Back to the beach
16.01.2009 - 28.01.2009 33 °C
We found travelling in Cambodia much easier than in The Philippines, due to the network.of dedicated tourist buses. In the Philippines our choices were to fly - which we did occasionally; travel by minibus - too expensive and the local or long distance coach and bus services - which we used as much as possible. Various bus companies operate throughout the many islands, with very little information available on-line, and if you want to travel a long distance you have to put a lot of faith into word of mouth. We always found it easier than we'd expected and it seems to work, in a very haphazard way. Most tourists travel by flying between the islands, so it is understandable that there is so little tourist infrastructure outside of this. Cambodia is very different. In all the guesthouses and hotels you can book a bus all the way from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, with a quick change of bus in Phnom Penh. There is even a choice of three buses, with varying degrees of luxury. In the Philippines we quite often shared a 2-person seat with other passengers; a mother and her very young baby, or an old woman and her very old fish products, but at least we were getting really up close and personal with the locals. In Cambodia, the luxury of our very own seat did not escape us. We have both developed the Asian habit of falling asleep the minute we sit down on public transport, a habit we noticed in abundance in Japan, so this does help the time fly by. Two coaches and 13 hours later, and minus Anna's book (the second she's left behind on a bus), we were pulling into Sihanoukville bus station. We again arrived at an unfamiliar destination at night and were at the mercy of the tuktuk drivers. This time there was no-one to hold them back and they soon swarmed like flies around us. We had half expected there to be touts trying to sell you hotel rooms, and it seemed quite ominous that there was not one offer of accommodation. We both stood in the car park conducting a lengthy discussion on what the plan was, with about 15 guys surrounding us waiting for us to come to the decision that we were going to have to hire one of them. We had a quick bartering session and settled on what was, of course, an extortionate price for a ride into town. A quick survey of a few hostels led us to believe that we would be spending the night on a bench somewhere. Eventually, we relented and let the driver take us to somewhere he knew was available, and cheap. This was a very reluctant move for us as we know they gain a commission for this, and we always feel we're being ripped off for the room. As it turns out, it was cheap and very clean, and so local that there were no signs at all in English. We could only hope there wasn't incredibly important information contained in the notice beside the door.
Sunset in Sihanoukville town
The guesthouse was a little away from the main area so our walk to and from the main drag was long and hot. This gave us a good opportunity to compare the styles and tenacity of the tuktuk drivers with those in The Philippines. The general style we had encountered previously was a tuktuk slowing as it passes you with a gentle muttering of 'tuktuk?', which meant conversation while walking any distance seemed to be punctuated with 'no, thank you' at regular intervals. In Cambodia they are much more persistent but still there is an air of joviality about the whole operation. There is also the added factor of two types of transport to choose from, tuktuks or motos (motorbikes), and there seems to be no common sense used when offering the latter. Two people can be carried on the back of a moto, or one person with a bag at a push, but when we were ladened down with bags, logic should dictate that both of us, including our bags, are not going to fit onto the back of an old 100cc old bike, but that doesn't deter the offer from being made. The drivers can spot a wandering tourist at 100m, and rather than wait for them to be close enough to talk to, they shout as loud as they can, we guess for fear of loosing a fare to someone else. This can lead to a guy shouting from across a four lane main road, with accompanying waving of their arms and jumping up and down. We are always polite for at the first three 'no, thank you's, after that we drop the 'thank you' and then if they continue we just ignore them. You simply cannot ignore them from the start, this results in the driver following you either on foot or on the offered vehicle, for the small chance that you didn't hear him but do need his services. There is also a very comical hand gesture that accompanies the offer of 'moto', which is both hands clasped around imaginary handles, twisting them in a revving motion.
The driving here is something else. Don't get us wrong, drivers in the Philippines had a very relaxed attitude to road safety and we saw some interested manoeuvres, but in Cambodia they are totally fearless. The first thing you notice in a busy town or city is the constant sounding of car horns. In the west a car horn, although more often used in anger, is designed to let other drivers know you're there. From what we've seen, this rule is taken very literally in Cambodia, drivers seem to beep every time they overtake another vehicle, bicycle or pedestrian who might be thinking about stepping into the road. There is very little regard for stop signs or traffic lights, quite often people just drive straight through, no one stops at any type of junction, everyone just carries on driving, beeping.of course, to let everyone know they're there. Pedestrians have to be on their toes, motorbikes quite often mount pavements and cruise along happily for a bit before rejoining the road. It seems the general rule in the Asian countries we have visited, that it is your responsibility to get out of the way of the vehicle, and you can't expect an on coming vehicle to slow down. Pedestrian crossings seem to be marked on the road, but these are dangerously misleading as we only saw cars and motorbikes stop once or twice. Road rage seems non-existent, perhaps because in South East Asia if you loose your cool you have lost a dispute and will look weak. motorbikes outnumber cars and bicycles easily. There seems to be an un-advertised competition to see who can fit the most or unusual thing on a motorbike. A whole family can easily fit on a bike, mum, dad and the kids. All the kids look as though they have been born on a bike, happily balanced in the most incomprehensibly precarious fashion.
Back to Sihanoukville.... the most popular beach town in Cambodia, which is exactly the reason we headed there. After a few days of experiencing culture to the max, we decided to take a break and head for the beach. We had been recommended a few places to stay by a couple of different people, but we found these were just too popular for our liking and didn't have the laid back chilled atmosphere we were looking for. In fact the whole area was not what we were expecting and our first night we were a little down hearted. There are several beaches in town, and the most appealing from the guide book descriptions was Occheuteal Beach, but even this was over run with tourists and British gap yearers. And of course, the sex tourists - something we hoped we would see less of than in The Philippines, but here they were surrounded by giggling young girls. We had intended to find a better guesthouse near this beach, but our our hearts weren't in it due to our distaste for the surroundings, so we headed over to Otres Beach to see if we would have better luck there. The beach was immediately more what we has hoped the whole town to be like - a long white beach stretched before us, with about twenty guesthouses strung out along it and plenty of space between each property, and best of all, there seemed to be hardly anyone around. The water was quite choppy, which actually made it all the more beautiful, with the sun glistening off the breaks on the waves. A variety of islands sat on the horizon, offering a very picturesque view.
View at Otres Beach
After a little cruise around we were drawn by a bar with 'crazy people welcome' scrawled across the front. 'No Name bar' was manned by the French owner, who when we asked his name, answered 'Pierre - but of course'. We immediately felt at home in this sparse bar, and were soon introduced to his close friend, Blaise, their families and some of the residents, OD and Mathias, a couple friendly young guys from Finland. The two pool tables, the laid back surroundings and total lack of pervy old guys added to the flavour of the bar. Reluctantly we pressed on with our search for accommodation and found a room for $5 a night, which could be described as a charmingly rustic beach hut with own entrance and en suite bathroom, but was actually a room with a bare concrete floor, a window so small that the open door allowed more light in, and the en suite bathroom was a non-flushing toilet bowl, a shower head and a tap, but no sink to clean our teeth over. Nonetheless, it was right on the beach and we didn't really spend any time in there. We returned to Pierre's and were informed of the house rules - by his own admission, he's too lazy to actually serve any customers and if you want a drink you serve yourself and mark it down on your tally sheet. He doesn't seem overly fussed about turning a profit - he told us that the bar was his hobby, and he owned "real businesses" located elsewhere. We soon came to realise that on our first encounter, we had managed to catch Pierre in the most amenable mood of the whole time we spent with him, which accounted for him actually getting us a drink. As he had only just got out of bed he hadn't had time to get drunk or stoned yet. His favourite drink was 'Pastis' a French aniseed spirit very similar to Ouzo.
Pierre lining up the Pastis
We had only been on the beach for a couple of days when the second injury of the trip occurred. Brads first stepped on an unidentified spiky thing whilst we were swimming in the sea, causing a mild limp. This was shortly followed by him cutting the bottom of his other foot quite badly, by a very much identified bit of rock on the beach. This led to all sorts of concerns about infection due to the lack of hygienic conditions we were living in, and the amount of sand that kept getting into the wound. All our plans for exploring the neighbouring National Park, went out the window, and we settled down for a week of chilling, playing pool and getting drunk. Luckily we had a good place to hang out, and enjoyed the company of the people in the bar, not to mention the pool tables and cold beers. The only other activity was sunbathing, which we are becoming experts at now. One drunken night Blaise invited us on a fishing trip the following day, which was meant to start at midday, but the boat didn't leave until at least 3pm, due to the aforementioned laid back attitude. It was pretty cool, and although we didn't catch anything, it was refreshing to be out on a boat without paying over the odds for the privilege, and in fact paying only for drinks.
Blaise and Pierre
When Brads foot had heeled substantially, and we started to get bored of the sight of our room, we made a move to Phnom Penh. We were pretty sad to go and kept constructing scenarios where we had to stay there forever, lying watching the waves break on the sand. This was the first place that we had seriously considered spending any real time in - the idea of owning a guesthouse here is very attractive, so much so that we lay on the beach doing the maths of how little work we would have to do to survive. The conclusion we reached is that we would only be able to do it for a couple of years. It seems way too detached from reality and real life would always be beckoning.
This week we have mostly been eating......
Vegetables, wonderful vegetables! The food in The Philippines is severely lacking in a decent amount of vegetables. When you order Chicken and rice, you pretty much get that, no real subsistence. The first Cambodian dish we ate was in Siem Reap, in a popular restaurant called The Khmer Kitchen. We ordered a celebrated national dish each, Khmer Curry and Amok. Both served in a hollowed out coconut, big lumps of tender chicken with big soft chunks of carrots, greens and even potatoes. We found a stretch of food stalls set up in the street, with plates of noodles and loads of vegetables for $1, tasty and a bargain. In Sihanoukville, the food was more expensive, but similarly delicious. The street food stalls could be found everywhere, the food is much better value than in restaurants.
Lovely Khmer Curry