Unlike the previous morning we awoke to clear blue skies. Given that were taking a boat out to some of the islands that percolate the coast around Sihanoukville this was more than a little fortuitous. Riding down from our hill top accommodation, Tola, our driver and also the manager of the hotel confirms one of our curious questions since we had first arrived in Cambodia.
SUVs line the streets of Phnom Penh - A typical sight
Particularly in Phnom Penh but prevalent throughout the major cities of the country we keep seeing large and expensive 4WDs. Lexus is the most ‘common’ but we also see plenty of Ranger Rover, large Toyotas and even the odd Hummer. With a minimum 125% import tax on these vehicles a Lexus will cost over $150k USD, whilst a Range Rover $300k USD. Given these extraordinary sums and the poverty of the country these vehicles would be absurd to contemplate for the majority of the population. Cars such as these are reserved for a few very wealthy businessmen and government officials. Bribes and ‘under the table’ dealings pay for these vehicles. The conspicuous show of how many bribes are received is somewhat curious but appears to be simply accepted. Tola tells of a local businessman who recently purchased a new status symbol. A Rolls-Royce. The price, after import tax, was just over $1m USD. The perfect vehicle for the muddy, potholed streets of Cambodia you might think!
Incongruous Snake Bridge
With time to spare before our boats departure we could also visit Techo Morakot Bridge, known locally as ‘snake bridge’ as it connects the mainland with Snake Island (Koh Puos) in the Sihanouk Bay. Opened in July 2011, at a cost of $417m USD, the 900 meter bridge has been developed to connect to a 500,000 sqm resort. However, with the bridge closed less than a month after it opened, apparently due to a problem with the dampers which were allowing the road to buckle, and work not started on the resort itself this appeared as somewhat of a brave investment for someone! From a marketing perspective I would have also suggested a name change for the island. Not the ideal address to have in what I am sure will be an extremely expensive development.
Our home for the day - MV Sun
Returning to the docks our three storey cruise boat - MV Sun - was now ready to depart. Replete with comfortable lounge chairs, a bar and sundeck this would be a little different to the speedboat tour we taken around Ko Phi Phi recently.
Ready for an adventure
This being the low season the passengers on board numbered no more than fifteen but what an eclectic bunch they were. Out of season the Cambodian coastline does not appear to attract many families or groups of Chinese tourists, as we had seen in Thailand. If Agatha Christine were writing today our passenger manifest might resemble a modern updating of her Death on the Nile. Not that we were spending the day with well dressed, important or sophisticated travelers. What we had was a group of people, all very different but easily described. Caricatures one might say. We had the lone mid forties French man who said nothing but watched and listened to everyone. The constantly talking girl from Somerset who had worked two jobs, seven days a week for two years to save up for her six months of travelling. The curiously thrown together group of twenty something lads with French, Cambodian and English backgrounds who liked nothing more than throwing themselves from the top of the ship whenever we were at anchor. The Cambodian family who spoke French and were clearly having a great adventure and of course the two Australian girls who appeared very good friends, replete with their loud, obvious but not very well executed tattoos. Perhaps their manner was best summarized by one of the girls two dagger tattoos on the back of each thigh. Intertwined in one the words ‘Love’ and ‘Will’ and the other ‘Tear us’ and ‘Apart’. Hmmm!
Relaxing at the bar on board MV Sun
Not that any of our passengers were particularly unpleasant or annoying. We simply had a very eclectic group of people for a snorkeling and island exploring cruise. Yet, as the day progressed we socialized amiably. Snorkeling off one island in relatively murky waters, not unsurprising given the recent volumes of rain, we could still observe an abundance of brightly colored parrotfish, wrasse and the odd nudibranch. With the space available on board a buffet lunch was served en route to the tropical island of Ko Rung. A picture perfect island almost undeveloped. With only a few sporadic fishing huts to break the view of golden sand, turquoise beach with thick, green jungle crashing down to meet them our anchorage was quite idyllic.
Leading an expedition inland, one of the crew, navigated us along a cold, brown freshwater river. With many too scared to place their feet in the brown uninviting waters they were never to learn that it was simply rotting leaves and the sap of the Ti-tree causing the discoloration. With the group voicing irrational concerns about snakes, crocodiles and all manner of terror inducing creatures it was somewhat amusing to watch the group, particularly the previously boisterous boys, quietly return to the ‘safety’ of the beach. For Trey, myself and a small group we had a fascinating river walk along the mangrove swamps, reminiscent of the Black River in Guyana.
Our island paradise
Returning to the beach an even smaller group wanted to venture barefoot into the jungle. Yet a few of us where quite happy to walk inland in search of interesting flora and fauna. Whilst the jungle was not to provide much of interest it did provide the opportunity to speak with the two Cambodians leading our walk. Both in their mid-twenties they were still very much aware of the horrors perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge, before they were born. One had lost eighteen members of his father’s family, the other twenty. Executed for some imagined crime or misdemeanor. The younger of the two was the result of a forced marriage. As pro-natalists intent on increasing the Cambodian population to 20 million within 10-15 years forced, arbitrary marriages were government policy. Some 250,000 women were married this way between 1975 and 1979. Groups of up to thirty men and women were forcibly married, at the same time. Women who refused to live with her new husband would risk ‘certain death’. It was thought that only a handful of these forced marriages remained intact after 1979 yet our guide through the forest had parents, still married today, who was the result of this shocking policy.
Returning to the beach the rest of the group were now relaxing with a cold beer. In need of a swim Trey and I headed back to the boat. On board, for a few minutes, piece and calm descended until the small Zodiac returned with the rest of our passengers from the beach. A gentle two hour cruise would see us returned to the mainland, fortuitously outrunning the monsoon storm clouds that now appeared on the horizon.
Returning to Serendipity Beach as night fell (this close to the equator there is no time for dusk) the beach was lit with candles housed in old plastic bottles. Ordering food and a few cold drinks a variety of hawkers and beggars continuously interrupted our supper. At the end of our meal small children once again appeared to beg for the remaining food on our plate. With reservations we let them take it. Whilst neither of us would deny them food reinforcing their preexisting views that food can be taken from tourists simply by begging from them is hardly helpful. In a small way a couple of paintings purchased earlier in the evening, from a charity that aims to keep children in school and not working on the beaches by selling paintings that they have drawn, might, hopefully, have been helpful.
Relaxing on the beach
Sunset on Serendipity beach
Whilst decidedly overgrown with bars and their associated paraphernalia the various beaches around Sihanoukville offer varying levels of tranquility. In the high season we could imagine the beach we had chosen being completely full of eager tourists. Yet, at this time of year it remained relatively pleasant. Fishing boats still lay at anchor in the bay, neon signs were minimal and only a few high-rise hotels could be seen. However, judging from construction levels this will likely change in the not too distant future. At some point someone high up in Government will desire a new Lexus (or maybe a fleet of them) and will have the bamboo huts that line the beach today cleared for a vast, soulless resort. That being the case visit soon. This is one part of them Gulf of Thailand where it is still possible to leave the maddening crowd far behind.
An excellent Anchor beer
Night falls on the beach