They say Cambodia has only two seasons — wet and dry. That may be true, but there are also transition periods when it’s a little of each. The in-between season leading up to Khmer New Year is my least favourite. Hot and humid, there’s little respite from the heat day or night. I was riding my motorbike down the least appealing stretch of Ekareach Street on a particularly humid day last week when it struck me like a benign bolt of lightning: I don’t just like it here, I love Sihanoukville.
I spent most of the rest of the week wondering why. Yesterday, I got my answer. It started in the morning, when some friends invited us to Hawaii Beach for lunch. We usually go to a little place at the end of the beach. It will never make the Michelin guide with its flimsy chairs and plastic covered tables, but it beats the plastic atmosphere of far more upmarket restaurants by miles. Where else can you sit in the shade of a natural umbrella and watch squirrels play in the branches above your head or take 10 steps into balmy seas to go for a dip after lunch?
How’s this for a setting?
Our friends didn’t speak much English, so I had plenty of time to daydream during the meal while they chatted with Sopheak. It occurred to me then that one reason I love it here is because I feel so comfortable with Cambodians. I used to try too hard to communicate with our friends, but now I just enjoy their company and they seem to enjoy mine.
I got pulled over by the police the other day for not having my lights on. Fair enough, but I didn’t have any money to pay the whopping $1 fine. No problem. I went on my way, got money out of the ATM, had breakfast and paid them on the way back home. “Accuun (thank you), Papa,” the policeman smiled as I rode away. Getting pulled over by the police in Sihanoukville is a far-cry from being pulled over in Australia or the U.S.
The sandy road fronting Hawaii beach leaves something to be desired, but that’s just one more thing I like about it: it’s sand, not hot asphalt and the surface forces everyone to drive slowly. As a bonus, the restaurants at the far end fill up more slowly than those closer to the entrance and the trees haven’t been chopped down to make way for parking areas. This is what it looks like:
Sihanoukville: The International City
Other cities brag about their “international flavour,” but I’ve never been to a more truly international city than Sihanoukville. Last year, tourist numbers topped a million for the first time. Over half of them were Cambodian, but the other half was a nearly equal mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, European, Russian, Australian, American and just about every other country. We watched a Ukrainian belly dancer perform on Valentine’s Day and had dinner with an American and two delightful Siberian couples last week. A Crimean sat down and had a beer with us the other night. He didn’t speak much English, but we were able to communicate enough for me to learn that he was relieved that Crimea chose to become part of Russia rather than the Ukraine.
Having such an international mix of expats pays big bonuses when it comes to dining. Off the top of my head, I can think of several authentic Italian, French, Indian, Mexican (Southern California style), Greek, and Japanese restaurants and cafes in town, not to mention some great Khmer restaurants. Some of them have sprung up in just the past few years, since Sihanoukville has become more popular. I complain about its growth sometimes, but have to admit I do appreciate the wider variety of restaurants in town and the improved facilities.
All of the above is good, but it still didn’t quite tell me why I love it here.
I was supposed to go to my weekly writing workshop yesterday, but got a flat tyre on the way home from Hawaii beach and by the time I got it fixed it was too late, so I skipped it and went to Escape for a snack instead. I ran into a friend there who loves it here as much as I do. Somewhere along the line, I mentioned the Welcome post in my new blog, in which I wrote about the worker on the neighbouring property who cooked a dog that had been hit by a car. That would have shocked me seven years ago, but I am more shocked now by Western supermarkets, the sanitising of imperialistic wars by the media and the institutionalised corruption of wealthy governments, corporations and financial institutions.
After my brief rant, my friend summed it up for me:
“It’s real here,” he said.
That hit the nail on the head. Cambodians are by and large real people. Like most real people, they are friendly, hospitable and unpretentious. Sure, there are exceptions, but even what’s bad about the country is right there on the surface rather than hidden behind the scenes.
There’s more to how I’ve come to love Sihanoukville and Cambodia than I can summarise in a short blog. That’s why I’m working on a book. Living here has been an ongoing learning and unlearning process. Hopefully I can share that process with readers in my book and give them a little unique insight into Cambodia and Cambodians. I had to shed a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to get to this point, but it’s been worth it. I feel more real now than I did before and as a consequence, feel more a part of the family of humanity than I ever felt when I saw the world through Western eyes.
In the meantime, my blog will have to do. Sorry I sound so harshly critical of Westerners sometimes. I don’t hate us as much as it might seem, but we do drive me nuts. Like other Westerners, I came here thinking I had something to offer Cambodia. Now I’ve learned that Cambodia has so much more to offer us. Once we learn that, then maybe we can share what’s good about our culture with them and stop trying to mould Cambodia (and other “Third World” countries) into our image.