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.

Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville 2015

I wasn’t going to write about Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville this year because I wrote about it last year, but a couple of things changed my mind. First the good news.

The Valentine baby

The Valentine baby

Valentine’s Day is always an expensive day here. It goes way beyond buying flowers for your “valentine.” As Sophie says, “This one day for love.” Therefore, everybody you feel affection for gets at least a token gift. That means family and friends. Added up it came to a couple of hundred dollars this year. Part of that went towards buying stuff for a newborn baby that was born on the 13th, but Sophie also convinced me to buy the mother a bouquet of flowers. This was not awkward because the flowers are a token of affection, not necessarily romantic love.

I thought maybe it was a trend just in our family, but discovered otherwise last night when I went to King Chicken to get takeaway (Sophie went to a wedding, so the traditional dinner out didn’t happen). King Chicken was packed beyond capacity. It’s a family restaurant complete with indoor playground and Cambodian families were going out for Valentine’s Day in droves.

After I came home, Sophie’s little brother announced he was throwing a little Valentine’s Day party for the family and asked me to join in. He had bought a cake for the kids and beer for the adults. We had a falling out with him a few weeks ago and he took advantage of the opportunity to apologise to Mama, Papa and me for his bad behaviour.

This morning I visited a friend and he had a similar story to tell. Everybody in his family exchanged gifts. My friend scored a new shirt from one of the young men in the family.

Now for the bad news

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I have a big problem with the Western media. They’re always picking on other countries and particularly like to point out problems in Cambodia. True to form, on 10 February the Washington Post posted an article, The country where Valentine’s Day is the most dangerous day of the year. Fair enough, they quoted government ministers, but the message was clear. Young Cambodian men think of Valentine’s Day as a day of rape and sexual coercion.

The conclusion drawn by the article’s author was completely skewed because it didn’t cover the upside of Valentine’s Day in Cambodia. It’s not the most dangerous day of the year for 9.5 out of 10 Cambodians who celebrate the day.

The Valentine cake

The Valentine cake

I also question the statistics. After President Obama announced that an “estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years,” the anti-Obama media was quick to find loopholes in the argument. Not so in the article about rape in Cambodia. It happens, sure, as it happens everywhere, and it’s never to be condoned, but the American media is not a Cambodian moral authority and can’t really take the moral high ground on this or any other topic. Rather than pick on others to make Americans feel better about themselves, the U.S. media should be focusing on cleaning up its own house. But that’s not what the MSM does.

No, Valentine’s Day is not the most dangerous day of the year in Cambodia. Like so many holidays Cambodia has borrowed from other countries, they put their own spin on it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a day to celebrate love in all its forms in the West like they do in Cambodia?

valentine baby 2

Seeing Cambodia through fresh eyes

You don’t necessarily get jaded after you’ve lived in a place for a long time, but you do get used to things you considered odd or awesome when you first arrived. The great thing about showing first time visitors around is that you get to see everything through their eyes and it seems new and fresh again.

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We met my daughter, Chloe, and her boyfriend, Henry at Phnom Penh Airport at 4:00pm. After an emotional reunion, we got in our driver’s car and drove into PP, where we had already reserved a room at a river front hotel. Chloe and Henry went very quiet. “Are you okay?” I asked. They both looked like they were being shaken out of a trance and took a second to reply. “We’re just trying to take it all in,” Henry said and Chloe agreed. “What’s to take in?” I thought, and then I saw the scene through their eyes. The road was packed with cars and motorbikes in a state of seeming chaos and I remembered being a little freaked out on my first tuk tuk ride into Phnom Penh.

The next day, we took them out to the Killing Fields. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but that’s where they wanted to go. I hadn’t been there since 2006 and was surprised by how much the gardens had filled in over the years. Our tuk tuk driver took us home on a back road so we could see some rural Phnom Penh (yes, it exists), but it rained the previous day and the tuk tuk died in a puddle. No worries. That gave Henry the opportunity to get some exercise. After we got the tuk tuk unstuck, we stopped at a little house and the monks who lived there while their wat was being built let us wash off our muddy feet.

Our next stop was Boat Noodles restaurant, where Chloe and Henry were blown away by how good the food was. After that, we dropped them off at the National Museum and left them to their own devices for a few hours. That evening, Sophie took them to the Night Market, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

The next day, we returned to Sihanoukville. On the way home, we made our usual stop for fresh and dried fruit at a stall on the highway, giving Chloe and Henry their first samples of fruit they had never tried before. They loved it.

gecko in cambodia

Naturally, I wanted to show them the best that Sihanoukville had to offer and didn’t even think of all the little things that might catch their eye. Having geckos climbing around on the walls and across my desk is so normal to me now I don’t even notice them, but Chloe did. I noticed this one, though, when he came out to pose for me while I was writing this.

Chloe and Henry were also impressed by the way chickens casually walk around outside. It’s not something you see every day in the West, but I have to dodge them every day here when I go out on my motorbike.

chickens in sihanoukville

To be fair to my efforts, my visitors were impressed with the places I took them to. We had lunch at Papa Pippo’s on Otres Beach and dinner at Cafe Sushi. They loved them both and were more than happy with their room at Beach Road Hotel, but none of those attractions had as great an effect on them as the little things I hadn’t thought about.

beach road hotel, sihanoukville cambodia

On their last full day in town, I took them for a tuk tuk tour of the half of Sihanoukville they hadn’t seen yet. We started at the Golden Lions, went down to the Sokha Resort and along the road that skirts the beach to Independence Beach. After we rounded the corner and went up the hill, we passed the monkeys that hang out on the side of the road. This was one of the highlights of their trip. Chloe vaguely remembered seeing monkeys in Bali when she was little, but Henry had never seen a monkey outside a zoo in his life.

monkeys

We hung out with the monkeys for awhile and then moved on to Wat Krom, which they thoroughly enjoyed. Then I got a phone call from Sophie. Lunch was ready. She had pulled out all the stops for this lunch and Chloe and Henry both said it was one of the best meals they’d ever had. They weren’t just being polite, either.

meal

The next morning, Chloe went for a walk down to Sokha beach while Henry went for a run. When we met up for a late breakfast at Led Zephyr, Chloe was excited. “I saw cows running in the road!” she said. Oh yeah, that’s another thing I used to get excited about, but have taken for granted for years. I think it’s very cool that cows can block traffic here when they need to move from one grazing spot to another.

new road otres beach sihanoukville cambodiaIt was over all too soon. We rode out to the airport to see them off at noon and they went on to Siem Reap and from there to Tokyo. I’m sure they’ll be back, though, and I’ll get a chance to show them all the things we couldn’t squeeze into this trip. I’m just pleased that the little things about Cambodia that made me love it when I came here impressed them, too. Hopefully, it will stay this way and chickens, cows and monkeys will still rule the roads next time they come.

 

Village Life

Cambodia Laos border

I just finished writing Plato’s American Cave on my other blog and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about village life in Sihanoukville for a long time. Really, though, I’ve been wanting to write about village life, as opposed to city life, in general, because it’s a subject that’s dear to my heart.

What is Village Life?

By “village life,” I mean a way of life that is vanishing. Villages in the past were self-sustaining and not reliant on their governments. When I was in school, I was taught village life was hard and that villagers were “backward” people without access to the awesome advantages of modern civilisation. I kind of bought this argument until I met some educated, reasonably successful Cambodians who believed life was better before “progress” came to the country.  Without going into too much detail, here are a few examples of stories I’ve heard:

  • A hotel manager told me that before going into the hospitality industry, he worked for the government. His job was to go to villages, meet the people and learn something about their lives. “They didn’t want to move to the city,” he told me, “because they only had to work two months a year in the rice fields.”
  • The happiest days of Sophie’s life were when she lived with her family on the edge of the jungle. They got most of their food from the jungle and made money for rice from their charcoal oven. They also raised a few chickens and her brother was a crack shot with his slingshot.
  • The residents of the Sihanoukville dumpsite had dignity, self-respect and a well-organised village life. They appreciated the medical help and other things we were able to offer them, but did not tolerate NGOs that treated them like poor, desperate people.
  • A neighbour who has done relatively well in modern Sihanoukville told me that life was best before the Khmer Rouge, when he lived in a small, self-sustaining village. You can read a little more about him in the blog cited at the top of the page.
  • A school teacher told me she felt safest in the years just after the Khmer Rouge were defeated. Why? “We were a village then and were able to take care of ourselves.” Now we have to rely on our jobs and our government.”

Yes, I know all the arguments in favour of NGOs to protect against human trafficking and provide education and health care. I can see the point when the World Bank points out that under Hun Sen, Cambodia has reduced poverty from 50% to 20%. I’ve heard all the arguments in favour of development, but little or nothing in favour of simple village life. One documentary on National Geographic accidentally shed light on the subject, though. It was about development in Laos.

I’ve only been as far as southern Laos, but I was stunned when I crossed the border. On the Cambodian side, the sides of the road were either lined with plantations or stripped of vegetation. As soon as I crossed the border, I was surrounded by jungle. Laos lagged behind Cambodia in development, but because of that, remained nearly unspoiled. Not all Laotians I met liked this. They wanted to be a part of the modern world, but was it a good idea?

lao border 2 pics

Crossing the Laos border, 2006. Photo on the left is the Cambodia side. Photo on the right is after crossing the border.

The documentary gave shocking statistics about “poverty” in Laos. I think the average wage was about a dollar a day and jobs were scarce. Then, in an aside, the narrator mentioned that the villages in Laos were entirely self-sustaining. Malnutrition was almost non-existent thanks to the rich soil and abundant crops. The villages were under threat, though, because young Laotians wanted to move to the city so they could make money and buy cell phones.

Look anywhere you like: the areas of greatest discontent, violence and poverty are urban areas or rural areas that have been taken over by agribusinesses. Of course, you can find exceptions. In many parts of the world, drought, floods and other natural disasters create real problems for isolated villages, but their biggest problems have come from outside, colonial, imperialist powers.

Saying we should revert to a simpler, village life may be an over-simplification, but we can certainly learn from indigenous villagers. One thing I’m sure of is that the centrally controlled governments of today do little or nothing for humanity as a whole. We need another solution and maybe the solution is in village life. It works here in Sihanoukville, where the members of villages take care of their own problems first and only turn to the police when necessary. You can’t say the militarised police in Ferguson Missouri are an example for the world to follow.

Image from mamamia.com.au, What is going on in Ferguson?

Nice day at the beach. Genocide in Gaza.

otres beach, sihanoukville, cambodia

One of Sihanoukville’s claims to fame is that it was the scene of the last battle of the Vietnam War. Not long after I came here in 2007, I saw evidence of it when road workers dug up an unexploded bomb. Or maybe it was just one of the 2.4 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War. At any rate, that may be one of the reasons why I can’t get Gaza out of my mind. I live in a country that has experienced indiscriminate bombing. Cambodia had it easy compared to Gaza, though. The 1.7 million inhabitants of Gaza have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Speaking of having it easy, I had a nice day at the beach today. I went to Papa Pippo’s — my favourite place on Otres Beach. Here’s a photo of the cover of their new menu:

pappa pippo, otres beach, sihanoukville cambodiaI sat down, opened the menu and chose something from their delicious assortment of Italian dishes. While I waited, I stared out to sea and listened to Xavier Rudd playing softly in the background. It took me back to when I saw him play at the Blues Festival in Byron Bay. With pleasant memories to look back on and a pleasant day to look forward to, what could go wrong?

I am an absurdly lucky person. Money has always eluded me, but I’ve always lived in beautiful places and had enough leisure time to enjoy them. I thought about this while enjoying my lunch and for awhile, I was able to forget about the carnage in Gaza. Then I walked down to the beach. This is what I saw,

otres beach, sihanoukville, cambodiabut then the image of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza who were blown up by an Israeli missile came into my mind.

“No! I’m going to have a nice day at the beach,” I told myself. “Too bad about Gaza, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Well, there is one thing I can do. I can write about it. I did so three times last week in my other blog. The most popular post was the first: Jews Against Zionism. I wrote that one because I did not want to sound anti-Jewish and worry that all Jews will be tarred with the same brush when the truth about the genocide in Gaza becomes obvious to everyone. Judaism is not the problem. Zionism is.

Over the course of my research, I ran into an article in a Jewish publication, the Jewish Daily Forward. Not only did the author write that the authorities deliberately misled the public about the 3 kidnapped youths that started the slaughter, they suggested that Hamas was not responsible:

It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests.

It was the first time I had read about that possibility and it has since been proved true. So the slaughter began under false pretences and the lies have just gotten worse. Israel says Hamas uses children as human shields. Then I see a photo of Israeli troops using a child as a human shield. Israel says they have to defend themselves against rocket attacks from Hamas. By bombing it into oblivion with infinitely more powerful rockets?
gaza destructionSo I’m back home now, writing this before going on a pleasant afternoon motorbike ride with Sophie. I’ll be able to forget about Gaza for a little while, but by the time I get home, more innocent children will have died. The least I can do is write a little something on their behalf on my blog and join the global chorus of voices crying out to Israel to stop the genocide in Gaza.  

Visiting Buddha in Sihanoukville

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve settled into a routine and become a creature of habit. And so it was this morning. I went out for breakfast and then called a friend to arrange our usual Sunday get together. “I’m on my way to Phnom Penh,” he told me. Okay. Plan B was Otres Beach. Then I thought, “Why? Why not try some place different?” Without having a clue where I’d end up, I headed out Route 4. About 1/2 an hour later, I found myself turning off on the road towards Ream, but instead of going straight, I turned off on the new Sun Moon Resort Road.

creek

A creek by the side of the road

Good move. There’s no resort out there as yet, but there is a good road through some beautiful scenery with almost zero traffic. I cruised down the road slowly, enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze on my face. I’d never been down this road before, but thought it led all the way to the beach where the resort is set to be built. After a few kilometres, I discovered I was only half right. There was a guard stationed at the point where the paved road ends and the old dirt road takes over. He told me the road was closed, so I turned around. For a few minutes, I thought about taking the road down to Ream and having lunch by the water, but then Wat Samathi caught my eye on a distant hilltop.

wat-samathi-from-road

I’ve been to Wat Samathi several times before. It’s one of my favourite wats. The beautiful natural setting helps and the fact that there’s a lovely walking track around the hill makes it perfect. I’ve only been there with the family during religious festivals before. It’s always enjoyable, but I’ve always wanted to come on a day when no one was there and soak in the peaceful atmosphere.

A light rain started to fall just as I began my walk, but it was just enough to keep me cool as I walked up the staircase to the top. Just as I neared this Buddha, the rain started falling more heavily, so I took shelter under a tree.

buddha-on-stairs

The heavy rain didn’t last long, so I continued on my way. The natural setting, the cool weather and the Buddhas tucked here and there along the path were weaving their magic and for the first time in a couple of weeks, I was able to put my concerns about the state of the world out of my mind and enjoy the moment. Continuing on my way, I discovered a new temple was being built at the top of the hill. No one was working outside, but a painter was busy working on a mural inside. Here’s one he had already finished:

mural

Continuing on, I discovered that work was being done on the wat’s main Buddha, too. The scaffolding around the statue didn’t inspire me to take a photograph, so I turned and started down the stairs to the parking area. As I walked, gazing across a sea of rice paddies, I was aware of the Buddha at my back. I like to think he is there to act as kind of a lighthouse of compassion, spreading light throughout Cambodia and beyond. We can turn our backs on a beacon of light like this, but when we do, our field of vision is dimmed by shadows. Not far away, in Phnom Penh, a power struggle is taking place — a struggle that can easily be resolved if both sides turn their eyes towards the Buddha on the hill at Wat Samathi. Beyond that, another power struggle is taking place — one that threatens the entire world. The players there don’t even know this Buddha on a hill in Cambodia exists, but there’s a word for peace in every language, a place for peace in every religion. The question is: Will they be able to listen before it’s too late or is the Buddha going to have to silently watch the world destroy itself?

Wat Samathi is a lovely place. It’s only 20 kilometres outside Sihanoukville. Next time you’re in the area, check it out. Here’s a map. Take the road highlighted in yellow near Sihanoukville International Airport.  Look for the entrance just outside the village.

map-to-wat-samathi

Blast from Sihanoukville’s Past: RIP Phsah Leu

Wow! Here’s a blast from the past. Long before I started my Sihanoukville Journal, I gave blogging a stab on a dotWordPress site. I only made a couple of entries and soon forgot all about it. This blog about the fire that destroyed Phsar Leu was originally published on January 3, 2008. I may never have rediscovered these blogs if not for a happy accident this morning. After you’ve read this, please read the follow-up blog that shows how quickly the people of Sihanoukville responded to and recovered from this tragedy.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Last night we were awakened by Papa at 2am. “Phsah Leu mien pleung!” he told me in simple Cambodian I could understand: the local market was burning! We could see the orange glow easily from our new balcony at the back of the house. It was a sickening sight even for me, whose connection with it is more tenuous than it is for others. Everyone does their shopping at Phsar Leu. Its 1800 stalls have sold everything from meat, fish and produce to dry goods, clothing and jewellery for decades. Now it’s gone.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

As we watched the glow Sopheak called a couple of her friends who have stalls there. One, a vegetable dealer, just burst into tears and couldn’t speak. Another, the proprietor of a jewellery stall, managed a few distraught sentences before she too became overcome with tears. Later we heard that another acquaintance walked to work as usual this morning and simply fainted when she saw the devastation.psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Of course it was arson. The New Market is set to open in 2008 but has had trouble attracting stallholders. I’m not saying the owners are responsible for the fire. There are many other interested parties as well. They (whoever ‘they’ are) want to make the Phsah Leu site into the new bus station, while another ‘they’ want to build a multi-storey market shopping centre where the bus station currently stands. Any, all or none of them could be responsible. It’s pointless to speculate. I do know that the price of a stall in the New Market was $4000 a week ago. Today they’re asking $5500. I know this because we’ve been thinking about buying one. We’re not thinking about it any more.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Update 30 May 2013 – Psar Leu was rebuilt, the bus station was knocked down and replaced by shops and apartments and a new permanent bus station is yet to be completed. I’m not sure I was correct in my assumption that it was arson. The new market never really took off after Psar Leu was rebuilt and that led to speculation that Psar Leu was burned down just so they could rebuild it and not have a competitor. I was more of a sucker for rumours back then than I am now.

Water Festival Crowd Descends on Sihanoukville

The Water Festival was cancelled again this year and it seems like most of the crowd decided to come to Sihanoukville. A few nights ago, we went out to dinner at Lion 2, a huge Khmer restaurant on the edge of the Golden Lions traffic circle. It was packed. Last night was my night to choose, so we went to my favourite Italian restaurant, Café Mango on Serendipity Road. It was nearly full, too. According to Sophie’s little brother, who works at Holiday Resort/Casino, they are fully booked through New Year and were unable to find alternative accommodations for guests they had to turn away.

Café Mango, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Café Mango – uncharacteristically packed

As if I needed further proof, I found a news item from VOA of all sources. According to the article by Kong Sothanarith, Coastal Cities See Tourism Bump During Canceled Festival in Capital, “up to 40,000” more tourists are visiting Sihanoukville this Water Festival season. I have a feeling the writer just took a guess, but an additional 40,000 on top of the usual high season crowd makes for a very busy town that really isn’t ready for such a “bump” in tourism.

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We usually stay away from Ochheuteal Beach over Christmas and New Year, so I did a little online research to find out what happens after dark during the Silly Season. I stumbled across this delightful blog that made me feel like we were missing out on something. Learning to love Christmas in Sihanoukville, by “Adventurous Kate”, is about her (I think) 2011 Christmas celebrations in Sihanoukville and out on an island. Among other things, Kate has this to say about Sihanoukville:

What did I love most about Sihanoukville?  Lying on the beach with a book while getting a foot massage.  Dancing all night at JJ’s.  Most of all, meeting new friends.  In Sihanoukville, you meet friends more or less constantly, all day long.

I pinched the photo below from her blog, but if you’re a backpacker in SE Asia wondering what to do over Christmas and New Year 2012/2013, I urge you to go directly to her blog and read it. It’s quite a different story from those long out of date horror stories you read about this town.

Image borrowed from Adventurous Kate’s Solo Female Travel Blog. Click image to visit her blog.

Speaking of horror stories — unfortunately, my blog seems to have been discovered by some of those disgruntled expats who lurk around on forums complaining about everything. After having allowed them to have their say, I’ve decided to start deleting their posts unless they provide back-up proof of their allegations and refrain from trying to insult me or those who make more thoughtful comments. Note the word “trying”. Do you really think calling me an “idiot” gets your point across?

Anyway, I want to close on a cheerful note. Although I’m not likely to dress up in a costume and dance all night at JJ’s or any place else, I’m glad to see the backpackers enjoyed themselves in Sihanoukville last year and hope they have a great holiday this year.

A Sunny Day in Sihanoukville — and Monaco and Koh Rong

I was feeling a little sorry for myself last week. I’m sure the rain had something to do with it, but it didn’t help when I got an email from my son, who was on a business trip/holiday in Europe; including Monaco. When I was about 12, my ambition in life was to be James Bond and play baccarat in a Monaco casino with a “Bond girl” at my side. The closest I’ve gotten to it is this photograph. I’m not even quite sure it’s Monaco  — Justin tends to send a bunch of photos from different places all at once — but it’s nice.

This may be Monaco or it may be someplace else.

Monaco – maybe

Things got worse when Sopheak got to go to Koh Rong twice last week. A client of hers is leasing some land there and needed her to act as a go between with the land owner. For some reason, the sun was shining on Koh Rong even while it was raining in Sihanoukville. This is what Sophie was looking at while I was looking at the rain falling outside my office:

approaching koh rong by boat

Now that my James Bond fantasy days are over, my ambition is to live some place like Koh Rong. It can be on the mainland or it can be on an island. I don’t care, just as long as jungle covers a larger chunk of the landscape than civilisation. I’m too old and dumb to forage for my meals and get on a first-name basis with the wild animals as Sophie did when she was a girl, but if I can have a slice of paradise along with enough amenities to keep me alive, I’ll be content. This treehouse bungalow on Koh Rong would suit me fine:

koh rong treehouse bungalow

My next home a treehouse on Koh Rong?

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks a life on a tropical island sounds like an attractive proposition. Koh Rong is the latest Sihanoukville hot spot. Every travel shop in town advertises, “Koh Rong! Best Prices! Best Service!” and even though it’s the rainy season, the boat to the island, if not full, is never empty.

a walk on the beach at Koh Rong

Wouldn’t you rather be here?

Yesterday was the first sunny day in Sihanoukville of the week. A bike ride to Bad Panda and a bagel and cream cheese helped lift my spirits, but I still had one last assignment hanging over my head. I got that out of the way and then discovered that my latest post for Travelfish had just been published. It was only then that I realised just how lucky I am.

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A bit of a combination beach bum/workaholic, an excuse to combine work with an afternoon at the beach is perfect for me. It’s not every day the sun shines in Sihanoukville in the rainy season, so I popped my camera in my pocket, jumped on my bike, and headed for the beach. Which beach, I’m not going to reveal. You’ll have to wait and read my blog on Travelish.org to discover that.

 

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A Tale of Two Cities: Snookyville and Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville from the hills outside town

It’s not the best of times, but it’s not the worst of times, either. This is the Tale of Two Sihanoukvilles: Snookyville and Sihanoukville, as seen through one expat’s eyes.

Sihanoukville from the hills outside town

Is the sun starting to shine on Sihanoukville?

Snookyville

Sometime back in the 1990s, I think, some long forgotten backpacker or expat nicknamed Sihanoukville. “Snookyville”, or Snooky for short. The name stuck, and some backpackers still come here looking for the Snooky of yore. It’s still here, but it’s getting harder to find.

snooky beach bungalows

Snooky Beach bungalows, a remnant of the old Snookyville

Snooky is the funky beach town where you can do whatever you like. A couple of the hangouts in the old Snookyville were the Happy Hippy and Chiva’s Shack at the end of Ochheuteal Beach. After several incarnations in different locations, the Happy Hippy was finally shut down a couple of years ago. After a policeman was stabbed, or so the story goes, the original Chiva’s Shack disappeared.There’s a new one there, but it’s Chiva’s Shack in name only and is nothing like the old one.

There was nothing really happy about the Happy Hippy. When it briefly relocated to my neighbourhood in about 2008, all the locals whispered that it had kmout (bad spirits). Even I, dense Westerner that I am, got a bad vibe whenever I passed by the place.

Chiva’s Shack was no better. The first time I went there, a girl of about 12 asked me if I wanted to play pool with her. Before I sank the first ball, I left, because she was flirting with me. I sat back down, ordered a coke and wondered why the man with the long, long beard and balding long hair at a table nearby was so popular. I later learned it was because he sold the best drugs. Then there was the skinny barang woman. By skinny, I mean frighteningly anorexic. The day I saw her, she was dancing like a blissed out hippy at an acid party. Sometimes, though, she became seriously deranged, I was told. I think she’s dead now.

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The sexpats started showing up in force when Thailand made it harder for them to set up business in Pattaya. Telegraph Hill, once primarily a backpacker’s haven, got its first girlie bar and others soon followed. Their arrival finally drove some of the best restaurants and guesthouses away. The dream of turning the Hill into a mini-Pattaya is fading, though, or so I like to think. There’s a new mini-mart at the point of the triangle and the restaurant/guesthouse side has been paved, but the girlie bar road at the base of the triangle is as rutted and bumpy as ever and the bar girls outnumber men 10 to 1. Nothing’s really changed there since the first time I saw it in 2006.

Sihanoukville

Makara Bungalows, just around the corner from Snooky

Makara Bungalows, just around the corner from Snooky’s, but a world apart

Meanwhile, down at the other end of town, at Serendipity Beach, everything has changed dramatically. They finished paving the road down to the pier in January of 2012. The formerly rough dirt path is now a divided concrete road, complete with street lights. New businesses line the street and cater to a new kind of visitor to Sihanoukville. Some still call it Snooky, but it’s not really the Snooky of old. The younger ones like to party, but they rarely die of overdoses any more. Sometimes, but not every day. And since they took Viagra off the shelves at mini-marts, fewer older men are dying in the arms of prostitutes than before.

The newer, brighter Sihanoukville is seeing more flashpackers and middle-aged, middle class families than haunted eyed hippies and dirty old men. Just yesterday, I had an obscenely delicious donut at Bad Panda’s, but that was the closest thing to real obscenity I experienced. Next to me, a six year old deftly ate the topping off his donut first, as they do, while his parents drank coffee and ate their donuts bite-by-bite as adults do.

Serendipity Beach Resort, Sihanoukville

“No Prostitutes Allowed”

There are two big new Sihanoukville hotels on Serendipity Road. One is not quite finished, but when you walk into the lobby of the Serendipity Beach Hotel, a prominent sign at the marble reception desk tells you, “No prostitutes allowed.”

Snookyville takes over the Serendipity end of the new Ochheuteal Beach walking track after midnight, or so I’m told. The latest I’ve been there has been around 11pm, when one bar, I forget its name, was doing a roaring trade. There were lady boys and some Cambodian girls there, but they weren’t sitting on men’s laps and I didn’t see any who looked under about 19 or 20. The music was loud, but not deafening, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I heard a story about a bashing in that area last year, but upon further investigation learned it was at about 2am and the woman was bashed by a drunken barang she somehow pissed off. It’s no excuse, but it’s a step up from the past.

As for the paedophiles, I’m sure they still exist and the most famous of them all was granted a royal pardon and released about six months ago. That was a big black spot on Cambodia’s reputation, but the good news is that the publicity finally shamed him out of the country. When your net worth is something like $50 million, you can get away with stuff like that, but paedophiles are universally despised and finding it increasingly difficult to get away with their crimes. One popular guesthouse was shut down temporarily a few years ago for allowing men to take young girls into their rooms and some guesthouses bait them by letting them in and then immediately calling the police.

It’s not yet the best of times, but the times they are a changin’ for the better in Sihanoukville. I know the old guard will respond with stories of bribery and corruption, but many of those stories are increasingly old and/or unsubstantiated. Tell me, as I’m sure you will, that I see Sihanoukville through rose coloured glasses, but increasingly, my Sihanoukville looks the same whether I’m wearing them or not.