Sihanoukville - beach time
Jan 12, 2012
|I am now back in Phnom Penh, but this entry is about Sihanoukville and my three days at the beach.
Last Sunday morning I took a bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. They never give you an arrival time as it takes anywhere from 5 to 6 hours, depending on traffic. There are no multi-lane highways in Cambodia, just two-lane roads, which are paved thanks mostly to foreign aid. It's like travelling 230 kms along a small country road. It takes the same time as Toronto-Montreal for half the distance.
I wanted to escape busy Phnom Penh and its crazy traffic for a few days at the beach, but the bottom line is that I was disappointed by Sihanoukville. It's nothing like the blissful beaches of southern Thailand. The sand and sea are nice (fine and warm respectively) but the atmosphere and the build-up are not the most relaxing (at least for me).
I stayed at a nice guesthouse near one of the main beaches (Serendipity) for $15/night. I had a fan and a screened window that I could leave open, but no air conditioning. The shower was the usual type I've had so far on my trip, with a shower head mounted on the wall but no shower stall so you wash the floor as you take a shower (see pic). I was feeling hot most of the time as restaurants were open to the outside so had no air conditioning, so basically no A/C whatsoever in 3 days/4 nights. Fortunately it was usually overcast in the afternoons, so it was bearable. It makes a big difference as the temperature is perhaps only 28C but the tropical sun is burning hot.
During my time here I visited three beache and had a massage. I think the massage was the best part: 45 mins of back/shoulder/neck massage for $6!!!
The atmosphere at Serendipity could be described as shabby-hippie. For 2 kms it's lined up with tightly packed shacks (beach huts) acting as restaurants, cafes, shops, and massage booths. In front of those is a cobbled path, then a layer of tightly packed beach chairs and umbrellas belonging to the respective shacks, then a thin layer of empty beach, then the warmish green water. I walked the whole length of it on Monday but didn't swim because I had a little tummy problem. Could have been the malaria pills I started taking. A large part of the clientele on this beach seems to be old overweight white men. Then there are the gay Russians. Actually I'm not completely sure whether they're gay or even Russian, but that's the best description I can come up with! Of course there are the hippies walking barefeet everywhere and sporting tattoos on half their body. And some "normal" people, mostly couples of all ages.
On Tuesday I had decided to go to the Sokha Hotel, a luxury hotel where for $7 I was told you could use the pool and private beach in peace, without the constant disturbance of the massage ladies, fruits sellers, sunglasses sellers, etc. However once I got there, they said that non-guests couldn't use the facilities because it was high-season, although there was barely anybody around! I was quite pissed off because I had gotten that info from 3 different sources, and now my tuk-tuk had just left and I had no way to get back to town (except walk quite a distance)! Fortunately, they pointed me to a small stretch of public beach at the end of their property where I could use a beach chair for $2.50, and this proved to be the quietest time of my sojourn here.
There were a number of things not working quite right: the electricity cut off intermittently (and with it the hot water), the water pressure in the toilet was very low (and you couldn't flush toilet paper), and there was a discotheque blasting loud music all night right behind my hotel! Thank God for earplugs. On my last night they added a loud moronic DJ, and I had to close the window completely and crank up the fan to the max to drown him! And of course there were the firecrackers, that started at sunset and continued intermittently until about 11 pm. I swear this place was louder then Phnom Penh at night!
On the third day, after my massage, I went to Otres beach, reputed to be one of the quieter beaches in the area. Well, it looked like a less developped version of Serendipity: less shacks, with spaces between them, but I think it's just a matter of time before it becomes another Serendipity. Unless the bulldozers get to them first. Apparently most of these shacks have no lease, and developpers are slowly moving in to build luxury resorts.
On this topic, one impression I had, which was re-enforced during my tuk-tuk trip to Otres, is the fact that these little beach "villages" feel like they were quickly put together to cater to the needs of the growing number of tourists, and feel rather artificial when you realize that a few kms away people live in wooden boxes (very very poor) and skinny white cows feed on the garbage (which people throw litterally everywhere). Even in the more developped areas, the sidewalks are broken and it looks rather shabby, despite all the new construction. In addition, there is no real Cambodian culture here. The only locals you see work for tourist businesses, or try to earn a living selling stuff on the beach.
Despite all this, there can be brilliant moments, like having an ultra cheap Angkor beer (local brand) for 50 cents during Happy Hour and chatting with some fellow travellers. And I didn't miss PP's traffic one bit!
There was a funny moment yesterday morning when I got picked up by the mini-van taking me to the bus stop in the main town. Bus companies offer this service for free to their customers, despite the already ridiculously cheap bus ticket price: $5 to cover 230 kms!! Anyway, the mini-van has seats for 11 passengers plus the driver. We were at full capacity and on our way to town, when the driver got a call and turned the van around to pick up two more (large) passengers. Hummm, we all wondered, where are they going to fit? Well, this being Asia, passengers were re-arranged so that a large tourist was forced to half sit on his friend's lap (and his bag was thrown on top of him to his obvious protests), a little kid climbed on his mother's knee, and presto, two more spaces were created! Amazing.