About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.

Looking back at 10 years in Cambodia

I created a Facebook page for my book, Serendipity Road. I’m still waiting for it to be formatted. Once that’s done, I’ll be ready to publish. My book is not illustrated, so I’ve included photos and quotes from the book on my Facebook page. I’d like for readers to visit my page, so I’ve included a few photos from the past 10 years in Cambodia here in hopes you’ll visit my page and look at more.

charcoal oven in CambodiaThis is a charcoal oven similar to the one Sopheak’s family built when they lived on the edge of the jungle near Virh Riengh. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“All it took to eat well at the edge of the jungle was a few hours of foraging, hunting and gardening. Anything they lacked, like rice, they bought with the proceeds of the charcoal they made in their charcoal oven and the occasional turtle they sold in the market.”

When we went to Svay Riengh, we stayed in this house. Svay Riengh is near the Vietnam border. Sopheak’s family lived in the rice fields when she was young and she still considers Svay Riengh home. I can’t say I blame her. Life is slower, quieter and easier there than in Sihanoukville. She’s considering selling our house in Sihanoukville and buying land closer to the main city in Svay Riengh. Either that or we’ll move to Klang Leu so the kids can continue going to school in Sihanoukville.

Svay Riengh, CambodiaWhen I first met Sopheak, we travelled a lot. On our trip to Ratanakiri, we stopped off in Kratie to view the Irrawaddie dolphins. On the way back, Sopheak took the helm for a photo op. When we were viewing the dolphins, I tried zooming in, but they were too quick. I stopped zooming in and cropped photos of the dolphins. That worked much better. They were pretty magical and I’m glad I had the chance to see them.

Kratie, CambodiaThe next photo is of our first housekeeper, Sokha. She was a sweet girl, but on more than three occasions, she became possessed by the spirits of dead relatives. Her mother and baby sister were benign, but her older sister had been raped and murdered. She was angry and didn’t want to leave Sokha’s body. Believe it or not, an exorcism did the trick and Sokha has been fine since. I wrote about Sokha way back in 2011. Here’s the link to Surrealistic Pillow.

Sokha at the beach, somewhere in CambodiaHere’s a short excerpt from the chapter about Sokha. The chapter title is Surrealistic Pillow. It’s from an old Jefferson Airplane song, but also refers to the pillow Sokha laid down on between visits from her mother and baby sister.

“Sokha! You put salt in my coffee instead of sugar!” I laughed. I had to shout, because she had gone back down the hall and into the kitchen. Not hearing a reply, I walked down the hall. When I got about halfway to the kitchen, Sokha stepped into the hallway brandishing a big knife.

“Now Sokha,” I said gently, trying to calm her down. Then I felt a whack across the back of my head.

“You skoot?” Sopheak shouted. “This one not Sokha! This one want kill you!” Then she pulled me back out of the hallway as she called out for Longh.

When Sopheak was a little girl, she wandered into the jungle with a phnong family. She left the family, but wandered for nearly two years, living on small potatoes and other foraged food in the jungle. Her only companion was her pet squirrel, Yuri. It’s an amazing story and I cover it in the first chapter and later in the book, when Sopheak told me about her time in the jungle when we were building our house in 2007. When we went to Ratanakiri, we went to a showcase phnong village and Sopheak met this woman. Contrary to what some people think, phnong is not the name of a tribe. It means “savage” in Khmer and unfortunately refers to all indigenous Cambodians.

Ratanakiri, CambodiaHere’s a brief excerpt from the book. Sopheak was remarkably brave for such a young girl.

Fear and loneliness plagued her in equal measures during her first weeks alone in the jungle. She kept fear at bay by saying “Maybe I sleep, not wake up” before she slept at night. Every morning she said, “Maybe I die today, but not dead yet” and found the courage to keep going.

Finally, here’s my new book cover. The photo was taken in 1972 when I was in India. Neem Karoli Baba is at the bottom of the photo. He’s best known as Ram Dass’ and Krishna Das’ guru. I’m the guy with his hand on his hip at the top of the photo. My Guru Who Wasn’t My Guru tells the story of the nine months I spent hanging around Neem Karoli Baba in India in 1972. I met him in 1971, but almost died from a bout of hepatitis. I returned after I recovered and scraped together enough money for the trip.

In India, 35 years before I moved to CambodiaNote the subtitle: Between Heaven and Hell. I’ve had some remarkable spiritual experiences in my life, but I didn’t want to pretend I don’t stumble along through life. I’ve done as many dumb things as anybody and didn’t want to leave them out of the book. Some are embarrassing, but that’s okay. I don’t mind being embarrassed as much as I would mind pretending to be someone I’m not. This is my latest short description of my book. I’m still polishing it, but this is the best one yet, in my opinion anyway.

Take a magic carpet ride through the honeycomb of time. Serendipity Road is set in Cambodia, where the author has lived for over 10 years. He tells the remarkable story of Sopheak, who wandered into the jungle at the age of eight and didn’t return home for nearly two years. Sopheak introduced the author to a side of Cambodia most foreigners don’t get to see: a land of ghosts and spirits just behind the surface of life. In a series of flashbacks, the author recounts many miraculous experiences he has had. He experienced miracles in India in 1971 and 1972 and experienced energy healing in Bali and as a practitioner in Australia.

Serendipity Road is more than stories about miracles. The author has had his ups and downs in life and doesn’t hesitate to recount the stupid things he has done. As he writes: “Experiences like those should have been enough for me to become a more exemplary person, but there’s an inescapable magnetism that binds us to this thick, dense, dark world.” Hop aboard the magic carpet and discover how fate in the guise of a beautiful goddess he calls Serendipity guides the author through this world from the United States, to Australia, Indonesia and finally Cambodia, a destination a psychic predicted three years before the author even imagined he would visit, much less call home.

I’d also like to add that a palmist friend read my palm while we were having lunch in Hyde Park in Sydney. She saw four children in my life. “The lines are a little fainter, so they may not be your biological children, but they will be yours.” I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was right.

Sihanoukville beaches

From some articles I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that Ochheuteal Beach is the only beach in Sihanoukville. If not that, it’s touted as the most popular beach in town. I almost never go to Ochheuteal. I like to swim and I choose quieter beaches where I can enjoy a view of nature while I swim. Here’s a rundown on Sihanoukville beaches you might not have thought about.

I’ll start with this satellite view of Sihanoukville. It covers all the beaches in the area. Admittedly, it can take some time to reach some of them, but if you want to be surrounded by nature instead of restaurants, it can be worth taking the time to get to some of them.

Towards the bottom of the photo, you’ll see Ochheuteal and Otres. Look at the very bottom of the photo and you’ll see the outline of another beach. Well, it’s a narrow beach, but it’s there at the bottom right. It’s hidden because it’s not developed and there are trees on the beach. It’s a bit rocky on the ends of the beach, but you can still find hundreds of metres of beach to swim in.

I don’t go there often because it takes about an hour to get there. I usually don’t have time for day trips, so I go to beaches closer to my home. My two favourites are the free end of Sokha Beach and what I still call Victory Beach (because it’s below Victory Hill). My current favourite is Victory Beach because it’s often windy when I go swimming and Victory Beach is sheltered from the wind. When there are whitecaps at other beaches, the water is fairly calm there.

I also like to take the kids there because there is an inexpensive restaurant on the left side of the pier and the water is shallow for a good distance. I like to go swimming alone there, too, because once I get past the beach, there’s a rocky, undeveloped area and I can swim between the rocks and have a wonderful quiet little nook where I can imagine I’m on an unspoiled island. Here’s a photo of the beach as seen from the restaurant.

What you don’t see is what I see when I go swimming there. This satellite image shows the area past the beach. There’s a little unnamed beach on the other side of the headland that is usually empty. Then you come to Hawaii Beach, which is also relatively quiet.

This photo illustrates a point I want to make about Sihanoukville beaches. The beaches with the biggest names may not be the beaches you want to go to if you want to get away from the crowds or want to go to a beach that isn’t lined with restaurants. The Airport Disco used to dominate the right side of the pier at Victory Beach, but it wasn’t very successful and they tore it down. Now it’s a relatively quiet beach with a few palm trees to provide shade.

If you really want to get away from it all, you can go to the beach I mentioned above (the one at the bottom of the first satellite image). It will take a while to get there and you’ll need to take food and water with you, but you will be surrounded by nature. Arguably, it will feel more remote than some of the islands, which have been developed since fast boats became available.

Think outside the box when you’re in Sihanoukville. You can find Sihanoukville beaches that suit you better than others. You may have to search for your ideal beach, but it will be worth it.

 

About my ebook: Serendipity Road

I’ve sent my manuscript to a professional formatter. I don’t trust my ability to format it for ebook distribution. It’s on hold for now because I want my friend Penny Sisto to read the revised version. She liked an earlier version, but I’ve chopped and changed a few things and want her feedback before I publish Serendipity Road. Here’s a link to her website: Penny Sisto.

my old cover

This was my original cover. I was tempted to use it because my friends went out of their way to help me with it. We spent half a day looking for the right path and my friend formatted the cover. When I decided it was time to publish, I realized I wanted a retro cover, so I hired someone to make one for me.

I may still use the photograph, but I think it would be better as a back cover. The front cover is the beginning of my journey. Having a time towards the end of my journey would be appropriate for the back cover. Whether I use it or not will depend on sales. If I sell enough copies, I may have the book printed as a Print on Demand (POD) book or may have it printed here in Cambodia and try to sell it to bookshops here.

I almost changed the title, but Serendipity Road is the perfect title. Not only is there a Serendipity Road in Sihanoukville, the title reflects the road I’ve taken in life, too.

I’m enormously grateful for all the help my writing group gave me and the feedback I’ve received about the book from Penny and other people. Jan Cornall, turned out to be partially responsible for my having a writing group to help me. Jan holds writing workshops in exotic locations like Morocco, Bhutan and Bali. I attended one of her workshops in Bali. She came to Sihanoukville and I organized a mini-workshop here. One of the attendees started our writing group. If it hadn’t been for the group, I would never have written a memoir.

About My eBook Serendipity Road

My new cover

Serendipity Road is a departure from what I usually write about on Sihanoukville Journal. Originally, it was going to be about Sopheak’s remarkable early life, but that only took up a couple of chapters. My writing group encouraged me to write a memoir, so that’s what I did. It is set in Cambodia, but covers my life from 1968 to the present day in a series of flashbacks. I dropped out of college in 1969 and worked as a yoga instructor during the summer at a yoga retreat in the Sierra Mountains. When I became disenchanted by the retreat, I traveled to India twice. I got hepatitis and almost died the first time. I came home and after I recovered, I went back and hung around Neem Karoli Baba as much as I could.

I went back to San Juan Ridge after my second trip to India. Then I moved to San Francisco. In 1985, we moved to Australia where we lived an almost idyllic life in a beautiful coastal suburb. I started surfing again and probably would never have left if my life hadn’t fallen apart.

A tarot card reader in Bali told me to take the Fool’s path and let fate be my guide. By the time I traveled to Southeast Asia in 2006, I’d run out of ideas and elevated fate to goddess status. I called her Serendipity. She looks kind of like one of these goddesses. I know, she might be a product of my imagination, but that’s okay. I’d rather see a goddess floating on a cloud than a stern god with a long beard and angry frown.

Writing a memoir gives you the opportunity to write flattering things about yourself. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell the truth: hence the subtitle, between heaven and hell. I’ve had some remarkable spiritual experiences, but I’ve also done a lot of dumb things. I didn’t edit out the dumb things. Some of the spiritual (or paranormal) stories some readers may not believe. They are true stories, though. If I have doubts about some of them, I admit them, but I have no doubts about many of the stories.

Here are a few chapter summaries:

  • Inside Tree, tells about Sopheak getting lost in the jungle at the age of 8 or 9. She may have lived alone in the jungles of Cambodia for up to 2 years. When she came out, her family had moved on and she lived in an orphanage in Phnom Penh for a while until a man and his wife gave her a series of jobs. Then she reunited with her family.
  • The Honeycomb of Time, tells two stories about people who predicted my future in Cambodia. I went to a psychic workshop and a fellow amateur psychic described my house in Sihanoukville to a tee and even saw me working on my computer. A palm reader in Sydney told me I would have two more children. I doubted her, but she was right.
  • A Cambodian Ghost Story is about a ghost who lived in a mango tree outside the little house we lived in while we were building our house. He visited Sopheak and told her I wasn’t being forthcoming with my kids in Australia. He was right.
  • Surrealistic Pillow tells the story of our first housekeeper. She was a sweet girl, but had a hard life. I saw her possessed by her mother and baby sister, both of whom were dead. Then her older sister possessed her. She had an axe to grind and was harder to get rid of.
  • My Guru Who Wasn’t My Guru is a flashback to India. Krishna Das sent me a link to a photograph of me in India in 1972 with Neem Karoli Baba and I relive the amazing experiences I had there. I sent the photograph to the person who made my cover and the picture above is what she came up with.

Other chapters are more mundane and cover things that happened in Sihanoukville.While they may be more mundane, I didn’t choose boring stories. The stories are about life, death and the good and bad things in between.

As I wrote the book, I realized fate had been responsible for much of what has happened in my life. Granted, I had to take advantage of the opportunities fate placed in my path, but so many things wouldn’t have happened without the intercession of fate (or Serendipity), my life would be much different. If I’d followed a safe career path, I might still be in Manhattan Beach, California, but I chose to let fate be my guide when I dropped out of college. I’m glad I did. Life has been much more interesting and rewarding since I let go of the reins of my life. When I’ve tried taking back the reins, things haven’t worked out quite as well.

As I said, I’m waiting for Penny’s feedback. I don’t know when it will come. She has a busy life, so I’ll have to be patient. When I get her feedback, I’ll make revisions if needed. Then I’ll publish Serendipity Road and see what happens. Like everything else in my life, it is in fate’s hands. 

Back streets of Sihanoukville

shop and barber shop on back streets of Sihanoukville

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Before I lost the cartilage in my right knee, I often rode the back streets of Sihanoukville on my mountain bike. Five years ago today I wrote A Random Motorbike Ride in Sihanoukville. That post inspired me to revisit some of the back streets of Sihanoukville I used to take on my mountain bike.

I’ve written about developments in Sihanoukville before. I was surprised by how many big apartment buildings are being built even on some roads that are still dirt roads. Here’s an example. Note how it’s on a rough dirt road. Maybe the owners know that the road will be paved soon. They’re doing a lot of that now. Usually they pave with cement and many roads I used to ride on that were dirt are now paved.

apartment on a back street in SihanoukvilleI went to get a closer look and ran across this row of old houses on the opposite side of the road. You see that a lot in Sihanoukville, too. Old and new are often next to each other on the same road. I kind of like that.

Old homes on back streets in SihanoukvilleThe road I took was kind of a diversion. It came to a dead end, so I turned around and took another road I frequently rode my bike on. The road is dirt and not very well groomed, but it pops out on the road that leads from the Golden Lions Traffic circle to Sokha Beach. There didn’t used to be much on the road, but it’s better known today thanks to the De Luxx Hotel. It’s a popular guesthouse and has beautiful grounds and a very nice café.

deluxx-hotel-sihanoukvilleI never liked to retrace my steps, so I often took a winding route up to a wide street above Psah Leu. I decided to do that today. I took a dirt road I often rode on and discovered they were even developing here. It looks like someone is subdividing it into blocks of land for houses. That’s fairly new, but I’ve seen a couple of other big areas that have been subdivided. The building on the left is a café/beer garden. There were about 10 motorbikes there at noon, so I guess it’s a popular spot.

subdivision on back streets of sihanoukvilleContinuing on, I came to a familiar paved road. It wasn’t as familiar as it used to be, though. I wrote Coffee Houses in Sihanoukville Go Upmarket in October of 2016. Surprisingly, there was an upmarket coffee house even on this road. Or maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. A lot of people are building nice houses in this area and a number of expats live in this part of town now, so it might be a good location. No one was there when I passed, but you never know. Sometimes they fill up at certain hours of the day and in the evening.

coffee house on a back street of SihanoukvilleAs is so often the case here, just a few doors up the road was one of those little shops you see everywhere in Sihanoukville. The little building on the right is a barber shop. They were both busier than the coffee house I passed.

shop and barber shop on back streets of SihanoukvilleFrom there it was back out to a main road. That road had changed a lot, too. I counted three motorbike shops, a new car dealer and even a large place that was selling speedboats. The road leads to Otres Beach, but I went in the other direction and turned on to the road that goes down to Ekareach Street. I was back in the fray. After a cappuccino and cake at one of my favourite cafés, I came home and wrote this post about the back streets of Sihanoukville.

 

 

Why I like living in Sihanoukville

Victory Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

I started this blog because I hadn’t read many positive blogs or articles about living in Sihanoukville. Most of them focused on the worse parts of the city and others made stuff up. That includes some mainstream publications. I read one article in the Sydney Morning Herald that said half-built hotels were “derelict” and wouldn’t be finished. If the writer returned to Sihanoukville, she would see they have all been completed.

I wanted to avoid making my site personal, so I’ve written little about why I like it here. It’s a blog, so I should be able to write what I want to. I have no idea why I made up that rule, so here’s . . .

Why I like living in Sihanoukville

I could focus on the negatives, but I chose to focus on the positive things about living here. Negatives include trash on the beaches. I don’t like it, but I can ignore it and focus on the warm water and beautiful views. Here’s a photo of one of my favourite swimming beaches. I still call it Victory Beach because it’s near Victory Hill, but I’m not sure it’s called that any more.

living in Sihanoukville: beautiful beachesI used to go to the other side of the pier, but now I go to this side. For one thing, they keep the beach clean on this side. Since they tore down the Airport on the other side of the pier, no one picks up the trash on the beach. This little restaurant serves coconut milk straight out of the coconut and other snacks. They also look after my stuff for me. I gave them my phone and wallet yesterday and the waitress didn’t steal any money. During the week, the only sound is the lapping of wavelets against the shore. On weekends, children play on the pier and you can hear them laughing as they jump off the pier and play on their rope swing.

When it’s not windy, I go swimming at Sokha Beach. When it’s windy, Victory Beach is sheltered from most of the wind. Yesterday, for example, there were whitecaps at Independence Beach and even more whitecaps at Sokha Beach. There were none at Victory Beach.

I love to swim. The water is always warm here and I can always find a place to swim. That’s one reason why I like living here. Another reason is that I am able to support a family on my freelance writing income here and indulge in daily cappuccinos and dinners out. If I lived in Australia, I’d only be able to support myself and would rarely if ever be able to indulge even in a cappuccino. Here I can have one or two cappuccinos every day and have my pick of restaurants. I can get a good meal and two small glasses of wine for $5.00 at one Cambodian restaurant. If I go upmarket, I can get a delicious Italian meal and a glass of wine for $7.50.

living in Sihanoukville: good restaurantsThese are my two current favourite restaurants. They’re both on the Hill, but they both serve delicious food. I usually go to Irina Franca because Raphael’s is more popular and I can’t sit outside. Irina is a wonderful Russian woman who serves home made Russian and Italian food. Both restaurants are reasonably priced. I’m not a big fan of the Hill, but the food is good and there is less traffic when I go in that direction.

Swimming and food are two reasons why I like living in Sihanoukville, but they’re not the only reasons. I was able to make freelance writing my career here because I could afford to. The first year was tough and I didn’t start making enough to indulge myself until about 2013. Now I’m making a reasonable living and freelance writing is the first job I’ve had I really enjoy. I’ve had others that were okay, but I love freelance writing. In Australia I could only do it sporadically. I made good money on articles for print publications, but never enough to make a career of it.

The reason I’ve written this article is because some people think I’d be better off in Australia. I disagree. I live comfortably here and have a Cambodian family. I get a lot of pleasure out of knowing I’m being of service to my family. In Australia I’d only be able to take care of myself. Living in Cambodia has made my life fuller than it would be in Australia. Australia was great, but times have changed. I like living in Sihanoukville for the reasons stated above and more. The city is growing fast and we’re talking about moving, but I don’t think I’ll leave Cambodia.It feels like home to me now.

Another Side of Ochheuteal Beach

view from our restaurant

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My family and Cambodians in general squeeze everything they can get out of any holiday. When International Women’s Day rolled around last week, Sopheak kept the kids out of school and arranged a day at the beach. We went to the end of Ochheuteal Beach, near the headland/peninsula that separates it from Otres Beach. This is what it looks like from the road.

road at far end of ochheuteal beach

I’ve written about that end of Ochheuteal before, but focused on Sunset Lounge. We went to a more traditional “restaurant.” It was lovely. There’s a string of them at the end of the road that takes you to that end of Ochheuteal Beach. I claimed a hammock. There were three in our little space, but one went unused because it was in the sun.

view from our restaurant

This end of Ochheuteal isn’t entirely unknown. I saw several Westerners walking and jogging on the beach, but none of them stopped for refreshments. They turned around and went back to the Serendipity end of the beach. I was the only barang in any of these more traditional restaurants. We ordered a feast for seven people, but it didn’t cost any more than meals for two at a more upmarket restaurant on Serendipity Road.

I went for a swim. While I was swimming, I noticed a tractor and some workers just beyond the treeline. After my swim, I took a closer look. From what I can tell, they’re extending the pathway from the other end of Ochheuteal through the empty space that once was going to be a huge resort complete with a nine-hole golf course. It may happen one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

workers making pathway on ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville cambodiaThat may be a road next to the pathway. If that happens, we can expect even more development on this end of Ochheuteal. It may be the end of the traditional restaurants on the beach. If that happens, I’ll be sad. It’s so nice to see these little restaurants thriving. This derelict building may be knocked down and replaced by a new resort, which will also take over the beach in front of it. I hope my imagination is getting the better of me, but fear I might be right. Big resorts are springing up everywhere in Sihanoukville.

derelict building near ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville, cambodiaAnyway, we had an idyllic day until about 3:30 p.m., when the tractor moved onto the beach. I have no idea what it was doing and hope it wasn’t installing sewage pipes. It was noisy and no one paid much attention to the children who got far too close to the tractor, which was digging sand and then swinging to the side and depositing it behind the ditch to create a break-wall. They didn’t want their work interrupted when waves caved in their trench.

tractor on ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville cambodiaWe put up with it for about half an hour, but decided it was time to head home. No one seemed too bothered by the tractor. Even I was fascinated by it. The wind was sideshore and blowing the fumes in the other direction and the tractor wasn’t too loud, but it was getting late and Sopheak had to go open her new bar. She has a buyer and I hope she sells it soon. It’s too much work and keeps her up too late.

While it lasts, the other side of Ochheuteal Beach is well-worth visiting. You may prefer Sunset Lounge or another place that has tables and chairs. If you don’t know Khmer, you probably won’t be able to order what you want in the little restaurants, but you might want to buy a trinket from a vendor walking up and down the beach.

vendor on ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville cambodia

Green spaces in Sihanoukville

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I’ve written quite a bit about all the development that’s going on in Sihanoukville. It’s true. Big buildings are sprouting up all over the place. I’ve also noticed how much green space there still is in Sihanoukville. I took my camera with me today on the way to dinner and took some pictures of green areas between Sokha Resort and the Hill. Go outside of the centre of the city and you’ll find even more green spaces in Sihanoukville.

sihanoukville This was my first stop. It’s only about 100 metres from the entrance to the Sokha Resort. They’re building a fairly large structure directly behind me on the other side of the road. This area has been like this since I came here 10 years ago.

I had to go a little out of my way to take this shot. It’s a back road to Wat Krom. I didn’t go far up the road today, but I know there’s a village at the bottom of the hill below Wat Krom. Granted, there was a lot of trash at the entrance, but it petered out the further up the road I rode.

sihanoukville near wat krom

Then I turned around and looked for another dirt road I’ve ridden up before. It was a little hard to find because they’ve widened the road between Ekareach Street and Independence Beach, but I found it after riding slowly down the road. I was pleased to see it remains unchanged. A couple of men were fishing and I noticed lotus stems in the water. The lotuses weren’t in bloom, but it was nice to see them anyway.

large pond in sihanoukvilleThis photo should be recognisable to anyone who has taken the beach road from Independence Beach to the Hill. It’s a beautiful stretch of road. Traffic slows down appreciably when you get to the monkeys, who own the road and attract visitors every day. This used to be Sihanoukville’s water source, but we get it from further away now. The city is too big for this reservoir now.

My final stop was Wat Krom. I wanted to take a more panoramic picture. From Wat Krom you look down on much of Sihanoukville. Notice how much greenery there is beyond the trees and palms in the foreground.

view from wat krom sihanoukvilleYou might be wondering why I took these photos. It’s because it dawned on me one day that in spite of the growth, there are still a lot of green spaces in Sihanoukville. They’re not parks, either. You might find a narrow dirt road or motorbike track running through some of them and will surely find some little timber shacks. Fortunately, people are free to live in these areas. No one bothers them or asks them to pay rent. Many work in Sihanoukville and their children go to school. Thankfully, they don’t have to pay rent, so they can use their earnings to feed their family and send their kids to school.

Cambodia isn’t perfect. Some people are doing well and others barely make enough to feed their families. Fortunately, those who make small wages can find a way to survive without paying rent. All they need is timber to build a small home and a tin roof to keep the rain out. They cook outdoors on charcoal ovens. It’s amazing how far $150 a month can go if you don’t have to pay rent or electricity. It would seem harsh for us Westerners, but many Cambodians are comfortable living as they lived in villages.

 

Serendipity Road Revisited

Looking up Serendipity Road from the bottom

I’ve been having my afternoon coffee at Escape lately. I still like Artisan, but the sun is lower at this time of year and it’s sometimes hard to find a place in the shade. After two weeks of watching tourists, I decided it was time for a Serendipity Road revisited post.

Golden Lions, Sihanoukville Cambodia

It’s easy for me to step back in time and remember the first time I saw Serendipity Road. It was a narrow, rutted dirt road the first time I saw it. I was on a rented motorbike. I decided my motorbike skills weren’t up to the task of negotiating the road, so I continued up Ekareach Street. At that time, there was almost no traffic in Sihanoukville and most of it was motorbikes. Times have changed. Even at 1:00 p.m., when traffic is slowest, there were plenty of cars and motorbikes on Ekareach Street. As you’ll soon see, there were also a lot on Serendipity Road.

I took this photo to show that they’ve widened the top of Serendipity Road. They didn’t widen it as radically as planned, but the extra width helps. There used to be bottlenecks as you approached the Golden Lions. You still have to go around cars and sometimes buses, but the bottlenecks aren’t as bad as they used to be.

Serendipity Road Sihanoukville Cambodia top

Before continuing down to the pier, I stopped for a cappuccino at Escape. Actually I had two cappuccinos and a bottle of water. I’m reading a brilliant book and I couldn’t put it down. After an hour or so, I forced myself to leave, but not before I took this picture. It’s not as dark as it appears in the shade of Escape, but this is the view. Basically, the view is of the passing traffic. When I came here, most of the traffic was male and white. Today, we get tourists of all ages, sizes and races. As many women visit as men and I often see families and groups of older women.

Serendipity-Road-from Escape

I had to stop and take a photo from the top of Serendipity Road where it goes down to the pier. They paved it recently, which was a good idea. The old cement road was crumbling under the weight of the cars and trucks that rolled down it. Building is still going on on the road and some of the buildings are big.

Serendipity Road Sihanoukville looking towards the pier

New hotels on Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Finally I reached the bottom of the hill, where I took a photograph of the pier. You can see the boats, but the throngs of people on the pier are a little harder to see.

Pier at the bottom of Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Then I turned around and took this photo up the road. The bottom of Serendipity Road is clogged with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars. That’s the main reason why I rarely go to Yasmine for coffee. The views are nice, but it’s hard to find a place to park.

Looking up Serendipity Road from the bottom

I came back from my little tour of Serendipity Road marveling at how much it’s changed in just ten years. Sihanoukville was a haven for backpackers looking for cheap accommodation, cheap beer, cheap drugs and, sometimes, cheap prostitutes. I didn’t like walking down Serendipity Road in the past. Every tuk-tuk driver said, “Want drugs? Want girl?” They don’t say that anymore. They just say, “tuk-tuk?” The tourists are mellower, too. They seem to be here to enjoy the sun, the water and the islands.

The city is growing faster than I’d like, but I have to admit, it’s improving every year. One thing I love about it is that visitors come from everywhere. You see Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European, American and Australian tourists here. Most of the time, I don’t understand a word I hear around me when I’m having my daily cappuccino. Sometimes I recognize the language, but I have no idea what they’re talking about. I like the cultural mix. I think I’ll be staying here for a long time to come. As my book, Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese says: “Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted.” I have a family here and feel wanted. This is my home until or unless something changes.

Looking back at 10 years in Cambodia

I came to Cambodia in September or early October of 2006, but thought it was just a stopover on my way to Thailand. I made the obligatory trip to Angkor Wat. I loved it, but was stunned by the numbers of tourists and the Disneyland-style entrance.

angkor wat 2006I returned to Phnom Penh with plans to take a bus to Thailand. I bought a pirate edition of the Lonely Planet guide to SE Asia from a hawker at a riverside cafe in Phnom Penh and looked up Sihanoukville. The writer didn’t have much good to say about it, so I decided to check it out. Little did I know it would soon become my home.

I liked Sihanoukville. At that time of the year it was quiet. I found a nice guesthouse with a pool near Ochheuteal Beach and took a walk to the beach after lunch. I thought I was going to see a bunch of hippies smoking weed because that was what Lonely Planet told me I’d see. Instead, I saw monks having a day off at the beach.

far end of ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville, cambodia, 2006

I didn’t want to take a tuk tuk to explore the city, so I rented a motorbike. That was a good call. I’d read about all the thefts in Sihanoukville, so was a little paranoid when I went for a swim on an empty beach. My motorbike was there after my swim even though a couple of motorbikes with three young men rode up to watch me swim in the balmy water. I decided to take Lonely Planet with a grain of salt after that.

Then I met Sopheak. I tried to leave once. I went overland to southern Laos. It was beautiful there. It was a bit of an adventure. I changed cars about three times because there were no ferries for cars, but the man who organized my journey for me did a brilliant job. There was always a car waiting for me on the other side of the river. When I crossed the border, I was stunned. The Cambodian side had been cleared for grazing or (I think) rubber plantations. On the Laos side, it was all jungle and the road was a rutted dirt road. You can read about it in my Deforestation in Cambodia blog.

My plan was to travel through Laos and then move on to northern Thailand, but I decided I didn’t want to be a sightseer. I returned to Phnom Penh just in time for the Water Festival. I called Sopheak and invited her and her family to come to the festival with me. That sealed my fate. I went back to Australia a few weeks later and returned on January 10, 2007. I had no idea I’d stay 10 years, but fate arranged things so I couldn’t return to Australia.

Before I left, I took Sopheak to Kampot and we went up to the top of Bokor Mountain. Back then it was a bit of an adventure. There was only a dirt road and only 4-wheel drives could get up it. Occasionally there was an accident. Fortunately, this wasn’t the car we traveled in.

bokor mountain cambodia 2006On the way home, we stopped in Khmeng Wat, the village where Sopheak’s family lived. This was their house.

khmeng-wat-cambodiaThen it was time to go back to Australia and get my affairs in order. When I returned, Sopheak threw a birthday party for me at the hotel where we stayed. Since we didn’t know anyone, she invited the hotel guests to come. They were happy to sponge free food and beer off of us and we had a great party.

10 Years in Cambodia

Then it was time to get serious. I wanted to buy land and build a house. After looking at a land, we finally agreed on a long, narrow block of land on a cul de sac near downtown Sihanoukville. I chose it partly because a couple of neighbors spoke English. Then work began on our house. There were no cement pumps in Sihanoukville then, so we hired a bucket brigade to pour our second-storey slab.

building-in-sihanoukville-cambodia-2007We finished half the house in 2007 and managed to squeeze a trip to Svay Rieng in while we were building. It was the dry season then, but it was still beautiful and quiet. Sopheak’s family came from a tiny village in that province. We were surrounded by rice fields, but they were dry. When we returned the following year, everyone was planting rice.

svay-rieng-2008I may have made a fatal mistake in 2007. Our next door neighbor was devastated because he was losing his job as director of a little NGO. He wanted to start a new one for the people on the Sihanoukville dumpsite. We agreed to help him and I became the secretary of his little NGO. We got enough donations to pay his salary and get a doctor to visit the villagers occasionally. Sokha wanted to start a business and one donor gave us enough money to go to Siem Reap and learn how to make paper from scraps.

Our NGO logo

It sounded like a good idea, but it never got off the ground. I got so wrapped up in the NGO, I barely noticed I was running out of money. Just when things were getting critical, one of our supporters rented a home for the children, sent them to school and fed them. It was time for me to think about our future, but one good memory remains. I learned that the dumpsite residents were like the rest of us. They were a village in the true sense of the word. True, the conditions were terrible, but they made the most of what they had.

I loved rural Cambodia and we went to rural locations whenever we got the chance. We had a car in 2008, so we could indulge. We also got married in 2008. Between that and finishing the house, my money was getting seriously low. I was still imagining I could get a job teaching English. I had a great recommendation and there were a few English schools in Sihanoukville. I never bothered to find out about the pay rate, though. I never got a job, but learned from a friend that they paid $3 per hour. Fortunately, the same friend had returned to the United States where he got a job for an SEO company.

Setting up our wedding party

In 2009, I ran out of money and we had to sell our car just to survive. Luckily, I got an online job through my friend that paid $10 an hour. That didn’t last long, but I discovered freelance writing. The first couple of years were hard, but I’m doing alright now.

Running out of money wasn’t as tragic as it may sound. I was freaking out, but Sopheak told me, “I never have loi (money) before, not dead.” She was right. We found ways to get by, some of them fairly miraculous. She started playing the lottery behind my back. She used her dreams to help her choose numbers and won far more often than chance accounted for. That’s just a taste of the “magic” I’ve seen in Cambodia. I just finished a book that was published in 1997, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, that recounts many similar stories. It was a great find because I was a little afraid no one would believe the stories I tell in my book.

By 2011 things were going more smoothly. I had steady work and a routine. Things would change over the years, but I’ve never regretted a minute of my time in Cambodia. I love it here. I can’t quite put my finger on why I love it so much. It’s not always easy, but it’s always real and the challenges keep me going.

I wanted to celebrate my 10 year anniversary with something special, but fate had other plans for me. Sopheak started a bar/restaurant her employer set up for her. She was going to throw me a big party, but I had an ache in my side that got worse on my birthday (the 9th). We went to the doctor, who told me I had appendicitis. He recommended Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital in Kampot, so Sopheak drove me there in her boss’s car. On the 10th, I celebrated my 10th anniversary by getting my appendix removed.

In a funny way, it was perfect. After 10 years and a changed relationship, I learned the relationship we have is still solid. What happens next, I don’t know, but I do know one thing. I’ll never regret moving to Cambodia. It’s been a wild ride, but an exciting one. What more can you ask for?

 

Vegan restaurant in Sihanoukville

I know I just posted something the other day, but I want to share this as soon as possible because it’s the busy season in Sihanoukville. Dao of Life is the only vegan restaurant in Sihanoukville. I’m not a vegan, but their food is delicious and they are the friendliest people in Sihanoukville if not the world.

dao of life vegan restaurant Sihanoukville Cambodia

This is their fourth location. First they were in an out of the way spot up towards the Hill on Ekareach Street. Clever marketing and events drew people to the restaurant in spite of its location. Then they moved to two locations on Serendipity Road. They got more customers, but things didn’t work out too well for them in those locations. Now they’ve moved to the bottom of Serendipity Road. Yasmine is downstairs and Dao of Life has taken the upstairs.

They’re easy to find. Yasmine is the last building on the right facing the pier. I think this is potentially the best location Dao of Life has found. The views are beautiful and they have a geodesic dome covering the restaurant.

dao of life vegan restaurant Sihanoukville CambodiaThat’s Shazia. I’d say she’s the “boss,” but Shazia doesn’t act like a boss. That’s part of the joy of eating at Dao of Life. Everybody is smiling and happy. How they found Nit, I don’t know. Nit is Cambodian. She loves her job and shows it in a million ways.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Buddhist ceremony before the grand opening. A lot of people attended. I had to leave early, but managed to take a photo before I left.

dao of life vegan restaurant Sihanoukville CambodiaThen I returned and had dinner there last night. I was happy to see a couple of customers there. I am under orders to dine early, so seeing people there between 5 and 6 was encouraging.

Excuse me for jabbering on, but I’m trying to write as many words as possible and include “vegan restaurant in Sihanoukville” in my story in hopes of getting the keyword ranked on Google. I want more people to discover Dao of Life in its new location. They deserve to have a successful business. By the way, the view is nice even after dark.

dao of life vegan restaurant Sihanoukville CambodiaOkay, I’m running out of things to say. When you’re in Sihanoukville, visit Dao of Life. You won’t regret it. It’s the only vegan restaurant in Sihanoukville and even if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, you’ll love the food and the wonderful vibe. You’ll also enjoy the wonderful view and the fresh breezes that waft through the semi open-air restaurant.