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?

 

A Visit to Klang Leu

When you drive into or out of Sihanoukville on Route 4, you pass an uninspiring looking row of retail shops. That’s the visible part of Klang Leu. What you don’t see is the residential district just behind the shops. Sopheak’s sister lives there and we visit now and then. It’s like another world from Sihanoukville.

klang leu near Sihanoukville Cambodia

Klang Leu and Route 4

I took the shortcut to Klang Leu. It took less than 10 minutes to get there from the new Douceur du Cambodge (Artisan Cafe). They moved from their old location between Samudera Supermarket and Psah Leu on the 1st of September. Now they’re on Ekareach Street next to the Sokimex station. The new place is much larger and nicer than the old, but they haven’t upped their prices.

Artisan Cafe Ekareach Street Sihanoukville CambodiaThe shortcut takes you up a steep cement street that is often crowded with traffic moving too fast for such a narrow road. The first thing I noticed was that building was going on even here. This large apartment building wasn’t there the last time I took the road

back road to sihanoukvilleYou can barely see the little roads that lead to the residential district of Klang Leu. A couple of them are paved, but the paving peters out quickly and the dirt roads get rougher the further you ride. After just a couple of hundred metres, you feel like you’re in rural Cambodia. The houses are simpler and wide areas separate them. I took this photo at a birthday party, but if you look at the background, you get the idea.

Klang Leu residential area near Sihanoukville CambodiaKlang Leu isn’t a rich suburb, but it’s not poor, either. Most of the people have jobs at the port, the nearby Cambrew Brewery or in town. It has a rural feel and most of the people seem happy. I ran across these boys playing with their homemade kites and they all smiled when I asked them if I could take their photograph.

kids with kites in klang leuWe have our eye on a piece of land in Klang Leu. We’re not likely to sell our house, but if we could, we would buy it. It’s a large parcel and has hard title. It has a wonderful view and a rural feel, but it’s just 10 or 15 minutes away from Sihanoukville. I imagine we’d have to improve the access road. It’s hard to get down even in the dry season, but 20 or 30 metres of gravel doesn’t cost that much and the land is cheap at the far edge of Klang Leu.

So next time you’re on Route 4 and you pass one of the many dusty towns along the road, don’t judge what you see by the shops on the side of the road. Behind those shops are thriving villages where Cambodians live much as they lived before the Khmer Rouge.

Two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville

My idea of a perfect weekend is going to a café with a good book and following it up with a swim. Everything cooperated with me the past two weekends, so I enjoyed two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville. I finally got my copy of Brian Gruber’s War: The Afterparty and the weather has been nice the past two weekends.

escape in sihanoukville

I go to Escape on Serendipity Road on weekends for my coffee. I go there for three reasons:

  1. The owner is nice
  2. The cappuccinos are good and come with brown sugar, which I prefer over white
  3. I can easily get to Sokha beach from there

Fortunately, the warning on my cigarette pack is in Khmer, so I don’t know whether I’m going to die from lung cancer or heart disease. One thing’s for sure: I am going to die one of these days, so it would be a little silly to stress about it prematurely. Better to get the most out of life while you’re alive than worry, I reckon. Besides, I read that smokers don’t succumb to Alzheimer’s disease as readily as non-smokers and I’m more afraid of that than I am of dying.

book and coffee in sihanoukville

I met Brian when he was in Sihanoukville and looked forward to reading his book. I could have bought a digital copy on Amazon, but I wanted a real book because I work online all week and enjoy taking a break from digital devices. Brian made a visa run to Phnom Penh and I was going to meet him there, but my pay was late and I couldn’t afford to make the trip. We arranged for a taxi to pick it up and I got it just in time for last weekend.

Brian crowdfunded his book, sneaking in the required amount half an hour before his deadline. Then he started traveling. He went to Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Serbia, Indochina, Afghanistan and Iraq during his travels. He interviewed a cross-section of people, including well-connected people, journalists and average people on the streets. The book is remarkably objective. Where another writer might have started a rant, he simply shares information.

It’s not boring information, though, and he gives you a sense of the places he visits and the people he meets. There were times I felt like I was sitting next to him during his interviews or walking with him through the streets of the cities he visited. I kind of wish the book had been a little more boring because I only managed to make it last two weekends. Despite my efforts to pace myself, I inhaled the book. Since Q&A closed, it’s been hard to find good books. Casablanca is kind of hit and miss and I haven’t been into Mr. Heinz in a long time. I keep meaning to since it moved to a quieter location and now serves coffee, but I’m yet to try it.

Sadly, I finished the book today. The final chapter made tingles go up my spine. Brian quotes from Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant speech in The Great Dictator. Click the link to listen to the whole thing. I’ll just quote a few lines:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human being are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery.

Sadly, War: The Afterparty proves that’s not always the case, but Brian’s travels revealed that most people do want to live in peace. I can’t recommend the book too highly. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read because Brian went to countries where America has intervened and found out what he needed to know from people who were affected by the interventions. He doesn’t cherry-pick his quotes, either. Some of the interviewees have different opinions than others.

sokha beach sihanoukville cambodia

So I closed the book, finished my second coffee and went to the beach. It was the perfect ending to another perfect weekend. I’ll go to Casablanca this evening. Hopefully I’ll find something to read, but I doubt it will be as good as the book I just finished.

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.

Sihanoukville Cambodia: a metropolis in the making

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“Sihanoukville Cambodia: a metropolis in the making” – that’s a pretty bold headline, but it’s not off-the-mark. I’ve even been a little bit in denial about it, but a motorbike ride from Independence Beach to Serendipity Beach made me realise that it’s happening.

beach building 1I began my ride by going up Ekareach Street, where I noticed a lot of vacant lots were being filled in. Turning left at the stoplights at the Hill, I was relieved to see the road was still as it used to be. When I got to Independence Beach, I noticed a rather modest building going up. I say “modest,” but that’s only in comparison to what I saw next. The sign, “Payton International,” was enough to convince me this was no second-rate construction and the cranes in the background told me they weren’t taking their time about building it. I found an opening in the wall and saw that construction was in full swing.

Moving on, I came to a huge construction site. This one didn’t come as quite such a surprise. They widened the road along that stretch awhile ago. The road widening happened at a record pace, so I knew they were serious about it. Sophie told me it was for a highrise condominium project, but I still couldn’t quite believe it would actually happen. In the past, these projects got off to slow starts and were sometimes put on hold indefinitely. Maybe the road was just to generate interest from investors? Anyway, this is what it looks like when you pass by on a motorbike:

beach building 2

I found an opening here, too, but there wasn’t much going on inside. It looked like they had terraced the land, but no construction had begun. A few days later, I came across an article in the Khmer Times. Condos to Rise Above Independence Beach was the title and the illustration proved they meant it literally. Yes, Sophie was right. They were to be highrise condos. The article was quite good and put to rest my doubts about the project. No, they hadn’t done the groundbreaking in hopes of attracting investors. More than “70 percent of the 275 units in the first one were snapped up in less than four months, according to executives at the local family-run company behind the project”, the article said and Sophie’s little brother, who works at the Golden Sands, confirmed it.

Artist’s rendering from Khmer Times article cited in this blog

Who’s buying the condos? It’s not Westerners. Over half are Taiwanese investors and the others are probably Chinese. As Douglas McColl pointed out in the article, the ruble and Aussie dollar have plummeted against the US dollar, putting the condos outside the market of many and making them a poor investment for those Russians and Australians who can afford them — at least for now.

Moving on, I was shocked when I saw a fence around the area I park my motorbike in on the free end of Sokha Beach. I was even more shocked to see a restaurant had been built on the other side of the road. It had been awhile since I had been there, but not that long – a few months at most. I have no idea what they’re planning for the small, formerly dirt parking area, but I never expected to see anything there. The beach is still accessible, but I’ll miss the nice guy who collected my 1000 riel (about 25 cents) and looked after the motorbikes.

By that time it was getting near sunset, so I continued up the hill and down Serendipity Road. Maybe Later was packed (in the rainy season!), so I went to the bottom of the hill and turned around. I noticed two more big hotels were in the early stages of development. It doesn’t take a long memory to remember when the road was a bumpy dirt road and the only places to stay were cheap backpacker guesthouses and small hotels.

I went over to Otres Village to have lunch with a friend today (great falafels at Hacienda, btw). There, too, development is taking place. I don’t know what’s being built, but the land next to some bungalows that were recently completed is much larger and looks like it is getting ready for some serious building.

So when I write, “Sihanoukville Cambodia: a metropolis in the making,” I’m not kidding. It’s growing faster than even I imagined it would. We Westerners are just a small part of the action. This, I think, is why so many of us cannot believe Sihanoukville will ever become the second largest city in Cambodia and a major SE Asian tourist and business centre. The times they are a’changin’ and Asians today have money to spend. It looks like they’re spending it in Cambodia.

 

An art exhibit in Sihanoukville?

Sihanoukville doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the cultural centre of Cambodia.  Siem Reap gets that distinction, in part because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. We do have a lot of locals and expats who are talented artists, though, and they finally got the chance to exhibit their work right here in Sihanoukville. The 1st (hopefully annual) Sihanoukville Visual Arts Expo is at Sandan Restaurant, just 50 metres or so down the road towards Sokha Beach from the Golden Lions.

art exhibit(1)

I didn’t attend the opening, but was told it was well-attended by an enthusiastic crowd. I did stop in a couple of days later and have to say I was impressed. All of the work was very good — some of it stunning. I was impressed with this painting in particular:

art exhibit(3)

I hate to single out just one, though. There were a number of very impressive paintings, photographs and sculptures.

Since I didn’t attend the opening, I guess I missed out on the opportunity to watch an artist at work. I assume this photo was taken on opening day. I didn’t take any of these photos because I stupidly forgot to take my camera. Many thanks to STA for giving me permission to pinch the photos from their Facebook page.

art exhibit(2)Now I’m kicking myself for not attending on opening day. There are so many interesting expats living here now, but I rarely get the opportunity to meet them because I’m holed up at home working and they are creatively and productively going about their business.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Sihanoukville still suffers from a bad reputation, but that’s only because the worst elements are also the most visible. Aside from business owners, there are dozens of people living and working here who do amazing things. They just tend to stay to themselves. Hopefully, more events like the Visual Arts Expo will bring them out of the woodwork and show the side of Sihanoukville that doesn’t make the news or the popular backpacker blogs.

art exhibit(4)Speaking of events, Dao of Life has been active in putting on events. They have Rooftop movie nights, Rooftop Salsa nights and other special events on a regular basis. They also actively promote other events and workshops around town,  sell secondhand jewellery from India and have a clothing swap shop. To keep up with everything that’s happening there and around Sihanoukville, I suggest you follow Dao of Life on Facebook. Tao of Life is a little off the beaten track, but well worth visiting, if only for a delicious vegan meal and a chat with Shazi or one of the other super-friendly people who work and hang out there.  Hmmm – maybe I’ll go there for dinner tonight.

Writing about Sihanoukville Cambodia: the real story

This post was updated 14 June 2015 after a change in the title. It’s up to 80,000 words now and I’m working on the final draft.

The impetus for this blog was never profit. It’s always been to present Sihanoukville Cambodia through my eyes: the eyes of an expat who loves his adopted culture. It’s never been quite enough, though. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my personal life like? What’s the inside story about my Cambodian family? Except for the odd snippet, I rarely write about that side of life on my blog.

long way home 3dEvery week, I get together with the members of our small writing group. Writing can be lonely work and unless you get feedback, it can be hard to stay motivated. Since our group was formed, my book-in-progress, Long Way Home, has grown from about 10,000 random words to a full blown book. My original intention was to write about my wife’s amazing life and share stories about the equally amazing things I’ve witnessed here, but never blogged about. I kept stories about my life to a minimum because I didn’t want to write about myself. When I did write paragraphs about my past, the other members of our group wanted to know more.

“I don’t want to write a memoir!” I protested with a grimace. They laughed and said, “Yeah, but we want you to.” It didn’t click that writing a memoir didn’t have to be egotistical self-indulgence until another member of our group wrote a short story about her life. We all wanted more details. She has lived an amazing life, but her story is not about her. It’s about the people she’s met, the places she’s lived and the events that have shaped her worldview. I couldn’t exactly encourage her to keep writing her memoir when mine was exactly the same, so I reconsidered my anti-memoir stance.

It dawned on me, too, that I only see Cambodia as I see it because of the experiences I’ve had in the course of my life — experiences that have taken me from a middle class upbringing at a town in Southern California mentioned by the Beach Boys (“all over Manhattan and down Doheny way, everybody’s gone surfing, surfing USA”); to a yoga retreat in the Sierra Mountains; Maui at the close of the sixties; India in the early seventies; and back to the Sierras where I lived on a commune for several years. Then I moved on to San Francisco and the east coast of Australia, where I lived for 20 years until my comfortable life unravelled. After giving Bali a shot and deciding I liked visiting, but didn’t want to live there, I moved on to this part of the world and finally found myself living in and loving a place that wasn’t even on my list: Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Some chapters in my book include:

  • Worlds Apart, the opening chapter, gives a brief summary of Sopheak’s life in Cambodia versus my early upbringing in the U.S.
  • The Fool on the Hill tells about my first months in Sihanoukville, when I was living on the Hill.
  • A Cambodian Ghost Story is a true ghost story. Why do I think it’s true? Because the things the ghost told Sopheak were true, but she had no way of knowing about them.
  • Surrealistic Pillow is the story of an exorcism I witnessed.
  • Inside Tree is about the 3 years Sopheak spent wandering in the jungle. She was with a phnong family at first, but left them and continued on alone for another 2 years. She was about 9 years old at the time.

Other chapters are about more mundane things like building our house, running out of money and starting a freelance writing career from scratch. Mundane they may have been, but through it all, I have felt the guiding hand of fate. She is a palpable reality to me. I call her Serendipity and I don’t know what I’d have done without her, because if she hadn’t interceded in my life, I’d probably be back in Australia now, living off the dole. Woo Hoo.

I’m only about six chapters short of completing a first draft of about 18 chapters, so I decided it was time to start advertising Long Way Home*. If you’re the down-to-earth practical type, you may find it amusing and are more than welcome to write me off as a nut case. If you’re comfortable with stories about ghosts, the paranormal, reincarnation, natural healing and other stuff of that nature, you might find it inspiring. Either way, I think you’ll find it entertaining unless you’re looking for salacious stories about a sexpat’s adventures in S.E. Asia, crime in Sihanoukville or corruption in Cambodia. I cover those topics in a few chapters and the stories are juicy, so maybe my book will be of interest even to you.

If you want to look at the final product, please sign up for my new newsletter. I’ll keep you up-to-date with my progress and when I finally finish the online edition, I’ll give you a discount on the price of the book.

* 14 June 2015: Now editing the first 22 chapters. Saving the final chapter until I’m happy with those.

Where is Otres Village?

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?

barn-otres

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.

yoga-otresThere’s even a yoga retreat here, just like on the Ridge. It’s closed now; I assume for the rainy season.

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.

hacienda-bungalow2-otres

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.

bungalows-otres

houseFinally, 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.

What’s New on Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach Road

Nataya Resort, Sihanoukville Cambodia

The last time I reported on Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach Road (or Serendipity Road, if you like), it was to cover the fire that destroyed Mick & Craig’s, Monkey Republic, the Dive Shop and adjoining properties at the top of Mithona Road, which seems to have been renamed Serendipity Road by some interested parties. Anyway, I’m happy to say that work is proceeding rapidly on Mick & Craig’s and the Dive Shop seems to be near completion. Monkey Republic is fenced in and I couldn’t see any real signs of construction. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the cement road I call Serendipity Road.

Mick & Craig's on Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Mick & Craig’s taking shape after the fire.

I mentioned a new complex at the top of the road awhile ago. The garden has filled in, the shops are thriving and the resort and restaurant at the top of the complex seem to have been discovered. The resort is called Blue Sea Boutique Resort and the restaurant trendily named “Pure.” I’m not sure if it’s operational yet or how well it’s doing, but will take a closer look as soon as I get a chance.

Blue Sea Resort and complex, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Moving along, I’m sorry to say that one of the last remaining timber structures, the one that housed Le Bistro Gourmand, has been torn down. It was just a matter of time, but I used to really enjoy having breakfast there. It will be interesting to see what they erect to replace it, but one thing’s for sure, whatever it is, it will be dwarfed by the nearly completed Nataya Holiday Villa. The photo below doesn’t really do the size of the resort justice. You can get a peak of the back of the hotel from Mithona Road and it looks like most of the rooms are behind its impressive front.

Nataya Resort, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Once it opens, Nataya will take over from Serendipity Beach Resort as the road’s biggest and most luxurious accommodation, but it looks like Serendipity Beach Resort will soon have another rival to contend with right next door. So far, it’s just a bunch of sticks and concrete, but that’s a lot more than was there just a month or so ago, so it looks like they’re moving full steam ahead.

New hotel on Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

And that brings us to the bottom of the hill but not the end of what’s new on Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach Road. In fact, the “road” is being extended even further out on to the pier, which is being lengthened considerably.

Pier at Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Stepping off the pier and into the water, the Bali/Thailand-style upmarket health and yoga retreat set will be pleased to know that Akaryn Hospitality Management Services (AHMS), owner of 3 successful island resorts elsewhere, has announced plans to build a similar resort on Koh Krabeay. Called Akaryn Koh Krabeay Retreat & Spa, it’s scheduled to open in 2015. According to AHMS founder Anchalika Kijkanakorn as reported in the Thailand edition of the Nation:

The exciting thing about this project is that it gives us an opportunity to define, refine, innovate and create the ideal destination holistic and medical spa that redefines how we live today and equips the guest with tools they can use upon returning home to incorporate these measures and wisdoms into their daily lives.

It’s a good bet accommodation at this resort will probably be a lot more expensive than the many bungalows that have sprouted up on Koh Rong or Belinda Beach Lovely Resort on Koh Sdach, but not as expensive as a night on Song Saa Private Island.

Back on the mainland, her are some Sihanoukville accommodations on and around Serendipity Road you can check out:

Ocean Walk Inn
Coolabah Resort
Sea View Villa
Koh Pos Guesthouse