“Fifty eight!” I declared breathlessly. “Fifty eight what?” came a gasping response. “Steps!” I puffed, wondering why I had packed so much in my rucksack for the gazzilionth time since starting my trip. There had better be good view I thought to myself, as I turned off the sandy stair case and stepped onto the veranda outside our beach bungalow. And so there was. Between trees and rooftops I glimpsed the sparkling blue sea and a wooden pier jutting out into the shallow sandy bay. This would do nicely !
Home for the next 5 nights was to be a rather damp looking wooden beach bungalow, with metal bars over the windows and a mozzie net; the round type that always made me feel like I was sleeping in a princesses bed. There was nothing else regal about the room however, it had a high ceiling housing a large amount of cobwebs and there were scatterings of fine wooden looking dust here and there which told me the structure was being eaten from the inside out by termites. That said, the bed was comfy and clean, and there was a fridge, a tv and a fan, although all three couldn’t be plugged in at the same time. Finally though, finally, we were by the sea, a few days on the beach after 2 months of city based sightseeing and exploring.
We had allowed ourselves only a short stay in Cambodia, about 9 days, and our arrival in Sihanoukville have been preceded by 2 nights in the capital Phnom Penh. What struck us immediately upon entering Cambodia was the poverty. It jumped out at you much more visibly than other places in our travels around South East Asia. There is an immediate presence of beggars, lots with children who are either naked, semi clad and nearly always shoeless. Exploration around Phnom Penh started by the tuk tuk driver telling us to hold onto our bags, as even on the move there was a high chance our belongings could be swiped. Visiting the Royal Palace we hired a guide to tell us more about what we were seeing, and he reinforced to keep my camera firmly attached to me to reduce the risk of being robbed.
The Royal Palace was very grand, the tour guide pointing out details and their significance that otherwise we would either not have seen or not understood. He also took us around the Silver Pagoda, so called for its floor which is tiled in silver, ornate with carvings and engravings, and housing a myriad of royal artefacts and gifts from Japan, France and Thailand. We finished our day with a walk along the Tanle Sap river, munching on a very refreshing giant grapefruit and a mooch around a park at sunset which played host to an assortment of badminton games (some played with rackets – mainly the girls, and some with the feet in a very skilled ‘backwards over the shoulder’ kick – mainly the boys) and mass aerobics come dance workouts.
5 hours away in a minibus is the coast and the party town of Sihanoukville. It has several beaches and we were determined to visit them all. Staying on the right side of the pier saw us firmly on the more chilled side of Serendipity beach, although this did not stop us hearing the pounding beats of the bars and clubs until the not so wee hours of the morning. Indeed one morning we were up at 6.30 a.m. to join a dive trip and the revellers were still wandering up from the beach front looking slightly glazed and grubby. Each day we visited a different beach; Otres 1 and Otres 2 both have resorts springing up along them and are much more chilled than Serendipity, as is Independence. All have a presence of peddlars, mainly girls selling you manicures, pedicures and massages. One girl sat with me offering to thread my legs, with the promise to “make your legs like kids arse”. I resisted the urge to correct her, assuming she meant as smooth as a babies bottom, but in my moment of lapse concentration she had the talc and cotton out and was giving me a free demonstration of her threading prowess, tutting at my shaved legs in disapproval. “Show me armpit” she commanded. Mock shock and British prudishness made me clamp my arms firmly to my sides, she giggled and asked my name and where I was from. “My name Coca Cola and I from Scotland,” she told me. “Oh my fella is from Scotland”, I informed her. “Same same, but different” she replied, and carried on plucking my nearly non existent hairs from my leg. I told her she’d have more luck in a few days, and she made me pinky promise to meet in a day or so so she could finish the job. I stole a peek under my arm once she had left; she’d have had a field day.
Travelling to the beaches required a short tuk tuk ride or a long hot walk, so in the most part we hired tuk tuks, hoping this was a responsible way of supporting the local economy. If I had a bottomless pit of US dollars I could have sat at Serendipity beach all night giving money to the children who came selling flowers, bracelets, lanterns and fireworks. Fireworks that you hold in your hand and aim away from your fellow beach goers and they shoot up into the air a few meters above people having their dinner. We did buy one lantern and the owner of the restaurant came up to ask us to go at least 5 meters away as one bar owner had seen his whole business go up in flames as a result of a wayward lantern. I wasn’t sure 5 meters would make much difference but we acquiesced to his request. The beach children, disabled beggars and masseuses got little joy out of us, whilst my heart was happy to give them endless dollars, my head told me this wouldn’t help their plight. Hard to see such poverty and know what best to do.
The staff working in hotels, bars and restaurants are keen to practise their English, and strangely here the bar men seem to adopt your accent, shifting between Aussie, British, and American dependent on who they are talking to. “Do you want your dinner yet mate?” we were greeted with in a rather ropey cockney imitation by one particularly cheeky chap at a frequent watering hole. We enjoyed a few beers at this bar, with the barman asking “Same same?” each time we finished our drinks. The food at his establishment was good too with us mainly choosing the grilled meats that are the Cambodian speciality, along with a BBQ that allows the diner to cook a small selection of chicken, pork, crocodile, and fish over coals under an upturned metal dish, around which a stock is poured into a ring to cook your noodles and vegetables.
After 5 days in Sihanoukville, which included a fabulous 2 day boat trip so that my man could dive, we jumped aboard a coach that would deposit us in Siem Reap, 12 hours away by road. The road trip allowed us the opportunity to see the villages between Phnom Penh and the western side of the country. In the most part the road was newly built, with smooth tarmac and no pot holes, but in other parts the construction work was not yet underway and we bounced and rattled and hopped our way along red clay and gravel roads. The scenery consisted mainly of flat paddy fields, with wooden houses built on stilts. Under the houses the space was used for an assortment of roles; home for the cattle, a shady place to swing in a hammock, somewhere to cook your food, or to store your moped or tractor. Green and brown were the predominant colours, with the unfortunate addition of shiny clear, green and orange plastic bottles. The amount of litter in Cambodia is astonishing; plastic bottles and wrappers everywhere you look. Unfortunately it was scattered across everyone’s land, or heaped in piles at the gates or under the homes. As the bus bounced along, the pleather seats beneath us became hotter and released a wiff of stale sweat every time we shifted position. I was close to asking the Aussie lad at the front to keep his arms down as his continual readjustment of his light or air blower released a waft of armpit odour to those sitting further upwind. Finally we arrived hot and bothered in Siem Reap and I was surprised at how modern and clean it was in comparison to my expectations based on my Phnom Penh experience.
We checked into a nice hotel, splurging after the budget accommodation in Sihanoukville. We smiled thankfully at the chill of the air-con after our sticky coach trip and revelled in the water pressure our shower provided. As it was late evening we sat in the open air hotel restaurant and had some dinner, watching the rain pour down and the sky illuminate periodically with flashes of lightening. An early night was in order and 11 hours of slumber later we were ready to get our Lara Croft on and explore the temples at Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. Every image you have in your head of tomb raider style scenery alongside the awe inspiring religious and spiritual architecture pales into insignificance when you arrive at the main entrance to Angkor Wat. The place is simply stunning and you can buy 1 day, 3 day or 5 day passes to really explore every nook and cranny. We decided a 1 day pass would be enough for us and our tuk tuk driver from the hotel ferried us round the vast and rambling estate that holds so many temples and religious artefacts you wouldn’t know where to start if you arrived independently without a guide. Plenty of people were exploring independently, many hiring bicycles instead of paying a tuk tuk driver, but we were grateful of our decision to take a guide; he gave us water each time we returned to the tuk tuk and he instilled no time restrictions on us whilst we explored each of the sites we chose to see, hanging out in his hammock in the back of his tuk tuk whilst he waited.
The day of sightseeing, climbing hundreds of steep stone steps and trudging around the Angkor Wat estate in the hot muggy rain saw us fatigued and with a bit of a thirst on. We showered and chilled down in the icy air-con for an hour or so then headed out at about 10 p.m. to “Pub Street”, located near the towns famous night market, where you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with “Same same but different”, shoes, trinkets, souvenirs, dried fish, clams, chickens and bugs on sticks. Every town seems to have a pub street and this was exactly what is said on the tin; a short, clean and bustling strip of restaurants, bars and clubs. We got our groove on in a club called The Temple, assisted by copious amounts of vodka redbull and then found our way home to sleep off the days excitement.
We leave Cambodia tomorrow and head into Bangkok for a few hours then catch a flight south to Phuket. The next months see’s us becoming beach bums; same same but different.