Oh I am being a Negative Nelly aren’t I? But I guess that got your attention! Well there’s no point beating around the bush, Sihanoukville wasn’t my favourite place. It’s the most popular (in fact, the only!) beach resort town in Cambodia, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
I can’t believe I was bored in Kampot!!! Retrospectively, Kampot was amazing. That’s the thing about travel, your perspective on things is constantly changing. And maybe my perspective will change on Sihanoukville too, but for now, it’s on top of my ‘Least Favourite Places in Cambodia’ list.
Maybe I should have called this post ‘Uncomfortable and Guilty in Sihanoukville’, because that’s how I felt the whole time I was there. The thing that has struck me about Cambodia is the warm, friendly people. Not so much in Sihanoukville. Hoards of tourists from all over the globe thirsty for beer and sun flock to Sihanoukville’s white sandy shores, and partake in her offerings of cheap grog, warm sun, white beaches and some other things that I really don’t have the time (or the words) to go into on this blog.
Sound like fun? If it does, good on you, whatever floats your boat. Sihanoukville is a great party place. But it’s not really what I’m after.
I’m also not partial to being hassled on the beach. Boat trips (overpriced), massages, manicures, bracelets, sunglasses, and uncomfortable conversations that go a little something like this:
“Madame, I take off hair for you,”
“What hair?” (offended) “I just shaved!” (adamant)
“No, many many hair, I can take out for you, let me show you one for free, I take out with thread, no pain, you see,” (rolls the thread over my leg, locates a hair or two, ‘removes’ it).
“Ow! Ow! That does hurt, no thank you,” (smiling through clenched teeth, not wanting to offend but feeling rather violated)
“Well I give manicure, very dry skin. I remove.”
And so on, and so on, and so on, untill I remove myself from the beach and go and read in my room, my self-esteem somewhat deflated.
I understand these women have to make a living. And this is their living. But I really didn’t come to the beach for hair removal, I just wanted to read my f#%^* book.
Perhaps I’m insensitive. But Sihanoukville just gave me the heebee-jeebees. If I wasn’t getting poked and prodded on the beach, I was getting harangued on the street:
“Tuk tuk? Motorbike? Where you go tomorrow?”
I’ve been to other places where this is the norm, Bali and India included, and I’m not sure why my tolerance was so low, but I just found the place so frustratingly busy and annoying, like I had to be on my guard every minute, fending off touts at every turn.
Again I get it. It’s their living. But their desperation for the tourist dollar was in such stark contrast to the other places we have visited in Cambodia thus far. People didn’t seem very happy in Sihanoukville, neither the tourists nor the locals.
The warm smiling faces we had become accustomed to were noticeably lacking. In fact, it didn’t fee like the Cambodia we had come to know at all.
That wraps up the uncomfortable part.
Now for the guilty part.
The beggars in Sihanoukville were prolific. Amputees, disfigured people being wheeled along the beach on a hospital bed, a blind man who sings as his young daughter leads him around the beach-front tables during dinner.
And the thing is, I hate saying no. Despite my rationalizations about the fact that I support a Cambodian NGO that helps young children become educated and hence liberated from the vicious cycle of poverty, and do not want to encourage people to beg for a living, it kills me a little bit to say no to someone who is clearly disadvantaged, in a country where even an advantage doesn’t guarantee much.
And it wasn’t just the beggars.
The guest house we stayed at had a restaurant attached. It was the most officious eating establishment I have ever come across. The young male and female staff wore crisp blue shirts, and completed their ensembles with earpieces and walkie-talkies that they barked orders into, making them seem more CIA than FAB (Food and Beverage).
Plus they were really sweet. Even if they did stare at us while we ate.
On my last night, I went down to the restaurant to pick up my laundry. A young guy working in the restaurant made a comment about my necklace. A diamond may not be your idea of back-packing attire, but Tyrhone gave it to me and I rarely take it off.
His obvious infatuation with it made me feel a little self-conscious, and made very obvious the fact that he and I are not from the same world. I mean, it’s obvious our lives are very different. He is from a developing country battling to recover from war, genocide and political upheaval. I am from a developed, peaceful country. Yeah, I reckon we’d have our differences.
Another staff member began conversation, throwing out the usual questions like “where you from?” and “how long you stay in Cambodia?” before asking me when I return to ‘my country’.
“You have long holiday? One month, or two months? You have very happy time.”
“Yes, one or two months,” I lied. I lied.
Oh no, I don’t have to work right now, I’m just travelling the world indefinitely… I just couldn’t bring myself.
You might think I’m silly, or hyper-sensitive or self-obsessed and you’d be right. I’m all of those things. Perhaps I’m too sensitive to the disparity between myself and other people on this planet.
Perhaps I find it uncomfortable. Perhaps (okay, I’ll stop saying perhaps!) I feel guilty that whilst I’m flouncing around the planet writing a blog for fun and following my bliss, people are struggling to make a living, and if they are, it’s just barely. My life would be inconceivable to them.
I have left behind all the things they are struggling to attain – a job, a house, a prosperous country.
How can I explain the reasons why that wasn’t enough for me?
I changed the subject.
“So how long you work here?” Yes, I even adjusted my speech.
“You work long shifts don’t you?”
“Yes, thirteen hours, every day. Very hard work. No, not hard work, long work. I not have happy time like you.”
And that was the truth. He is not having a happy time like me. I am very blessed, living very fortunate life. If nothing else, when I’m feeling frustrated or upset, maybe I’ll remember his words and remember that I’m having a very happy time indeed.
Sihanoukville may have not been my cup of tea, but no experience is ever wasted when travelling. At least I know what I don’t want. I may not know exactly what I want to experience, except to continue to grow and learn and become the person I am destined to be. It sure is turning to out to be an interesting journey, even if I do feel uncomfortable at times.
Just because I didn’t love Sihanoukville doesn’t mean we didn’t have a good time there. We swam in the cool, clear water, we drove scooters along the coast and sipped sugar cane juice on the waterfront. There were plenty of ‘excursions’ on offer, but their ‘package deal’ style of tourism scared us off, and we didn’t partake in any.
As soon as the bus pulled out of the city, a magnificent landscape presented itself. Small villages, buffalo grazing in fields and before long, the spectacular Cardamom Mountain Range emerged, covered in dense jungle. We arrived in Krong Koh Kong, near the Thai border about four hours later.
It’s a dusty city with not much character to speak of, but it’s surrounding natural beauty is what we came for.
Today we rented motorbikes and drove to Tatai waterfall. We swum in fresh, clear watering holes created by shelves of rock, the water cascading through about four levels before joining the river. It was wonderful. Oh, except when I fell off the back of the moto as we were leaving. The trail leading from the waterfall was quite uneven, and at one point the bike tipped backwards under our weight as we were going uphill.
The funny thing was, seconds before, I said to Tyrhone, “If anything happens, I’ll just hold onto the bike.” I was worried about unbalancing us.
Well, I held onto the bike alright! As Tyrhone tried to manoeuver the bike over a mound in the trail, the front wheel lifted, and I hit the dirt with a thud. The turn around time from tears to laughter was about ten seconds, so that’s a good indication of the seriousness of the incident.
Tomorrow we are off on a two-day jungle trek, with a night at a homestay tomorrow night. We have met some lovely people at our guest house, and will be trekking with a great group of people. Greece, Argentina, France, Holland, South Africa (Tyrhone) and Australia (Marty and I) will be represented, along with our Cambodian guide.
I think it will be a very happy time indeed.