I’ve been cleaning out my drawers in anticipation of the arrival of a new and much-needed desk and office chair. I’ve collected an astonishing amount of unneeded papers over the years and was tempted to simply turn the drawers over and dispose of everything. Luckily, I didn’t, because I stumbled across some real gems amongst the rubbish. One of them was a diary I started in Ho Chi Minh City in September of 2006 and totally forgot about. I’m not going to bore you with the whole thing, but do want to share my first days in Sihanoukville with you. The following is verbatim from my diary plus a few photos from those first few days:
I’m sitting in a thatched-roof, open-air café by the side of the road, sipping on an ice cold banana and coffee shake and watching the world pass ever so slowly by. It’s the low season: traffic is light. Aside from the occasional putt-putt of a motorbike, only the sound of a small generator at the construction site across the road reminds me that I’m still living in the petrol age. At the restaurant next door, a young man dressed incongruously in Western attire deftly shimmies up a palm tree. Two brown-skinned children, a boy and a girl, watch him in wonder. When the first coconut falls, the little boy excitedly runs over to retrieve it, but his father calls him back. I imagine he’s saying, “stay away or the next one may fall on your head.” The boy and his sister retreat to a safe distance and watch as one, two, three more coconuts fall. One splits open on impact and is shared amongst the onlookers. The rest are for sale.
My crépes arrive and I become absorbed i my morning meal. I marvel at the blueness of the sky and am grateful for the cool, gentle breeze. My reverie is broken by the squeaking of timber spoked wheels. A bullock-cart laden with earthenware jars and other goods is passing slowly by. Dammit! Where’s my camera? It’s just a passing thought. It would take a lot more than a messed up photo op to disturb my peace of mind on this perfect morning.
After a time, a minibus stops briefly in front of the café. The side door opens and a little girl, 8 or 10 years old I guess, in a blue-pleated skirt and crisply ironed white shirt steps off. The logo on her blouse tells me it’s her school uniform. The man sitting behind me, the proprietor with the gold grin (literally and metaphorically – he has gold caps on his front teeth) calls out cheerily and she runs to him. She hops on his knee and after a bit of lilting but incomprehensible conversation with her, the man begins to sing a song to her. He has an exquisite voice, soft and melodious. Tranquillity gives way to something deeper as I listen to this fatherly serenade.
Where am I? Just 20 metres behind me, warm tropical wavelets lap peacefully against a narrow strip of sand. After breakfast I’ll go for a leisurely swim. Tonight I’ll struggle with the biggest dilemma my trip has to offer: where to eat? Will it be local fare or maybe European, Australian, Indian or Mexican?
Where am I? What tropical paradise have I stumbled across, persuaded by the impending arrival of a hurricane to change my travel plans almost as soon as my plane touched down? This end of town is called Ochheuteal beach, but that’s all I’m going to tell you for now.
I ended up at this end of town simply because my driver suggested it. The Orchideé is the only guesthouse in town that has a swimming pool. I guess my age and/or the fact that I shave regularly marked me in his eyes as an upmarket tourist. The cost of the room – $10US per day for a double bed, hot water and satellite TV convinced me to stay.
It’s absurd. $10US is about $13.50 Australian dollars. The guesthouse can’t be more than five years old. It’s set out in a courtyard style, with lounges and umbrellas surrounding the pool. Huge wicker chairs in the restaurant invite you to stay and chat. If you think I’m talking about Bali, you’re wrong. But imagine Bali 30 years or so ago, before Jalan Pantai, the beach road, was lined with hotels and you’re getting close.
And like Kuta Beach, hawkers sell their wares on the beach and a manicure or massage can be purchased for a song. But this is a white sand beach, unlike Kuta’s hot black volcanic sand. Food stalls and umbrella shaded lounges take up half the beach. The other half serves as a footpath, just wide enough for easy two-way traffic. Unlike Kuta, this beach on the edge of the Gulf of Thailand (No! I’m not in Thailand) has no waves. Just wavelets lapping serenely against the shore. You can walk out 20 metres before the water becomes chest deep. And instead of one well-sealed beach road, there are two, separated by just enough land for beach side development. Clearly those who decide where to build roads and why are expecting a tourist boom, but for now at least, there are wide empty spaces between guesthouses and hotels.
I don’t want to tell you where I am. If I do, it will probably scare you away.
Yesterday, I rode my rented motorbike outside of the city, just to see what was there. More of the same, really, minus the shops and the people. I stopped by the side of the road, went for a swim and dried off in the sun. About halfway back to my guesthouse, I got a flat tyre. After trudging along for awhile, I saw a dilapidated little shack with a little shingle on a tree. The words were in a foreign language, so I didn’t know what they meant, but the old tyres hanging on the tree around it told me what I needed to know. I was at the local equivalent of a Bob Green’s T Mart.
The guy had me by the proverbial balls. He could have asked me for any amount of money to fix my tyre and gotten it, but $3.50 and 15 minutes later, I was back on the road. I’m not sure I’d have gotten such friendly, honest and efficient service in an outback garage in Oz.
The diary entry goes on from there, but that’s all I want to share right now. What struck me about it was how impressed I was with Sihanoukville and how now, nearly 8 years later, I’m still impressed. I see the downside, but the good outweighs the bad by a long shot and although it’s grown, there are still spaces between hotels and you can find an empty stretch of beach to call your own if you want to.