of the games shelf and played some strip Jack naked. Lauren also did a book-swap and got hold of a counterfeit copy of First They Killed My Father.
Not in the mood for Serendipity beach we then slid over to Top Cat cinema; basically a load of private little living rooms equipped with sofas, fans a large TV and a database filled with thousands of downloaded films and TV shows. You pay for a two hour 'slot' and basically watch whatever the hell you want in your own little cave. Yes it's a bit seedy and yes it's highly illegal but fuck me I think I've found my happy-place. If I could find myself a small office building and set one of these up I'm sure it'd go down a treat. Nobody wants to pay the extortionate cinema prices these days. I'd just have to think of a way to keep the police and the piracy ninjas away...
We were shown to our room by a girl whose pupils were bigger than her boobs. She gave us all the info and then told us we were more than welcome to smoke "whatever we wanted" and pointed to the Happy Pizza menu adhered to the wall. On top of everything you could also order pizza to be delivered, to your room AND they'd make it 'happy' for free. In case you're not sure what this definition of pizza happiness is I'll break it down for you; it's chunks of marijuana and potentially a sprinkling of shrooms. Unfortunately for you dear reader, we didn't order a pizza (we'd just eaten).
For our last day in Sleaze-anoukville we braved the beach. As we didn't bring beach towels we grabbed a pair of sticky sunbeds and stripped off to our bikinis. I haven't hair-removed for a good few weeks now and, so those of you that don't know me, I can grow a pretty impressive layer of fur on most parts of my body in record time. At this point I had quite noticeable hair all over my legs and substantial pittens (armpit kittens). The young Russian boys lay quite close to us tried their best to surreptitiously peek at our hairy-bits. I appreciated their diplomacy.
We hopped over the white sand littered with cigarette butts and plastic things and jumped into the body of water known as the Gulf of Thailand; an arm of the South China sea. To our delight and dismay the water was warm, in fact almost hot. Not a great relief from the sweltering heat but at least we had a sea-breeze. The water too was very salty; it made our skin sting and itch a little after a while. But, unlike the beach-front, the sea was lovely.
As we were leaving, Lauren went over to the bar to pay the $1 for our drinks. The waiter then tried to hand the dollar back and said he couldn't take it as it was damaged. I am really not exaggerating here when I say there was a 10mm tear in the note at the top. Lauren dismissed his protestations and that she didn't have any more notes but that it was fine anyway. As we were walking away the Russian bar-owner then came over and started shouting at us and saying that we needed to give them another dollar as the note was no good. Lauren told him it was the only dollar we had (it was) and pulled me away as he shouted "if you've got no money you should go home, we don't want you here!". We had heard a bit about some places being funny about less than perfect currency but this was ridiculous! I actually felt a little intimidated - the bastard.
For lunch we found out way to another non-for-profit café called Starfish. The food was pretty ordinary (we had sandwiches), but we sat outside in their plush, quiet garden under the shade of trees and next to an old fountain and stayed a little while to Skype my mum.
Upon returning to our hostel and doing some research we found out that to get to our next destination, Battambang, we had to get a TWO buses and go BACK to Phnom Penh where we'd just been which was geographically going back on ourselves. And of course, we had to pay a premium for this long journey. We just hadn't realised that there was no direct rout straight up to Battambang from Sihanoukville. What a fucking pain. But we had no choice so we booked and just thought of it as another essential journey.
We checked out the next morning and took a brief tuk-tuk ride to Otres; a region only 6km from Serendipity (still within Sihanoukville) but apparently much quieter, more picturesque and less trashy. The tuk tuk ride was reinvigorating; we drove along rudimentary dirt roads with a cooling wind rushing through us as we watched the landscape turn more rural and striking.
We arrived at Family Guesthouse Ubuntu and were shown to our hut-style room up on a wooden mezzanine. We had two fans and a mosquito net which was all we needed. The one downside was that the bathroom was down the outdoor wooden stairs (tricky in the evening) and was pretty much a campground bathroom (drippy cold shower and industrial metal sink).
Soon after arriving we rushed out to Otres beach; a 15 minute walk away. We were desperate to feel redeemed for picking Sihanoukville as so far it hadn't impressed us. After walking through a small high street with some shops and restaurants dotted around, we arrived at an orange track that lead onto the sand. A very old Ford drove by and for a moment we felt like it was the 1970s. The combination of the barren yet wonderfully colourful landscape made us believe we were in 70s Malibu for a second, about to play volleyball while wearing slightly conical-busted bikinis. But 1970s Cambodia was not comparable to California, and coastal areas like Sihanoukville were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge.
We had two options, turn left or turn right. Both ways appeared to be just long stretches of unbelievable white sand, palm trees and only a handful of people, mostly Cambodian. It really did seem like paradise. Because we didn't have towels we didn't want to just lie on the scorching sand, so we decided to turn right and walk along until we hopefully saw some sunbeds. We ended up on Otres 1 beach which had a few bars and hostels and a number of tourists about - but nowhere near as many as in Serendipity. We settled on some sunbeds and expected a barman from the bar they were attached to to come over and make us buy a drink, but to our delight, no one did.
Lauren skipped into the sea for a swim like a puppy off the lead. As before the water was very warm but not too salty this time around. Here's a video of our first look around the beach:
After a few minutes of complete serenity a young girl (approx. 10 years old) came over and offered us bracelets. We declined as always but, being the enterprising type, she then spotted my luxurious body hair and started ferociously selling her Mum's threading. We explained that we were happy being hairy and didn't want to be threaded but she just didn't understand. She said I looked like a boy and a monkey and that I should let her Mum get to work asap. In all fairness, with my level of hair growth, my legs would have been a goldmine for them. They would have been dining out on Lok Lak all week.
Of course it's a bit of a shame that the nonsensical (imho) and entirely constructed beauty ideal of hairlessness for women pervades many cultures outside of the West. But of course it's personal choice. I would like to think that our outward flouting of this particular societal 'rule' might pop into her mind when puberty hits and act as an example of difference.
After a couple of hours we walked to a restaurant near to our hostel; Pachamama. It's the only veggie/vegan place in Otres and run by a family from Somerset. They haven't been open for very long and they only have one chef (the daughter) so the service was a bit slow but this is consistent with Cambodia as a whole. The restaurant sits right on a river backing onto the Koh Kong mangroves. We sat overlooking the river listening to the wonderful sounds of all the unknown creatures. There were also plenty of creatures roaming around; a little kitten called Nugget, two dogs and 3 chickens.
The food was surprisingly stodgy (in a good way) with lots of veggies and potatoes (oh how we've missed it). We also had a try of the home-made coconut milk ice cream; the chai tea flavour was particularly yummy.
We retired to bed but it took me hours to get to sleep as there were little geckos crawling on our mosquito sheet and I got myself into a bit of panic. Somewhere in my half-asleep brain I thought one was going to end up in my mouth - a fate worse than Lauren's morning breath. At around 11pm the group of girls who were sleeping in the hut next door started screaming and saying something about cockroaches or beetles. This didn't scare me more, it actually made me laugh and have a bit of a word with myself - I'm not a big sissy girl like them...
For breakfast the next morning we went back to Pachamama and had an interesting Mangosteen tea; a fruit that grows extensively across Cambodia and is pretty much a mix between a lychee and an dragon fruit.
This time we turned left at the mid-point to head to Otres 2 beach. There were even less people and only a handful of bars and guesthouses on this side. again we picked some sunbeds and coaxed a gorgeous little puppy over for a play. A bit later on, two adult male dogs appeared a few hundred yards in front of us on the sand and the puppy went curiously bounding over. Something obviously went array as suddenly the two adult dogs started attacking the little puppy. Some brave people who were swimming in the sea and lay on the beach ran over and grabbed the puppy away - but the big dogs were still jumping up and biting his little legs. the lady from the bar we were lay at (who we presumed was the owner) was handed the injured puppy and took him away, yelping. We didn't see him again but we hope he made a recovery. One of the men who got in the middle was bitten on the hand and we later saw him walking with the main attacker dog - perhaps in an attempt to keep an eye on him or perhaps he was connected to it somehow.
Brushing the dog fight aside (and after ensuring there weren't any scary dogs still around), we had a swim and relax for an hour or so. We then walked half an hour back to Otres 1 to get a cheap massage. The massage was pretty good but what we didn't think about was the oil rubbing off our suncream. Needless to say on the 30 minute walk back to our hostel we both got some decent sunburn - I managed to cook my whole back (I only had my bikini top on) which caused me a fair bit of pain over the following days.
To get out of the sun we walked over to a newly-opened art studio run by a lovely Belgian woman called Anastasia. She was a scruffy arty type but wasn't remotely floating - she was incredibly passionate about arts and crafts and a no-bullshit type of chick. Over the next 3 hours we chatted and made our very own macramé anklets complete with little bells. We later learned that the bells are actually quite useful for keeping the snakes away. This helped loads with my night-time creature-fear... ahem.
I now wish I was interested in getting married so I could macramé my own wedding dress. I'll just have to make one of those owls from the 70s instead.
Our final meal in Otres was at a small bar come kitchen come guesthouse called Green Lantern, where we had a cheap pad thai and sweet and sour. We were satisfied with our $5 sustenance - a bargain for expensive Cambodia. It wasn't until our journey to Battambang early the next morning that we realised the shortcomings of said cheap pad thai...