Serendipity Road and Ochheuteal Revisited

It’s no secret that Ochheuteal beach is not my favourite part of Sihanoukville. On Wednesday evening, I decided I wanted to eat at a restaurant that overlooked the water, so I went to the bottom of Serendipity Road, parked my motorbike and walked to the first restaurant I came to on Ochheuteal. The food wasn’t remarkable, but I got to watch the sun set and enjoyed the cool ocean breeze.

ochheuteal beach sihanoukville cambodia

I went back last night. The plan was to eat at the new Yasmine Bar/Restaurant at the bottom of the hill, but it was a little pricey for my taste, so I ended up going to Maybe Later, but not before I took some photographs.

Yasmine Serendipity Road SihanoukvilleMy timing was poor yesterday. A big boat full of tourists returning from the islands had just pulled in to the pier, which was recently extended. The bottom of Serendipity Road was packed with tuk tuk drivers and motodops waiting to pick up fares.

bottom of serendipity road sihanoukville cambodia

road to guesthouse sihanoukville cambodiaMy favourite outdoor tables were taken at Maybe Later, so I decided to do a little exploring before dinner. If you go to the end of Mithona Street (the road that parallels the beach) and turn left, you come to the third road up, where you can turn right and go to Otres beach. You can also go straight. It used to be a dirt road, but they’ve paved it now, so I decided to take a look. There’s nothing there for about 200 metres, but now there’s a very nice “boutique resort” standing all alone. It looks sort of incongruous now, but I did see people sitting around the pool, so somehow it’s attracted guests. Beyond that is an area that’s been divided into lots for houses and housing developments. Given time, I’m sure the road will fill in. We’ll just have to wait and see how long that will take, but it may be sooner than I think. As I wrote last time, Sihanoukville is growing fast.

guesthouse outside ochheuteal beach sihanoukvilleI made my way from there back to Maybe Later and saw a few more hotels being built. One of them was quite big. Before I went to Maybe Later, I took a ride back down Serendipity Road to take a photograph of this massive development near the bottom of the hill. I assume it’s another hotel.

new hotel serendipity road sihanoukville cambodia

They’ve made a mess of the road, but rumour has it that they want to widen Serendipity Road. That will be interesting. If they do, there will no longer be outdoor seating at the restaurants because there’s not much frontage left. No one anticipated further widening after they built the new road. I have a feeling it won’t happen, but they will need to come back and fix the existing road, which looks pretty bad after having so many heavy trucks on it.

I finally got my favourite table at Maybe Later and had a delicious Southern California style Mexican dinner. After I left, I had to stop at the top of the hill for a moment and overheard a dreadlocked backpacker I’ve seen a million times tell some new backpackers that “all the hotels are full, but no one parties anymore.” That might be because so many of the tourists are families and Chinese now. Fewer backpackers stay in the area than in the past. One person told me they stay for a day, but then go out to Koh Rong or Otres.

Sihanoukville is changing. Right now it’s having growing pains. While all this building is going on, it doesn’t look too pretty, but I think the local authorities will finally have to clean it up. We’re going to need street sweepers and a vastly improved rubbish collection service if it’s going to look as nice as Siem Reap, parts of Phnom Penh or Kampot. At the moment, it looks like a construction site because that’s what it is. Everywhere I go, construction is taking place.

Searching for Old Sihanoukville

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I went searching for old Sihanoukville today, the Sihanoukville I saw when I used to ride my bike. This time, I rode my motorbike to cover more ground, but I hadn’t been on some of the dirt roads and tracks I rode on for a couple of years. I remember those roads fondly because when I got off the main roads, I stumbled across villages that were much like the villages you seen outside of Cambodia’s bigger cities.

crane on ekareach st sihanoukville

My first stop was Escape on Serendipity Road for a cappuccino. Not long before I got to the Golden Lions, I stopped to take a photo of the crane in the picture above. I never saw cranes when I first moved here. There wasn’t enough construction going on to warrant them.

After my cappuccino, I went down to the beach road. I knew what I was going to see there. They’re widening the beach road in anticipation of increased traffic as big new developments take shape along the beach between Sokha and Independence beaches. See Sihanoukville: a metropolis in the making for some pics.

I turned up one of the small roads I used to ride my bike on and was a bit stunned. Even here building was taking place. Apartment buildings, mansions and smaller brick homes were going up everywhere. I decided not to take any photos because there were so many.

blue building sihanoukville cambodia

I went back out to the road that leads from Ekareach Street to Independence Beach. That used to be a fairly empty road and still is, but construction is going on there, too. This blue building stands out weirdly on an otherwise fairly empty stretch of road, but it’s only a matter of time before it has neighbours.

dseaview sihanoukville2Then I took a right on to a cement road that used to be a dirt road. Soon I was on familiar ground. I see what’s going on at Pearl City almost every day, but the latest development, D’Seaview, is right across the street from Pearl City. They’ve only started working on it recently, but according to the Phnom Penh Post, all 300 of Phase 1 of the project are “fully subscribed.”

The picture on the left is what it is going to look like. The picture below is what it looks like today. Just a few months ago, the site was in a ditch, but they’ve filled it in with land fill. After I took the photo, I had to stop for two big trucks that were racing along the formerly quiet road. To put things in perspective, eight years ago, the wide cement road was a dirt road that no one would travel on at night. When they first started working on Pearl City, an Australian man was murdered on the dirt road at about 2:00 a.m. when he was stumbling home drunk. Five Vietnamese workers killed him. They were drunk, too, and didn’t mean to kill him, but hit him a little too hard. Sopheak solved the mystery. It’s just one of the stories I cover in my book, which will be completed one of these days.

dseaview sihanoukville1After stopping for the trucks, I went on to a wide cement road that up until a couple of months ago was a very rough dirt road. I used to ride my bike down it all the time. It was part of my shortcut to the beach. I loved it because it was so undeveloped and quiet. Not so now. The once empty side of the road is quickly becoming filled with apartments.

apartments in sihanoukville cambodiaFinally, I emerged back on Ekareach Street. I’ve been watching this building go up for over a year now, but am still surprised by how imposing it is becoming. I thought they would stop at about the third floor, but it just keeps getting taller.

apartments on ekareach st sihanoukville cambodiaI went searching for old Sihanoukville, but it’s getting harder to find. Here and there you can still find the wonderful little family-run restaurants and stores build from timber and recycled materials, but they’re getting harder to find. I think they’re wonderful because they give poor Cambodians an opportunity to make a living without having to go to work for a Chinese or wealthy Cambodian company.

Old Sihanoukville vs New: Caught in the Middle

Some say progress is good, but many Cambodians are caught in the middle between the old Cambodia and the newly emerging Cambodia. They know how to survive in the old Cambodia, but don’t have enough of an education to make a decent living in the new Cambodia. Wages are going up, but not enough to cover the cost of living.

We’re sort of caught in the middle, too. We want to stay in Sihanoukville because the kids can get a good education here. We also want to move to a more rural location because we don’t want them to lose touch with their roots. As Sopheak said to me one day: “I want to teach them how to live without loi (money).” I can relate to that and know several Cambodians who fondly remember the past, when they didn’t have to work every day to survive.

Cambodia is confident right now. Foreign investment is pouring in and Sihanoukville is profiting from it. Like so many of the people, though, Sihanoukville is caught in the middle. It doesn’t really know how to cope with its growth and can’t really keep up with it. Interspersed between the new buildings are trash heaps and dirty roads. There’s not adequate sewerage or waste disposal beyond the basics. I suppose that will change in time, but right now, the city is in a period of transition.

Oddly enough, I still love this city. I love it because I never know what to expect next. I love it because it is incomplete. I love it because it’s not a spit-polished tourist centre. I love it because I still have to dodge chickens and cows on the road. I love it because after nine years, it feels like home. I’m just not sure for how long it’s going to feel that way, though. I never wanted to live in a metropolis.

Email to an old Sihanoukville friend

When I came to Sihanoukville to stay in 2007, I felt out of my depth and did what most newcomers do — asked those who had been here longer than I for their advice. One of those people was a guy who had only been here a few months longer, but he helped me more than most, not because he had all the answers, but because he admitted he didn’t. What he had to offer was better than advice: he offered support.

He left Sihanoukville a couple of years later because he couldn’t make a decent living here. We kept in touch for awhile. Then he got married, had a child and we were out of touch for years. I heard from him recently and he wanted to know what life was like here now. I thought about writing him a lengthy email. Then I decided to write the email here so others could get an inkling of how much this town has changed.

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Hey –,

Great to hear from you! Everything’s good here. It’s too bad you started your business when you did because I think if you had given it a try now it would be much more successful. We don’t have a long, dead rainy season to ride out, for one thing. The numbers drop, but rainy seasons now are as busy as the high seasons used to be.

When you were here, activity was centred around the Hill, downtown and Serendipity beach. The Hill became a bit of a ghost town after they paved Serendipity Road and the road to Otres. I think they tore down the old bus station before you left. A lot of downtown guesthouses suffered because of that, but some hung in there and a few are doing well again. They keep their prices lower than places closer to the beach and some of them pull in customers because they offer good rooms and have good restaurants.

For awhile, the area around Serendipity Road was a zoo. It still gets busy, but people tell me most of the backpackers only stay in that part of town overnight before they move on to Koh Rong or one of the other islands. Those who stay longer term usually gravitate towards the mellower Otres beach, or so I’m told.

hill - paved

Yep. Believe it or not, this is the Hill

If I’d heard from you a few months ago, I would have said the Hill is the same as it was when you left. A few months can make a big difference here, though. The main road has been paved and even the bumpy road in the triangle has been cemented. Most of the old bars are still there, but some nice restaurants have been started, too. I wrote about the changes on the Hill in a recent blog, Victory Hill Gets a Facelift, so I won’t repeat myself here. Yep. Believe it or not, the picture above is at the corner near where your café used to be.

del marI think you had the first or second espresso maker in Sihanoukville. Well, they’re everywhere now. I wrote about that recently, too, in Coffee Houses in Sihanoukville. My favourite is Café del Mar. I wish I’d written that blog a few weeks later because there’s a new del Mar on CT Road, just a few doors down from the clinic outside one of the hotels there. Same great pastries but arguably even better coffee thanks to the state-of-the-art espresso maker they bought for it.

What else is new? Oh yeah. They’re widening the beach road between Sokha beach and Independence beach to make way for a monstrous development. There’s another one planned for Independence beach, too, but I’m not sure when they’ll get started on that.

I’m pretty sure one thing you’d notice if you visited would be how much more traffic there is now. It used to get a bit crazy at around 5 p.m. when all the kids were going home from work or school, but Ekareach Street is busy all the time now. Remember how we used to notice cars on the road? There are so many now it’s not a big deal. I went to Otres beach on Sunday and it seemed like there were as many cars as motorbikes, if not more. Otres has been divided in two. Between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is a long stretch of empty beach. On Sunday, cars lined that section of road from one end to the other.

I went to Otres to escape the Chinese New Year crowds, but the only way I could escape was by renting a Hobie cat. It was a perfect day for sailing. I headed straight out to sea and when I got to the wind-sheltered side of one of the islands, I just stopped for awhile to enjoy the silence. I couldn’t even hear a firecracker going off in the distance.

Remember that big vacant area behind my house? It’s full of houses now and there are two big new apartment complexes at the top of our road. Just down from there are two more and it looks like another one is going up closer to the main road.

I think you’d be blown away by how much Sihanoukville has grown since you were here. I am. I still remember wondering why Ekareach Street was so wide when I first came here. Now I’m wondering why it’s so narrow. To ease traffic and give new businesses a chance to take root, they’ve widened the road that parallels Ekareach Street a couple of blocks down from the Total gas station. It’ll be interesting to see what pops up along that road in the future.

Anyway, it was great to hear from you after so many years. Don’t worry about bringing your family here. A lot of families come to Sihanoukville now and some come to stay. Hope you and your family can make it here some time soon.

Cheers,

Rob

Christmas in Sihanoukville 2014

sailing off otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

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On Christmas day, Sophie and I were in Psar Leu fighting the crowds. “Go Otres now,” Sophie said out of the blue. “Justin come now.” I wasn’t expecting him for at least another hour, but I’ve learned to listen to her when she says something like that. She can be amazingly intuitive.

Sure enough, Justin and Annameeka were checking in at the beautiful new Sahaa Beach Resort when we rolled up on our motorbike. Because of Sopheak’s exquisite timing, we were able to have lunch with them before they went to their bungalow to recover from their long, overnight flight and drive from Phnom Penh.

sahaa beach resort, otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

Sahaa Beach Resort

That evening, Justin and Meeka took my advice and ate at Papa Pippo’s. They loved it and loved everything about Otres. When they came over to our house for lunch the next day, they told me how quiet and mellow it was and how friendly the people they met at the beach were.

lunch on 26 December 2014Over lunch, we made plans for the following day. I would come over at about 10 a.m. and we would go sailing. That and dinner at Maybe Later were the two things I wanted to do with him in Sihanoukville. Otherwise, I left it to him and Annameeka to decide what they wanted to do. Fortunately, sailing was on their agenda, too, so there was no conflict of interest.

The breeze was just starting to kick in when we got to the Nautica Sailing Club at Otres 2. I was as surprised by the new Nautica as they were. It’s been expanded since the last time I was there and is as much a bar/restaurant as a place to rent Hobie cats and kayaks now. After Justin and Meeka drank fresh coconut milk and I had a coffee, we headed out to sea with me at the helm.

sailing in sihanoukvilleI had big plans, but the wind died down, so after we got out to this little island, we turned around. Then the wind picked up again, so we turned around again. I made only a token effort to head towards another island, but my preference for speed won out over a desire for a change of scenery, so we pretty much just retraced our steps.

sailing off otres beach, sihanoukville cambodia

After sailing, we walked a few steps up the beach to Elephant Garden for lunch. Everyone agreed it was delicious and there’s no mellower place to hang out than in their restaurant or on their beach lounges. Now you can stay at the Elephant Garden Resort just across the road. I’m sure it’s just as well-run as the restaurant.

That afternoon, Justin and Meeka rented a jet ski. The guy put it in sports mode, whatever that is, and Justin said they went from zero to 35kph (or was it mph?) in about 2 seconds. How Meeka managed to take this photo is beyond me.

justin-meeka jetskiBefore they moved on to the Serendipity Beach Resort, Justin and Meeka managed to squeeze in a night at the Otres Market, which they thoroughly enjoyed. Things turned a little south after they moved to Serendipity beach, though. We had a great dinner at Maybe Later, but they said they could hear music coming from the concert up the road and fireworks going off at the beach all that night and the next. New Year’s is a three-day event here in Sihanoukville.

The next day was a bit of a catastrophe. They couldn’t get an 8:00 a.m. boat to Koh Rong, so they settled for a 12 o’clock one instead. It hadn’t arrived by 1:00, though, so they asked for a refund. Going all that way just to have an hour or so didn’t seem worth it to them. They finally got the refund, but the worst was yet to come. Justin sent me a message, but I didn’t read it, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the car Sophie had for the day and take them out to Ream. They ended up going to the free end of Sokha. That night, we all met up at Olive & Olive and had a great meal, but the day could have been so much better.

On the 30th, I rode out to the airport to see them off. Afterwards, I continued on to Ream, where I found a great restaurant in a beautiful spot. Then I went on a motorbike ride up the beach. I had a relaxing time, but it would have been so much more fun with them.

beach in Ream, near Sihanoukville Cambodia

My private beach in Ream

I don’t want to get all cosmic on you, but if you ever get a chance to read my book (shooting for June 2015 completion), you’ll learn that my best guide in life is a goddess I call Serendipity. . Sophie had worked at a wedding the night before and drove some of her police friends home in one of the cars they used to get to the party. The Mitsubishi Pajero was hers for the day. She wanted Justin and Meeka to change their plans and take advantage of having the car. Had we done so, Meeka could have gone snorkelling at the empty beach in Ream we took Jan Cornall to and it would have been nicer than Koh Rong, which is kind of a zoo now that it’s so popular. We barang aren’t very good at spontaneous changes of plans, though, so Serendipity’s gift to us sat in the driveway all afternoon.

Actual photo of Serendipity and her sister Fortuna

Actual photo of Serendipity and her helper

All’s well that ends well. Justin and Meeka are now in Siem Reap and having a great time. They loved Sihanoukville, too, except for the hiccough in the end. Can’t say fate didn’t try to lend them a hand, though. When Serendipity speaks, it’s best to listen. She’s a lot better guide than Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor.

Halloween in Sihanoukville

Monkey Republic had their relaunch party on the 26th. From what I read on Facebook, the party was a big success. If you’re one of the multitudes of backpackers who call Monkey Republic their home-away-from-home, you should be following the Monkey Republic Facebook page.

monkey-republic-27-10-13-cropped

They’re following it up with a big Halloween party:

halloween02

 

There’s also a big Halloween bash at Otres Beach. It’s at Moonlight Rock Resort. A new Sihanoukville resort, I haven’t been there yet, but will definitely check it out next time I’m at Otres. In the meantime, here’s the Moonlight Rock Resort Facebook page.

halloween01

Clearly, Halloween in Sihanoukville 2013 is going to be huge. I’m sure there will be other Halloween parties, but these are the two that came to my attention.

Sihanoukville continues to grow faster than even I can keep track of and I live here. As it grows, competition between businesses and even beaches becomes fiercer and for every 10 businesses that start up, others close. Red Club folded awhile back and the Airport at Victory Beach is now gone. From what I’ve been told, the land was sold (or more likely, leased) to a Chinese company that is going to build a casino there.

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Meanwhile, some businesses on Serendipity Road have been doing well, while others are really struggling. It’s not because of a lack of tourists. Backpackers are coming to Sihanoukville in ever increasing numbers, but they have more options to choose from than in the past. One business owner who has his finger on the pulse and has a big stake in Serendipity agreed with me that there were more backpackers in town than ever before, but business was slow in his area because they were gravitating towards Otres beach and Koh Rong. That was just after the fire destroyed Monkey Republic and damaged Mick and Craig’s, though. Now that they are back (and better than ever), I think business should be good again in the Serendipity area. We’ll see.

Okay, I have to go make a living now. I just wanted to post about Halloween in Sihanoukville before it comes and goes.

Reading Charles Bukowski on Sihanoukville Beaches

“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

reading at independence beach, sihanoukville cambodia

I get really sick of always being online, so as an antidote, I’ve started to read books again. My latest acquisition is a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man. If I wanted to have a conversation with a drunk or a dirty old man, I wouldn’t have any trouble at all finding someone to sit down with in a Sihanoukville bar. I don’t really like to drink more than a glass of wine or beer, though, and I can better be described as a sometimes grumpy old man than a dirty old man, so why would I choose to read Bukowski?

In a way, Charles Bukowski and I go way back. Between 1968 and 1973 or thereabouts, I worked off and on in a great bookshop in Hermosa Beach, California called Either/Or Books. The owners were a couple of beatniks who collected Bukowski’s first editions, which were delivered by his girlfriend or wife — I’m not sure which, but it doesn’t matter. Since I was often running the store when she arrived, I frequently got to chat with her. She was, in contrast to Bukowski’s descriptions of women in his books, a very intelligent and friendly person. She was also very much in love with ‘Hank’, as she called him. And if she is to be believed, he cared a lot more about her than his seemingly misogynistic writing would suggest.

Reading Charles Bukowski at Independence Beach

During slow periods at work, I’d sit on the stool at the front desk and read from random books. Of course, Bukowski was one of them, but at the time, I couldn’t really get into either his poetry or his prose. My snooty English major prejudices got in the way of my being able to appreciate the raw power of his writing or the wisdom between his lines.

When I saw Notes of a Dirty Old Man on the shelf at Casablanca Books, it seemed to reach out to me rather than the other way around. After resisting for awhile, I finally chose it in favour of The Dice Man, by Luke Rhinehart.

I’ve taken the book with me to two beaches so far. I don’t know if there’s any deep inner meaning to it or not, but the only one where someone has commented on what I was reading has been at Otres Beach, specifically at Papa Pippo’s, where the backpacker who waited on me commented that she had recently read some of Bukowski’s work. She agreed with me that behind the language and imagery, there was something likeable and even admirable about him.

papa-pippo-otres-beach-sihanoukville-cambodia

Reading Charles Bukowski at Otres Beach

I think his unrelenting honesty has something to do with it, but Bukowski may have put it best when he wrote in Tales of Ordinary Madness:

the free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it – basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.

That’s how I felt when I met my wife, Sopheak, and I’ve felt that way around a few other Cambodians as well. Why is that so? Maybe it’s because most of us Westerners aren’t free souls. We come from countries where we become so accustomed to the rules that imprison us, we end up believing we are free. In a million ways, our well-ordered world makes us reliant on our governments, financial institutions and corporate jobs (“I hid in bars, because I didn’t want to hide in factories” – CB). That’s not freedom. It’s indentured servitude and somewhere inside, I think we know it.

I loved this passage in Notes of a Dirty Old Man:

I don’t want to get as holy about being active as Camus did (see his essays) because basically most of mankind sickens me and the only saving that can be done is a whole new concept of Universal Education-Vibration understanding of happiness, reality and flow, and that’s for the little children who haven’t been murdered yet, but they will be, I’ll lay you twenty-five to one, for no new concept will be allowed — it would be too destructive to the power gang.

I can’t help but wonder, though. Would he have changed “most of mankind sickens me” to “most of my culture sickens me” if he had had the opportunity to live and write in a so-called Third World country? I don’t know, but that’s sort of how I feel after 7 years in Cambodia. Sure, there’s a lot that’s messed up about Third World countries, too, but at least it’s not hiding in the shadows or dressed up to look nice, as it is in our self-defined 1st world countries.

I still can’t relate to Bukowski’s alcoholism, but I can relate to his refusal to be imprisoned. I think he put it best in these lines. Leave out the beer part (or not, if you prefer) and I think he puts it perfectly:

For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

Note: Some of the quotes in this post come from Charles Bukowski quotes on Goodreads.