Sihanoukville in December 09. Same Same but Different.

If you are up with larks you may want to stay on the riverfront in Phnom Penh. However, if you are a late night owl, like us, falling in the door at 3 and wanting to sleep til noon, you may want to try somewhere else. The River Star hotel was fine in itself, but the jackhammering that commenced after 5hours sleep was not pleasant.

At 8am I was roused from my much needed slumber by the raucous sounds of machinery hitting concrete. Urgh…

I suffered and tried to doze, eventually getting up for breakfast. I ate my first banana pancake of the trip, while chatting to children who came up and deftly avoiding being sold anything (no mean feat!)  I struggled with the way-too-strong-Khmer coffee too, having forgotten how lethal it was.

Whilst munching brekkie we thought we’d better settle up our bill and check with reception about the bus we’d booked the night before. “Oh no,” they said, “there’s no booking here”. Oh dear. At the last minute they got us onto a bus leaving for Sihanoukville within the hour, and got us a driver to take us to the bus station. Phew.

Last time we were in PP, the buses were pretty woeful, with broken aircon, busted seats, overheated engines and crazed bus drivers. This time however, we got the Angkor Express bus and it was a world apart from our last experience. Double decker, nice seats with plenty of leg room, air-con that worked, an on-board toilet (!!) – AND we nabbed the 2 front seats on the top deck for a superb view as we travelled.

Around 3 and a half hours later we alighted in Snooky town, but could get a tuktuk for no less than $3US to take us to our hotel. Ripped. We knew $1 was probably right and were trying for $2, but they formed a consortium and refused to take us for less. Oh well.

As we neared the famed lion monument at the big roundabout, we marvelled at how many more buildings there were, banks everywhere, even a lit up Coke sign. A bumpy road took us to the top of Serendipity beach – it didn’t exist last time we were here. Now it was lined with hostels and bars. Ah progress…but it didn’t bode well for a relaxing time.

Coasters was the hotel we’d booked, and it had quite a good location, being on the beach. Well, the restaurant was on the beach. The bungalows were further back. The owner was Irish and very friendly, especially when he heard my surname which is a common Irish one.

We were delighted as we walked to our half-bungalow, to see our first big gecko on a wall nearby.

We were somewhat less delighted when we got to our room. It had a musty smell. What is that odour? I wondered…it was sooo familiar. Oh yes!! It smelled of cabbage! I think it was the bacteria in the bathroom, but best not to think about it too much.

Tummies were rumbling so we nabbed a table at the seaside (and I mean the waves were mere feet away from us), and ordered Amok and Luc Lac. It was lovely being by the ocean again as we ate, toes in the sand.

But as we looked further down Serendipity and Ochheuteal beaches, we saw that where once was the occasional bar/restaurant on the beach with space in between, now it was absolutely jam-packed with these places. See?

As we walked along them after dinner, we couldn’t help but notice there was hardly any beach left – partly due to bad storms back in July.  And each bar would have its own music blaring, so you’d be assaulted with a cacophony as you stumbled along, trying not to fall onto the rocks or into the sea.

I had to confess that the naysayers had been right – Sihanoukville is very much in the grip of overdevelopment. Would there be anywhere we could go that still had that relaxing chilled out vibe from 5 years ago?

Well, I’m pleased to say the answer is yes. But for that you’ll just have to stay tuned for future posts. Next up, the boat ride to the paradisical island known as Ko Rong Saloem, and Lazy Beach Bungalows.

Holiday in Cambodia, Christmas in Phnom Penh

Back in the late 70′s and 80′s, Cambodia was NOT a place you went on a holiday, as the Dead Kennedys song “Holiday in Cambodia” attested.

People did, as they today go to Afghanistan and Iraq, but anyone who has been to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh can tell you that whities too were tortured and executed. Some possibly NGO’s, others possibly tourists in the wrong place and the wrong time.

But now is a different story. Tourists have been flocking back to Cambodia for some years now, with both good and bad consequences. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I was last there 5 years ago on my honeymoon, and I was keen to see what has changed.

I had an extremely long and tiring journey getting there. I’d done a 12 hour night shift on Christmas Eve, and got home at 6am to finish packing before heading off to the airport at 7.30am to fly out at 10am. I managed only a very short snooze on the flight and so was still feeling exhausted when we had to transit in Bangkok airport.

And then – oh joy – the plane was delayed. What should have been a 3 hour stopover stretched to 5 hours!! My eyes were falling out of my head. We were determined, however, to still go out in Phnom Penh that night, despite now not being able to hit the town until 11pm. By the time I finally slept (plane snooze notwithstanding), I’d been awake for just under 40 hours. Oi veh.

To cut to the chase. We booked into our hotel on the river, the “River Star” and headed forthwith to the Foreign Correspondents Club. The FCC was as glamorous as ever with its colonial feel; the huge fans swooping lazily overhead a welcome respite from the stifling heat. We had our first Christmas night beers of Angkor and Beer Lao, and watched life going on below.

The FCC was closing at midnight, so we hopped on a tuktuk to go to Heart of Darkness, Howies bar and the Walkabout. These are all in the same part of town, and on the street corners nearby was all manner of street food…but this would have to wait.

The Heart of Darkness used to be a lawless kind of place, where gangsters packing guns would hang out. Last time we were there, there had been a recent shooting and stabbing. And single women had at times been attacked on their way home, their tuktuks being ambushed by guys who’d followed from the club.

Now, there’s a big security presence. As we rocked up, the place was no longer dark, but lit up like a Christmas tree (fittingly!). Several staff on the door checked our person and bags for weapons before we were allowed through. And when we got in…we found a busily packed disco with buddhist icon backdrop.

There are lovely buddha sculptures everywhere, and bas reliefs of apsaras on the walls. The crowd was a mix of Khmer and western, and young Cambodians obviously went there to have a good time. It felt safe and fun. The only problem for us was the hideous urban/ r & b / hiphop music. So after one drink, we legged it to Howies.

Wow, what a change! Howies was playing indie and rock music like Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Beatles. More our type of place. The staff were fabulously friendly, and this really made the night for us. When you’re missing your mates in a far off country, it’s nice to connect with someone in conversation, and for us, this was it.

One of the girls asked us to play Connect 4 and Dom agreed, knowing he would probably lose miserably. She said she’d buy us drinks if he won, but we’d have to buy her a drink if he lost. Best of five was the winner.


The picture says it all. She let Dom win the first few, but in the end, she won. Ah well, it was a bit of fun.

After this we checked out the Walkabout, against our better judgement. I say this because we hate Aussie theme bars – they are generally sooo cheesy. But the music seemed ok, so we went in. Well, we hadn’t been there long when a girl came up and started giving Dom a shoulder massage and then wanting money. Uh-oh. We finished up one drink, paid her a dollar, and then decided to get some food.

We’d had so much fun in Howies that we decided to go back for a few more drinks. All in all, quite a “Merry” Christmas, despite the long lead-up to it. Now 3am, a tuktuk home and a few zzz’s were in order.

Unfortunately, Boxing Day started all too early, with jackhammering ripping me from my sleep at 8am – DOH! Sleep dep would continue for another day, through the busride to Sihanoukville and beyond. But that is a post for another day – read more tomorrow.

Holiday in Cambodia

Five years ago I first went to Cambodia and Vietnam. I got this great hat (ahem). Hey, it doubled as a fan!

It was my honeymoon, and D and I decided to, as the Dead Kennedys song suggested, have a “holiday in Cambodia”. We loved it. Well, once we got over the shock of Phnom Penh. In ten days time, we’re going again.

Yep, once again we’ll sample the, erm, ‘delights’ of Phnom Penh, and once again we’ll catch a bus down to Sihanoukville, or “snooky” as it’s affectionately known.

We all know what it’s like to return to a place you’ve travelled to and enjoyed, only to find it has changed dramatically, often for the worse. Our last time in Ko Samui on Chaweng beach was a big shock in that regard.

We’d had a hut on the beach for $15US a night back in 2000, and would wander down to a beach bar for dinner and a beer, and ate and drank with toes in the sand. 5 years later all the huts had been demolished to make way for grand resorts for $100US a night, and there were no beach bars left. We were so disappointed, we went to a beach on the north of the island to get away from the neon and the chavs. Next day we high-tailed it to Ko Tao to feel we were still getting away from it all a little.

So it is with trepidation that we return to Snooky. We watched video footage from our last trip there recently, so our memories are firmly etched in our mind. How much more developed will it be? How many MORE kids and touts will be wandering around trying to get you to buy this or that, not taking no for an answer?

To stave off potential disappointment, we’re spending 3 nights on Ko Rong Saloem, on Lazy Beach Bungalows. There are only a limited number of huts on the beach, and only one operation, so it’s still fairly basic and low-key.  But the huts ARE on the beach, as is the restaurant/bar.  And no touts.  Bliss.

I’ll certainly let you know how it goes.

Battambang boat trip part 2

I guess I’m a bit of a voyeur, but I just love watching how people live. This is what propels me up mountain slopes to see hill tribes and upriver to experience remote communities.

The boat ride from Battambang gave me ample material to feast upon. I avidly watched people doing their washing, tending their oxen, or playing with their children, as we floated along. I couldn’t say we sped, for the engine was like that of a lawnmower, hardly swift but definitely easier on the riverside dwellers than a speed boat would be.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we pulled over to the river bank so the monk could alight. Another 15 or so, and we pulled over again for more people to get in, this time with timber and building materials. Time and time again we’d stop, more would get on, their belongings stashed in any available nooks and crannies. Some had food that they’d bought in ‘town’ to take back to their village, or fabrics and other things to sell when they got upriver. It occurred to me that this was going to be slow going indeed.

I might be champing at the bit to get going, but this river is the people’s lifeblood, and these boats absolutely vital. I made a mental note to “go with the flow”. I marvelled, as we floated past village after village, at how different their lives are to mine, how different their homes are to mine.

I smiled at the young mother to my left and her little girl (who had been looking at my purple hair and giggling since we left the shore). I crossed my eyes and poked out my tongue. She snickered and pulled a face too. Ah, the basics never fail you, do they? You might not have the language but a bit of good old-fashioned slapstick will get you far.

I looked at her mother, who barely looked out of her teens, yet seemed content enough with her lot. We smiled at each other – I think she was thankful I was providing some entertainment for her little one. She reached into her bag, grabbed an orange, peeled it and offered me a segment – how could I refuse? “Aw kohn” I said. Then she popped a segment deftly into her daughter’s mouth. Shortly after her baby started to grizzle, and she discreetly fed him too, guiding his tiny mouth to nuzzle her. The intimacies of family life are lived out in the open here – you can’t wait 5 hours til you get home to feed your baby, can you?

I felt thankful for my freedoms and no-strings attached lifestyle. Sure, I’m married, but all I need is time off from work and I can go wherever I want (or where my savings allow me). D and I decided early on that we didn’t want kids. All throughout Asia, though, whenever the question of babies came up, men and women alike could not understand why we didn’t want them. In the end I would often indicate that I was infertile, to stop their questioning – and then the confusion on their faces would be replaced with pity. Or I’d point out that we were only just married a few weeks ago – give us a chance!

And then what was already a slow ride became even slower when we got bogged. Oh joy. Out jumped the men, including my husband, to push the boat along – just like we do when a car breaks down, except they got wet up to their thighs. Hehe, this was one time I didn’t care to be feminist. I stayed in the boat with the other women.

Ten minutes later we were back in the flow. I realised I was getting sunburnt and needed to fetch the sun-cream from my bag. My bag was wedged in at the front of the boat, so I had to get up and inch awkwardly along to get to it. The boat rocked a little and to keep my balance I put my foot down on someone’s bag of mystery goods.

And then I felt it. SQUELCH. Omigod. It had the unmistakeable feel of liver. Thank the powers that be it was wrapped in plastic or I’d have offal-flavoured toe jamb. But EUWWW! I’d trodden on someone’s meat! The older lady on the boat got up to check the damage, while I stood there, mortified. Gingerly I stepped away and got to my own luggage. She very graciously indicated that it was ok, as she re-wrapped her parcel, and pushed it into a safer crevice. Egad.

Luckily my mortification was short-lived, as we pulled over to let the couple with all the building materials get off. It took a while. I watched as the waiting family waved and then came to help them carry the lumber. I looked at the skeleton of the house they were building and wondered, was this their first home being built? Quite a bit different to the process we would go through shortly to buy our first apartment, already built. We would have to jump through hoops to prove to the bank we could afford it. This family just bought the materials as and when they could, perhaps bartering with goods of their own; who knows? The whole family would help build it.

The boat glided off, and I secretly hoped we would go an hour or two without stopping, this time.

And then we got bogged again.

I had to laugh. Another larger boat was stopped opposite us on the other side of the river. It was packed with older tourists that I presumed were American, all with cameras snapping the occurrence while their Khmer hosts were in the water trying to fix the engine. One tourist was even videoing it.

And then I realised. So in the flow of things was I that it didn’t occur to me to take a photo or film the experience. I was just in the moment, revelling in the beautiful day we were having, taking in the brilliant greens of the fields and the broad grins of the children as we passed. So I have nothing to share of this wonderful time, no photos, no video. But I tell you, it has stuck with me for 4 years. It was one of the best experiences of the entire journey.

We alighted some 8 hours later at Siem Reap, immediately assaulted by the din of drivers and touts all hustling for a buck (or should I say, a riel). The long days of temple-visiting in extreme heat lay before us and would require a lot of energy. Somehow, this trip had refreshed me, the tranquility seeped into my soul a little bit, and I knew I was ready to face what lay ahead.

Seriously, if you get to Cambodia, get thee to Battambang and take that boat trip.

Battambang

Battambang. Yeah, snicker…every time I hear the name I think of Rick Mayall and Ade Edmonson talking about the world’s stupidest bottom burp. Or Cartman and his boy band “Fingerbang”. It is at the same time a riot and yet slightly unsavoury.

A lot of travellers bypass Battambang in their rush to get straight to Siem Reap, but that would be a mistake. Linger a while and you’ll be rewarded. Next time I go, I know I will.

The city itself is lush, green and lovely. Think Luang Prabang with less temples. The province is the richest in Cambodia, which isn’t saying much, but there you are. There’s an absence of desperation, of poverty-stricken street people begging and clutching, and instead a sense of content languor. It’s like the people here know they’ve got it good.

As my ride from the bus-station told me: “You must stay more than one night; this is a beautiful place, you should stay and see the temples…” But as we were leaving FROM there the next day, bound for Siem Reap to see the slightly larger temples, I demurred.

So Dom and I set off from Battambang (snicker!) early in the morning while mist still hung in the air and the heat of the day had yet to descend.

It was with trepidation that we boarded the boat. We expected a covered-over tourist type longboat, but as we stepped down the ricketty steps to the water we saw that ours was…well, a canoe. With no cover. We would be out in the sun for some 6 to 8 hours. Hmm. The general consensus (via Lonely Planet travel guide and online forums) was that it was the prettiest route to take; getting the boat all the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap would be long and featureless.

At first we were a bit aghast, but then happy to see that locals would be travelling with us. In fact, we were the only whities on the boat. As well as the driver and his mate, an old man and three mothers of various ages with their progeny and bulging tums with bubs-to-be squashed into the boat with us, stashing all manner of food, building supplies and wares to sell, in the nose of the boat and under our feet.

There were broad smiles and nods all round, as we acknowledged we couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language. Well, we knew how to say thank you and later on, I had occasion to say sorry, but we’ll get to that. Finally a monk clad in orange robes squeezed in, and with a tug of the rope, the boat was freed from the shore.

The morning was crisp and cool, my mood relaxed as the boat glided from the pier. The engine farted into life with a battambang of its own, and our adventure began.

To be continued…..