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Sihannoukville, Cambodia

March 21 – 26

It was about a 4 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Sihannoukville. I managed to take a few pics out the window, but was mostly sleeping unfortunately.

When we arrived in Sihannoukville, we were bombarded with motorbike and tuk tuk drivers fighting to transport us to a hotel (as the city is now quite firmly on the tourist map). There were three of us and after lots of negotiating, we each got whisked away on individual motorbikes. The plan was to all end up at the hotel we had decided on and worked out with our drivers. Mic’s driver and my driver both made it there. And when Dae didn’t show up right away, we started to worry. Eventually he did show – but was clearly pissed off. It turned out that his driver decided to take him to a different hotel and try to bully him into staying there instead.

We ended up staying at the GST Guesthouse, a huge structure built to accommodate as many tourists as possible. It wasn’t particularly special, but it would do for a few days. And it was just easier to stay there than argue with our pushy drivers who wanted to collect their commission and get back to the bus station to trap more tourists into staying there. Making up for its lack of coziness, the hotel offered mediocre meals and an (overpriced) Internet service. It also had a nice set of rules.

As far as orienting ourselves goes, we picked up this little guide from some store and it turned out to be pretty helpful.

I especially liked their map of the downtown area (particularly because in the bottom left corner it says: “This is not a map”). Um…what is it then?

In Sihanoukville, you aren’t allowed to pick flowers.

You also aren’t allowed to speak.

First we visited Ochheuteal and Serendipity Beaches. I thought they were kinda awful – overcrowded, filthy, and full of scantily clad tourists drinking cheap beer at one of the many waterfront bars and restaurants advertising “all day happy hour”. Beggars, amputees, and children selling bracelets meandered around the crowds.

The most fun I had at this beach was playing with the little kids who were either begging or selling stuff. These kids lead really troubled lives and it always made me sad to see some tourists push them off like they’re annoying pests. I saw one particularly awful man shove this small girl into the sand. Since she was bugging him during his dinner, he apparently didn’t feel the need to treat her like a human.

The problem about child beggars is that most of these little kids are being used by their parents or some other adult agent. This ringleader sends them out into the streets to beg for money, often beating or abusing them if they don’t bring any back. Sometimes the kids are injured before being sent out, as the more sickly and pathetic they look, the more money they’ll bring in. Here’s an article about this. And here’s an article about why you shouldn’t give money to child beggars. While I don’t think money should ever be given to children begging (as it never actually benefits those it was intended to help), and I don’t think begging behavior should ever be encouraged, I couldn’t help myself from giving away food. Many times, we gave our leftovers to the kids we met. And before scarfing down the food in between grateful “thank yous”, they would always glance around nervously to make sure they weren’t being watched by whoever was in charge of them. Poor guys.

Generally I found that a lot of these children were just happy to have attention. Most of them spoke really great English, in addition to bits of every other popular tourist language, and they were more needy for affection than anything else. Once they realized you weren’t going to give them money, they’d stop the sales pitches and go back to being kids again. While it was still obviously very sad to see all these helpless children being exploited, and being incapable of offering a long term solution to the situation, I felt that the best thing I could offer at the moment was simply my time (time spent drawing pictures, telling stories, playing thumb war, and doing whatever else to make them laugh). I’d like to think it made a small difference.

Anyway, we spent a good chunk of the day hanging out with a little boy who called himself “Mr. T”. He was trying to sell us a boat tour package, but in the end decided he could just be our friend instead.

This little girl came up to me to beg. She started off really aggressive – pulling at my arm and whining.

But after a few minutes of talking with her and asking her questions about her day, she stopped begging and sat down to play with us. Her mood changed and she giggled, ran around, and ate some of my curry.

She loved learning how to take pictures and then viewing them on the LCD screen.

At one point she stole my camera and ran around to take her own pictures. Then she brought it back. Here are some of the pictures she took.

In a country that survives largely on tourist dollars, children are brought up to believe that tourists are walking bags of money. They learn English at an early age so they can hopefully take advantage of this cash inflow. But this is obviously a very complex issue and its sickening to see how tourists – generally large flocks of teenage boys – contribute to this problem by being obnoxious, ignorant, and just generally insensitive to the residents of the countries they’re visiting. They may have good intentions, but obviously the money they’re throwing around so casually is not always benefiting a community. Instead it often inspires a predatory behavior that definitely doesn’t stop at childhood. Sihanoukville was full of beautiful teeenage Cambodian girls praying on “exotic” and “rich” foreign boys. As I was traveling with two boys at the moment, I got to witness this first hand. And the few nights we spent on this beach, there was always a flock of pretty Cambodian girls glancing over at our table. Every now and then one of the girls would stop by and ask if I was someone’s girlfriend. They seemed pleased knowing that I wasn’t, and I retired to the hotel early so as to let the girls do their thing. Of course the guys I was traveling with were gentlemen, so no crazy stuff ended up happening. But I’m sure many boys do take advantage.

Aside from that though, I just wasn’t feeling up for partying all night. Here’s an example of one of the sketchy bars the boys visited….and it just wasn’t really my scene. They did have some hilarious stories to share with me the next morning though.

After we’d had enough of the (ugly) beach, we walked around downtown – towards the (horribly misspelled) Independence Square.

I loved the red dirt roads that veered off from the main street.

And all the hand painted signs.

This was the “Economic Zone.” Not very booming apparently.

One surprising thing we found on our walk was this place.

I definitely didn’t expect to find vegan desserts in a place like this. I couldn’t resist and ordered the Vegan Love Sponge so I could eat it as we walked.

A few days in our crappy hotel on Serendipity Beach was all we really wanted. So we piled into a tuk tuk and took the bumpy dirt road over to Otres Beach, the least developed of all the Sihanoukville beaches.

Otres Beach was a very different scene entirely. Low key and quiet, relatively clean water, and with secluded shorelines actually worth photographing.

The deal with Otres Beach is that once you get there…you’re kinda stuck. There aren’t many bars or restaurants, and there’s absolutely no nightlife. Well I get the feeling that will change pretty soon with all the new development, but for now it’s calm and quiet (which was exactly what I wanted).

Luckily from the Sihanoukville guide we had picked up, we learned about the Solar Bar, a place with solar powered cabins, free camping, coop style dinner meals, and movies projected outside at night. This was my kind of place. Since we had tents, we opted for the free camping option. The Dutch guys who ran the place didn’t go out of their way to be friendly, but they were extremely easy going and accommodating (they made me a special veggie meal while everyone else got fish). Mot mostly they just seemed to want to do their own thing and not deal with anyone too much. If we wanted to stay there – cool. But they didn’t really care either way. It felt kinda like we walked up on someone’s house and were expected to tend to ourselves and not ask too much of them (which made sense – as we weren’t paying any money to camp there).

I was just excited to get to sit in a lawn chair and read my book undisturbed. Peace at last.

This picture is funny. I look pregnant and the dog looks dead.

Otres Beach was so mellow, we didn’t even encounter many other people while we were there. But we did see a lot of crabs and crab holes.

And we walked to the far end of the beach to go snorkeling.

One day, we hired a boat to take us out to a few of the neighboring islands. Unfortunately while we were busy looking at the fish, our driver and his friends were busy trying to hunt them with spears.

That could have been the reason why we actually didn’t see all that many fish. We saw lots of nice coral though.

And some other fun sea creatures.

I have no doubts that Otres Beach will be overly developed soon. While it was calm and peaceful when we were there, numerous construction projects were already underway …and more people have already started staking out their territory.

So far the guesthouses on Otres Beach are small and tasteful. I just hope it stays that way (especially now that foreign property ownership in Cambodia is likely to be a possibility soon). As it is, the corrupt Cambodian government makes a profit by seizing property from poor people (read NY Times article in this forum post). As we were leaving Otres Beach, we passed a community of shacks clustered along the road, and dozens of residents were huddled around one tiny TV. It made me wonder if they used to live closer to the beach before their waterfront property was seized and sold off to developers. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Anyway, our last day in Sihannoukville was Dae’s birthday. And since he wanted to celebrate, we figured we’d need to leave Otres Beach and go somewhere more lively. So we called our trusty tuk tuk driver to have him pick us up and take us to Victory Beach (the only other beach we hadn’t yet explored).

Victory beach had lots of budget guesthouses, pool halls, bars, casinos, and even a fancy nightclub that looked like an airplane hangar. The whole place had a very sketchy vibe to it and it didn’t hold our interest for very long. We played pool while a bunch of sleepy eyed Cambodian girls hovered around us….then I decided to call it a night. I wasn’t really up for getting a “healthy massage” at a place called “Ho Yes!”

Victory Hill did have a vegetarian restaurant though. And since Dae and Mic are such easy going guys, and saw how excited I was to try it, they went there with me (even though it was Dae’s birthday and he probably should have been the one to choose where we ate).

The next morning, I had to wake up at 6am to catch a bus all the way up to Siem Reap. And our trusty tuk tuk driver who transported us to the hotel the night before gave me a ride to the bus stand. Dae and Mic had a bit longer in Cambodia than I did, so they weren’t in as much of a hurry as me.  Unfortunately I had to move on if I wanted to have enough time to thoroughly explore Siem Reap. But I was happy to have been able to spend some time with good friends. We said our goodbyes and I was off on my own again.

Notes:

I really like this woman’s blog:

Cambodiacalling.blogspot.com

And I LOVE the bags she’s selling, which are made from recycled rice bags and assembled by disadvantaged Cambodians based in Phnom Penh. I actually bought a few while I was there, but didn’t end up finding her website until much later. Check it out:

BloomCambodia.com

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Rhianon Huot

     /  May 23, 2010

    Those bags do look really terrific.
    I’m a little surprised that Cambodian girl brought back your camera, I would have been worried.
    You’re near the water a lot with it, is it a waterproof camera?

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