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Sihanoukville and the Slow Road Home

December 15, 2004

by Jim CA2

It’s been approximately a year since I have visited Sihanoukville. Most of my time away has been seeing other parts of the country, visiting obscure temples and getting off the beaten path. Besides, I have kept current on Sihanoukville from reading the snippets in the Pearnik every month and the Kampong Som gang periodically comes to Phnom Penh to escape for a few days bringing me up to speed on what’s been happening.

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Running a business has its share headaches (I am sure the rest of the business owners around the Kingdom share similar experiences) but I had a few friends (John, Kevin and Tom) return from the states and they weren’t looking for the rough outback adventure we have taken in the past. We planned a little R & R at the coast. Prying myself away from the business would give me a few days away from the rat race and the headaches would be here when I returned. Bon Om Tuk festival was also coming so the time to get away was now. I would also catch up a little on my own, and this trip I was traveling with out an agenda.

My partners were looking for a bit of a ride so we opted to ride down Route 2 to avoid the airport traffic then over to Route 3 from Takeo to Kampot. After taking a small glimpse around Kampot, we would then follow the southern route to Route 4.

We couldn’t have picked a better day to ride. The trip to Kampot was fairly short and sweet. Out of Kampot the skies were clear with puffy clouds circumventing the air currents around Bokor and the Damrei (elephant) Mountains. If you enjoy a nice and easy ride in the countryside this is it… for now. The road winds and twist along rice plains, wet lands, over bridges and through a few fishing villages. This will soon change as aggressive road construction is taking place. Red and white stakes reminiscent of mine markers now mark off road widening out of Kampot. About 40K out of Kampot there is a bridge project going on and another 10K later the completed paved road cuts straight through a massive rice plain, wide and long enough to land a 747.

Coming into Sihanoukville I could see the airport off to the left, and the abandoned tarmac still waiting for those charter flights to arrive. VISA and Western Union have signs marking their presence at the airport. I guess they still need to get a few more signs and other details sorted before they can actually have scheduled flights (perhaps people?). As we arrived in town new road dividers near the gas stations were in place apparently to better control traffic and to keep the container trucks from the port in their appropriate lanes, but on the down side, departing traffic bottlenecked into a single lane behind the slow moving rigs creating more traffic problems. The dirt track to the port has been replaced by a large concrete modern looking thoroughfare. We arrived at Victory Beach for our first beer around 3:30PM, five hours since we left Phnom Penh.

One large container ship at the dock sat in tranquil crystal clear waters and four Khmer girls waded through the shallow waters in their colorful bathing suits (for you non locals this usually means a red hat, yellow blouse and blue jeans or similar assortment of colors). I just thought, man this country has a beautiful coast and I still have yet to catch up on the remaining beaches.

Since we arrived on a Saturday we figured it would be best to limit ourselves to one beer and get settled before started hitting it heavy. We tried out a newer place near Occheteal Beach near the Lions Circle. It was fine, but not the best value as I could never wake up to take advantage of the free breakfast between 6 and 9 AM. What is great value in Kampong Som however is the dining. Unfortunately I didn’t spend enough time to experience more, but Mick and Craigs puts on a great buffet of international cuisine every Saturday for 4 bucks. Stomachs full we headed over to the Marlin for a couple of drinks and they have a Saturday Bar-BQ with gargantuan ribs to satisfy a Neanderthal Man. The Oasis makes a great combination Pizza for five bucks. My palate was pleasantly pleased during my stay. Mealy Chenda has built a new upper deck for a better view of the coast and I kept part of my diet consistent with a late breakfast of fried eggs and hash browns, during which I taught the waiter a few things about service during the meal. I would like to think that 5+ trips up and down the stairs for salt, pepper, napkins etc. will have been a learning experience for him, but I could be wrong.

The next day Kevin and Tom met up with Jake who caught up with us the previous day and did the motorbike tour of the country side (Ream Park, Stoung Hau), I hooked up with John and we just did the local beach circuit. The sea wall and little park area on the south end of Sokha Beach is complete and the beach is open to the public. There is a sign posted adjacent to the Sokha Beach Resort that would like to indicate that it is a private beach, but it seems that it is there to keep out the locals. The beach was pretty barren mid day. More construction in the back of the compound looks like it will house private parties. Chez Claude has finished his assortment of bungalows on the hill over looking the resort. Independence Beach didn’t seem to be attracting too many people as well.

The once abandoned Independence Hotel on the hill overlooking Independence Beach has just about completed its face lift. John and I took a drive into the hotel complex for a look. One of the workers assured me that the hotel would be free of ghosts prior to its opening in about three months. Clean white paint replaced the old grey façade and a large spiral stairwell is a nice addition to assure support for the older building. A new entry and swimming pool are also nicely done with the old pool still in place on the adjacent hill. The old red relief piece at the entry and the logo on the side of the building are the only remnants of days gone by.

We headed to Hawaii Beach for a swim. The south end was picking up with the weekend warriors who were down for the day but the north end of the beach was pretty empty. Nice and peaceful. The water was crystal clear, calm, and the temperature was just right. Just like on the National Geographic channel, a sea eagle hovered overhead, made a dip and scooped up a fish and headed off to the island just off shore. There was no wind and perfect for a game of Frisbee, followed by a pickup game of football with three girls and a guy from the drink stand.

Four PM and we packed up to join the crowd of beach goers at Occheteal Beach for sunset. We took a quick tour down the beach beyond the golf course. The government has moved out the makeshift bars and restaurants on the adjacent beach front and as Kampong Som continues to develop, this will be one of the few natural settings left. The Dolphin and some of the other restaurants offer free accommodation to the backpacker crowds in exchange for eating meals and drinking on their premises. John and I would take in an awesome sunset at Chiva’s Shack run by a nice Khmer family. Chiva and Jinling speak excellent English and their menu is priced right. While having a few drinks some backpackers arrived on motos who didn’t look pleased at their fares choice of accommodations.

Sometimes its hard traveling in a pack as everyone has their own agenda. Trips to outer areas and small towns where nothing is really happening seem to work out better as you bring your own party along. Fortunately the five of us were flexible and were able to go about our own ways to satisfy our own travel needs. The next day Kevin, Tom and Jake would stay behind, John headed back to Phnom Penh and I was on the slow road back to Kampot for a night and then the slow road back to Phnom Penh.

When I was a kid, my family would travel around the USA and we would play a game trying to spot the license plates from various states. I was able to fulfill this childhood memory as I left Kampong Som around noon and kept a good pace to the Kampot turn off behind a Camry with Alabama plates. Neil Young will remember, southern man don’t need him around continued in my head. I have seen Texas plates in Kampong Cham and I think someone in Mission Viejo would be happy to know that a Lexus SUV is being well cared for on the streets of Phnom Penh. Once back on Route 3, I pushed my 250cc to a Daelim crawl. New roads through out the Kingdom will have travelers seeing the countryside through blurred glasses.

On the way to Kampot I made a couple of stops and visited with rice workers. The first stop I met a couple that complained about their crop. Not too many grains produced on their plants. The rains came in fast and left fast leaving their harvest on dry cracked ground. I sympathized with them. Slightly farther up the road a couple of guys stripped a puddle of its remaining two small perch type fish. It is going to be a long dry season for them and possibly next years prey will be too small and slip through their nets. About 20K from the first couple of rice farmers I stopped at large group of workers working a much better crop. Their crop was producing more rice and the plants were still submerged in water. I guess its geographical luck of the draw as many other villages around the country are preparing for another poor growing season and another drought. One thing I was curious about was where was all the men? There was one man in a row of 12 female workers. I said I bet that’s your wife working beside you and you are working your way out of the doghouse because you must have overstayed your curfew in the Karaoke last night. The other women got a kick out of this. I took a few pics and left them the four bottles of free water I had kept from the room in Kampong Som.

Just about 5K west of the turn off for Bokor Mountain there is the old Prek Ampil resort. Not much of a resort as the water is murky from seaweed harvesting. It is one of the most picturesque palm lined coastal scenes, however it will probably just remain as a nice place for the women to gossip while they are sorting their seaweed. They have remodeled one of the old French ruins as a house or restaurant perhaps and constructed picnic shelters for the weekenders. On the way out to the main road I picked up a hitch hiker that was on his way to Kampot. He rode free.

That night in Kampot I was able to try some of the Sri Lankan cuisine at the Bamboo Light on the riverfront. It was new to me but quite delicious and well worth trying. Kampot shuts down pretty early but along with friends who happened to be there from Kampot, Siem Reap and Kampong Som, we were able to keep the party going till after midnight. The staff was stuck in that paradox state of wanting to go home and making their salaries for the month.

The next morning I was on my own again. I would continue the Daelim pace. So often we race to get somewhere and miss so many fascinating things along the way. I would stop and smell the roses taking pictures of interesting things and meet some people along the way. The first stop was at a bridge where an overloaded truck couldn’t power its back tires out of the spaces in the boards. This was great. I blew around the truck, over the bridge and parked to get pictures of a captive audience of campesinos on those three wheeled countryside taxis. I made another brief stop for shots of some guys building a house and a couple of smiling girls on a bicycle, all more curious about me than I was them.

My next stop was at a bridge at Wat Stoung in the small town of Phum Namnak Troap. Along the stream banks below a group of girls and their father were shoveling sand from oblong boats carved from tree trunks. Damn! Look at them labor in the hot sun, shoveling away. These were some strong women. I was snapping pictures of them working away and they were commenting to me from below. Shooting digital I figured I would double back over the bridge and drive down the embankment and share their photos. They really enjoyed them. I enquired about their work day and they said that they worked about five hours a day. They lived far away and would paddle far to retrieve sand and bring it to the banks adjacent to the wat. No days off or time to dahleng? I asked. No just work. Well I hit them with a 10 spot and told them to have a night out on me. They were grateful and I got out of there as more curious villagers arrived. I’ll have to make it back one day to give them their pictures.

A few years ago when the road was crap, I had come back from Kampot with a few friends and we stopped for a sugar cane drink at a stand near Phnom Noreay. One of the girls, Mouy Kea, was minus an arm and had a prosthetic leg. At first we didn’t notice as her long skirt and long sleeve shirt hid them well. Needless to say I paid quite a bit more than the 200 riel price. As road construction closed in on their neighborhood, I had made another trip and stopped for a visit as I could spot the old roadside shelter. Since the new road has been completed I haven’t been able to locate the house. I have cruised by on a few occasions but the road side houses and look the same. Well this time I located the house and paid the family another visit. Mouy Kea was still there, but her sisters had moved on to bigger things than selling the sugar cane drinks. A couple of mototaxi carts sat under the house so someone was doing better. No sugar cane, but I got 4 coconuts for a nice donation of 2.50 each. After catching up on old news I continued on with 3 coconuts strapped on the back of the bike. I still have never inquired as to why Mouy Kea was with out a couple of limbs.

I made a couple of brief stops outside of Takeo to take a couple of photos and picked up some large guavas for my staff at a roadside stand. Nearing Tonle Bati 30k out I was close to home in very familiar territory so I picked up the pace until one of my regular stops outside of Takmau where I began stopping 5 years ago. I stretched what had become a two hour journey since the new road was completed into five hours. I was happy to see old friends and meet some new ones. More importantly I was able to learn a little more about the lives of the people in the country where I live. Jim CA2



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