The soft voices of the patrons sitting behind me provide the vocals. The bartender strums his guitar while the rustle of leaves provides the percussion. Every now and then, as if on cue, the birds across the water chirp or a passing motorbike adds a touch of tension to the music, but not for long; and not long enough to disturb the pervasive peace. Where am I?
It’s hard even for me to know. I tell the bartender it feels like Nimbin, on the north coast of New South Wales, but that’s not quite right. The tap-tap-tap of a hammer in the distance brings it in to focus. This village sprouting like a cluster of mushrooms near the Khmer village behind Otres 2 is taking me back in time to 1968. There, following the lead of poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, hippies bought cheap land on a scarred but recovering part of California’s lower Sierra Mountains called San Juan Ridge.
The bartender tells me they’ve dubbed this area “Otres village.” The Barn was responsible for bringing this out-of-the-way corner of Sihanoukville to life. Someone had the ingenious idea to start a weekend market there last year. Otres Market was a big hit over the high season, but they’ve put it on hold through the rainy season, when tourist numbers aren’t enough to draw a crowd.
There are still enough backpackers in town to fill a few bungalows here at the Hacienda, though. The bartender describes it as feeling like living in the middle of the jungle at night. He agrees with me that last night’s sunset was particularly spectacular. I saw it through my bedroom window. I can only imagine how it looked from here.
After finishing a bottle of water, I become curious about the hammering I’m hearing in the distance, so I go for a walk in its general direction. As I walk, I’m amazed by the amount of construction that’s going on. I ask the builders at the site where I heard the tapping what they’re building. They tell me it’s going to be a restaurant. Except for one two storey brick building, most everything that’s being built seems to be made of timber and thatch. Some designs are traditional, either Western or Khmer. Others can best be described as “hippy chic” — low on budget, but high on imagination. If the trend continues, this could become one of the most interesting collection of bungalows and homes on the planet.
Finally, it’s time to go. As I wind my way through the 5 o’clock traffic, I’m struck by how fast Sihanoukville has grown since the first time I saw it in September, 2006. Back then, I wondered why they made Ekareach Street so wide, since there was so little traffic. Now I wonder why they didn’t make it even wider. It’s not tourist traffic at this time of the year. It’s all the Cambodians who have come here to work and raise their families. The traffic doesn’t stop even when I make my way down the rutted little road to my house. The kids have just gotten out of school — a school that wasn’t there just a year ago. Maybe it’s time to think about moving to Otres village.