Cambodia 010 – Kampot, Veal Renh, Sihanoukville
February 22, Thursday, 2007 7:41 a.m. Kampot, Cambodia
Apparently, someone very important died in Kampot recently. There has been a funeral ceremony going on up the street ever since I arrived. The Internet café is right across the street from the ceremony and the noise has been deafening.
I’m feeling much, much, much, better than yesterday, but that’s because I simply haven’t eaten. If you don’t add any fuel, the fire goes out I guess. The last food I had was dinner in Kep more than 36 hours ago. I’m not going to risk breakfast or lunch today either. I have gotten some food energy in the form of sugar, though – I’ve been drinking Cokes and Sprites at the Internet café.
I’m not at the Internet café now, but typing in the rooftop restaurant of my guest house, the Molieden. I don’t know what that word means. The guest house is an odd sort of place, though I don’t know why I say that. It’s just an overall impression. The individual parts are just fine and there’s nothing at all to complain about.
I left from Kep around 8 or 8:30 in the morning. I keep trying to get into an earlier rhythm so that I can leave at 6:30 or 7:00, but so far I haven’t managed it. I’m sleeping really well and I just haven’t felt that urge to leap out of bed as soon as I can. Of course, I also knew that I didn’t have much ground to cover, so there was no need to leave early.
My bags were already packed and sitting by the door. All I had to do was shower and then load up the bike. I’d taken some time in the afternoon to give the bike a simple cleaning. I also oiled some parts. I put the bike on its side and poured oil into the crank bearings. I have no idea whether you are supposed to do that. My bike in Canada has sealed bearings so it wouldn’t have done anything. I’m not sure about this bike. Perhaps the bearings aren’t sealed and the crunching and squeaking is a result of dust and dirt getting in. I just didn’t want to put up with any squeaking while I cycled. There’s nothing more annoying than that.
I still haven’t gotten the hang of putting the bags on the bike. They’re very awkward beasts. Did I mention that I hate them?
My last day in Kep was a very pleasant one. I simply rode up and down the coast road and took pictures. I still haven’t been taking pictures of people. I don’t know why. I think it’s because the ice hasn’t been broken there. But it’s also because the Cambodians are so nice. I think no one would say anything about it and just assume that you can do anything you want. It wouldn’t occur to them to say no. So I don’t want to take advantage of them. But it’s also because they aren’t exotic looking people, I suppose. They simply look like ordinary people. And for the most part they are simply doing ordinary things. A good photographer could still take interesting pictures, but those images aren’t the first things that jump out at me here. By far, the most interesting thing about Cambodia for me is the French colonial heritage. The buildings they left behind are very beautiful and interesting, especially now that they are old and falling apart. I’m also fascinated by the traditional Cambodian houses. I think I’ve taken a hundred pictures of those houses. I probably only needed to take one. But I keep seeing great little houses in interesting settings and I take picture after picture. I can’t remember if I saw similar houses in Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand. I must have. I don’t think a housing style like that could be unique to just Cambodia. They’re on stilts because of the annual flooding and I imagine the houses in the Mekong delta in Vietnam would be built along similar lines.
As I rode along the coast road in Kep, I turned down little side roads that went to the ocean’s edge. Along these roads were lots of little squatter settlements. I assume they were squatter settlements because the houses were made of thatch and little else. A guide would really help in understanding what I see around me. I look at those little huts and I assume that people live in them and that those people are poor, but there’s no way I can know for sure. I’m just guessing. And I’m hesitant about approaching people and simply asking them. It would feel intrusive and somewhat voyeuristic, like poverty tourism. Yet, I suppose it is poverty tourism. I took pictures of these houses and the lifestyle they represented, not because they were beautiful, but because of the poverty they represented. That’s what made them interesting.
I also rode my bike out on the boat docks that I saw. The main dock is right across from Rabbit Island. A boy was sitting in a boat and he offered to take me across. Well, everyone offered to take me across. I think that’s why I didn’t go to Rabbit Island in the end. Everyone wanted to take me there. It is the thing that foreigners do in Kep.
There were also lots of the old colonial houses along the coast road. It must have been very beautiful when it was all new. I’d love to see pictures of that region from back then. These houses are just concrete shells now. Most of them were simply empty and abandoned, but a few of them had Cambodian families living in them. They weren’t true houses for them, just shelters. I wondered how these people ended up in these houses. Were they connected to them in some way? Or could anyway just lay down a mat and occupy one of these shells? I wasn’t surprised that many were not occupied. What would be the advantage of living in a concrete shell? I think the thatch huts I saw were much more comfortable. Of course, one would have to spend some time in them to know for sure.
That morning, I’d purchased a set of 10 postcards and I hung out at the Led Zep for a while writing to a few people at LiveABC and then to my dad, and Rick, and Rod. The manager of the Verandah told me that there was a post office across from the mermaid in Kep. I eventually found the post office, but it was much further away by the boat dock and was closed for Chinese New Year anyway. When I rode into Kampot, I cycled around the streets to get my bearings and to my delight, I came across the Kampot post office and it was open. At least it was as open as it ever gets. That was a great experience. I walked inside and the front room was simply a long counter with no one there. A little boy dashed in from outside and ran to a back room shouting something. A minute later a tiny little lady came bustling out. She was all business and very excited. I got the impression that she prepared all year for the one customer she got and this was it. This was show time! She rummaged around in a big drawer and pulled out a satchel. She pulled some papers out of the satchel and spread them around the desk and then turned to me with an expectant smile. The post office was now open for business. I gave her the postcards and indicated that three were for Taiwan and three for Canada. I assumed she would give me the stamps and I’d have to put them on, but this was a full-service post office. She sorted the post cards, got out the stamps – two for each card – and then started to lick them and apply them with great energy. She slammed her little fist on each stamp after applying it. Then she put all the cards in a pile and slammed the pile a few times. It was quite the performance. Postage was relatively expensive for Cambodia – 3,000 riel or 75 cents US for each postcard. The grand total was 18,000 riel, which is 3 days wages for a normal worker here.
I passed an uneventful night at the N4 Guest House in Kep. I worked on the bike, then read for a while and then had my dinner of pepper steak up at the Verandah. My German neighbor, the Editor, was gone. He had gone to Rabbit Island. All the cyclists were gone as well. They had also gone to Rabbit Island. That made me glad I hadn’t gone there. I think it would have been very crowded right at that time.
To get from Kep to Kampot, I first had to cycle along the little loop of road that went along the coast. It was a beautiful ride, marred only by the nagging stomach cramps. Luckily, whenever the cramps forced me to stop cycling and bend over for a minute or two, there was also a nice traditional house right there and I’d snap a picture. Cramp tourism.
The intersection with the main road was a bustling little place. I would have stopped and taken some pictures, but I wasn’t in the mood to dawdle. This intersection also had the most horrific statue I had ever seen. It was of a big white horse. Words can’t describe how silly it was. A prancing goofy animal. I wish I had taken a picture, but I didn’t want to stop, and I kept cycling.
The road felt a bit different. There didn’t seem to be as many children about shouting “hello.” The reason for that became apparent when I passed some schools and I heard some classes chanting in unison. I could only assume that for elementary school students, classes had resumed after the Chinese New Year holidays. So there were less children hanging out at home. The scenery also started to change a little bit. Right at the side of the road it was the same, but in the distance where I assume Kampot lay, some mountain ranges appeared. This part of Cambodia is mountainous and I looked forward to seeing some different terrain.
I got to Kampot without a moment to spare (as far as stomach troubles are concerned) and I rode around the streets for a while casing the joint and trying to pick out a guest house. I was a bit disoriented for a while until I stumbled on the river. I guess it isn’t really a river, but a channel between the mainland and big area of connected islands right off the coast. But it looks like a river and I think most people think of it as a river.
I cycled along the river and saw plenty of very nice guest houses. I picked one at random and found out to my surprise that they wanted $36 a night. A foreigner who worked there spoke to me and asked about my budget. I said that I was looking for a place from $10 a night and down. $10 is still above-average for a standard guest house. He suggested a place called the Little Garden that was also along the river. I went there, but they were full. I decided then to quit fooling around and just find a place. If I didn’t, there would be trouble. While cycling, I had made note of an interesting place called Molieden right on Street 7 not far from the bridge across the river. Molieden was not right on the river, but it was close enough. It looked promising in that it looked new and it was three stories high and had some kind of outdoor seating on the roof and had balconies going all the way around. I rode there and a young man lounging at the front said they had rooms available. He brought me up three flights of stairs to the roof where they had a restaurant. He showed me a large double room right on the roof for $7 a night. Singles were $6, but I didn’t need to see another room. This one was perfect. I like having two beds anyway so I can dump all my gear on one bed and spread it out. This room opened onto a balcony overlooking the street with nice view to the left of the bridge and the river. A big window at the back of the room looked out over a vacant lot and then a cluster of old buildings. The ceilings were high and the bathroom was fine. I was very happy to find the place and moved in. I spent some, ahem, time in the bathroom, and then later went out on my bike to explore the town a little bit. Everything about Kampot appeals to me. The streets are very atmospheric with lots of old French buildings. The riverfront is scenic and there promises to be lots of great village-type areas along the river in both directions and then across the bridge in all the islands. Actually, I’m not entirely sure what are islands and what is land and how it all goes together. I plan today to cycle across the bridge and see what I can find over there. Yesterday, I simply rode along the river to the east snapping pictures of the boats and other interesting sights. A fleet of maybe fifty fishing boats were putting out to sea for a night of fishing. At least I assume they were going out to sea. I was chatting with a young student at the time, but he didn’t know whether they were going out or coming in. His English was a bit all over the place. I finally took a picture of a little kid and that led to a funny event. This little boy ran up to me when I was taking pictures of a few large boats. He planted himself in front of me and demanded that I take his picture. I did, and then as soon as he heard the shutter click, he ran around behind me to look at the back of the camera. I quickly realized that he assumed it was a digital camera and he wanted to see himself on the screen. Of course, there is no screen on my camera and he couldn’t see himself. You’ve never seen a kid so upset. He felt he was being ripped off. He wanted to see himself and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t. He assumed that I just wasn’t showing him and he got a little upset with me. I can see how that would happen over and over if I started taking pictures of children. They’d all be accustomed to having their picture taken with a digital camera and of course they’d want to see themselves. I turned around as it started to get dark and I rode back to the Molieden to settle in for the night.
One encounter I haven’t mentioned yet occurred back at the Verandah in Kep. I was sitting at a table NEOing when two very rough-looking men sat down at the table next to me. Everything about them screamed photojournalist. They had old and ratty safari-style clothing on, were unshaven and had leathery skin. The man closest to me was playing with a huge Nikon digital camera. I leaned over after a while and asked him in French if he was a professional photographer. He said that he was and we chatted for a while in French. He eventually took pity on me when for the twentieth time I was struggling to find the right word and he suggested we switch to English. Oddly enough, I understood him less in English. Of course, his English was very good, but somehow his story never came clear. In the end, I didn’t know if he really was a photojournalist or not. He told rambling stories that seemed to have no end and they all seemed to circle the point rather than come to it. I eventually concluded that he was a professional photographer based in Paris. But he was on an extended holiday, and while he was traveling, he just happened to fall into writing some articles about things he saw. On the one hand, he seemed to be an active photojournalist and he told stores about things he had investigated and the troubles he had had getting this story. He was more of a photographer and he had found it difficult to think like a journalist. He would take the pictures of some event, but then forget to find out all the details one needs as a journalist to write an article. I guess there had been a big disaster in Surabaya when he was there involving a volcano erupting. He covered that, but then his editors in France wanted to know things like how many square meters of land was covered in lava, what the name of this or that town was, how many people were evacuated, and he simply didn’t know. At least that was how I understood his stories. He also talked about meeting some other photographers on his travels and he told these stories more in the sense of an amateur dreaming about what it takes to make a living taking pictures and writing articles on the road. When I first went over to talk to him and his friend, he had a famous French magazine open in front of him. It was open to a big travel article about Kep, the very place where we were. He said that it was interesting how certain places just seem to be in the air at certain times. He didn’t know why he came to Cambodia and Kep. He just came here and while here he thought he could write an article about Kep, but someone had just written about it in France’s biggest magazine. He said that he noticed that again and again – that certain places and ideas were just out there in the air and whenever he wanted to write about something, he found that it had just been written about by someone else.
February 23, Friday, 2007 1:00 p.m. Veal Renh
I thought I would spend longer in Kampot, but I’ve already cycled up the road and found a guest house in a place called Veal Renh.
I did like Kampot, however. I just didn’t have anything else I wanted to do there. On my first day I cycled east along the river and around the town. The next day, I crossed the bridge and cycled east and west along the river on that side. I never did figure out how the land all went together. I followed the water’s edge as much as possible thinking that I’d get it all figured out, but I never did. I thought I was on some kind of island, but then the land seemed to go on and on. There were a few fishing boats around, but not much activity. I took a few pictures including a couple of some women spreading out shrimp to dry in the sun and some water buffalo having a good time in a small pond. Anything that hangs out in water seems pretty content here. I’ve seen a lot of ducks in particular that seem to have the run of the country. Until, that is, they get gathered up and hung by their feet and taken off to market. It’s surprising how quiet chickens and ducks get when you hang them upside down by their feet. They get put together in large bunches of dozens of them and then get hung on the sides of scooters and vans and off they go. They don’t struggle or move or make a sound even when their heads and wings are a fraction of an inch from the spinning tires.
I finished one of my books while in Kampot, and I left it behind in the hotel room. I suppose I could have taken it with me and traded it in or sold it at a bookstore, but I hate doing that for some reason. Perhaps it’s just a holdover from my bad experiences with the booksellers in Bangkok. I’d rather leave my books behind and let someone else enjoy them for free rather than go into those places and try to beg for a dollar or two for them. The book was called “Songs for Ordinary Time” and I realized soon after buying it that I’d already read it. That didn’t matter, though. I still enjoyed it. I started reading a book that I found in the lobby of the guest house, but I didn’t like it and I left it there. It was written by some Australian who escaped from a prison in Australia and then went to Bombay. According to his book, he had all kinds of adventures there with the criminal underworld, adventures that took him all over the world and landed him in horrible prisons for long stretches of time where he was beaten and tortured. All in all, it seemed made-up. The writer was rather full of himself.
This not eating is starting to get to be a habit with me. I didn’t eat anything the two days I was in Kampot until last night before I left. Then I thought I should have something if I was going to be cycling out of the town today. I decided to go to the “Little Garden” that was right on the river. I soon regretted that decision. I’m very glad now that they didn’t have any rooms there when I first arrived. The place was not very pleasant. The restaurant area had a lot of plants, so many in fact that it felt all closed in and dark and dim. The concrete wall that enclosed it was topped by five or six strands of barbed wire which gave the place the air of a dismal prison. From the outside, it looked somewhat like a pleasant garden setting, but from the inside it was claustrophobic. And wuth so many plants, there were lots of mosquitoes and before I knew it, my feet and ankles were being fiercely bitten.
That was actually my first real problem with mosquitoes in Cambodia. There have been virtually no mosquitoes in any of my rooms or even when I’ve been sitting outside. There haven’t been many flies on the road either. The towns can be full of flies and the restaurants can be full of them, but they aren’t on the roads. That has been wonderful. In Ethiopia, the flies made my life a torment. And in Guinea, there were lots of small biting insects that made cycling tough. But here I haven’t had to worry about them at all. I put up my mosquito net in Phnom Penh when I first arrived, but that is the only time. It’s a good thing I haven’t needed it, because these guest house rooms have no where to hang one from. In Ethiopia and Guinea there was always some way to rig something up using hooks and ropes and screws, but there is no way to put them up here. The ceilings are invariably quite high and made of smooth hard plaster. The walls are equally smooth and there is no place to tie a rope.
I found out soon enough that the “Little Garden” was run by some very earnest people. There was a paragraph at the beginning of the menu that said that proceeds from the restaurant went to a school for the blind in Kampot. There was also a donation box beside my table. That didn’t bother me, but at the bottom of every page of the menu there was an excerpt form the Dali Lama’s writings. I didn’t need a sermon from the Dali Lama on the evils of materialism while I was having my dinner.
For dinner, I ordered rice and fried vegetables with tofu. When my order arrived, I realized it probably wasn’t a wise choice. The vegetables consisted of large chunks of carrots, cauliflower, and green beans. None of them were really cooked in any way. They’d just been chopped up, swished around a frying pan for a second and then dumped on a plate. There was no way I’d be able to chew my way through that much raw vegetables and digest it. I ended up picking out the tofu and eating that with the rice. Even the rice wasn’t good. It was dry and unpleasant. Ah, well.
I had a chat later that night with the young man who worked at the Molieden. He said that his family lived in a village in the mountains somewhere. He had come to Kampot to go to school, but he had to work in order to support himself. He said he made $25 US a month at the Molieden. He obviously put in long hours – essentially from dawn to late at night. He didn’t have to work hard, though. He was hired for his English ability so he hung out down at the reception area on the first floor and dealt with foreigners looking for a room. When he wasn’t there, he was up on the roof waiting on tables in the restaurant. He told me that he was studying business management and his school fees were $330 a year. It was a 4-year program. I asked him how he could pay that and he said that he paid it with a combination of his salary, plus tips that he got from foreigners who stayed at the hotel.
I saw a number of other foreigners while I was in Kampot, but I didn’t have a chance to really talk to any of them. One couple I had already seen in Kep. They were staying at the Verandah and were obviously working their way over to Sihanoukville like me. I did talk to them briefly and found out that on the day that I cycled from Kep to Kampot, they had taken a boat over to Rabbit Island and then somehow gotten to Kampot. There were also a couple of British guys at the Molieden. They looked like skinheads with shaved heads and their upper bodies covered in tattoos. I saw a few other wild-looking foreigners on the streets. They looked a bit like hippy throwbacks with dreadlocks and beads and raggedy clothes. I assume they had worked their way over from the beaches in Thailand. I was sitting in a riverside café having a drink at one point when a couple traveling together walked by with their backpacks. The man was quite a sight with a huge head of red hair all twisted around in dreadlocks. The two waiters at the café burst into laughter when they saw him. I guess they’re not as used to that kind of foreigner in Cambodia as they are in Thailand.
Kampot had the air of a town on the move, like many of the towns in Cambodia. All the main roads were being torn up and paved. A big new bridge was being built across the river. I don’t know where all the money is coming from, but the economy seems to be doing well and I think tourism in these towns will increase dramatically in the next decade. I haven’t used my Lonely Planet at all to find places to stay. All I’ve done is skim through it after I’m settled and unpacked and I’ve noticed that none of the hotels I’ve been staying in have even been listed. And as I cycle around I notice lots of big guest houses that also aren’t listed. Either the authors didn’t bother to list them and went for the more standard backpacker places, or they didn’t exist when this edition was written. If that’s the case, then things are changing very fast.
My ride from Kampot to here, Veal Renh, was literally a breeze. It was only 57 kilometers and for most of that distance I had a strong wind on my bike and I raced along. I could easily have gone all the way to Sihanoukville which is only another 46 kilometers or so, but I’m in no rush to get there. I’m actually not really looking forward to it. I far prefer these little out of the way towns.
My one concern was whether Veal Renh, or any of the towns between Kampot and Sihanouk, would have a hotel. I say that I could easily have cycled the remaining distance to Sihanouk, but I really didn’t want to. My butt and wrists get very sore after about 50 kilometers. Doing a full 100 kilometers or more would be pretty painful on this bike. I really have to get a touring bike if I ever do anything like this again.
It was a very pleasant ride. The road hugged the coast and though it wasn’t beautiful or anything, the sea would occasionally pop into view and there was the occasional fishing village where I could stop and take a couple of pictures. On the other side were small mountain ranges and hills including the hill with the Bokor Hill Station. I wasn’t in the mood to ride up there. As far as I could tell, the hills are socked in by clouds most of the day and there wouldn’t be any good views of the countryside. The abandoned hill station itself is supposed to be quite spooky and atmospheric, but I didn’t think a few abandoned buildings were worth a tough 40-kilometer uphill ride.
I ran into two cyclists today. They veered across the road and stopped to talk to me. They were a Dutch couple in their sixties I would guess. They had started in Kunming in China and then ridden down through Laos to here. I was glad to hear from them that I’d made the right choice in coming this way to Sihanouk. They had come from Phnom Penh down NH4. It had taken them three days and they said the traffic was absolutely horrible. They didn’t know if it was just because of Chinese New Year, but the road was jammed with cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles all going at insane speeds and racing around blind corners and honking their horns. I had the idea that NH4 would be like that which is why I chose to go down by the back roads. That’s always a wise choice on a bike. The smaller the road the better.
This couple had left from Sihanouk this morning and were on their way to Kampot, so they were doing the full 100+ kilometers. They looked like they could handle it. Their bikes were true touring bikes. They were Vittorios. I could tell that the wheels were touring wheels with far more spokes than an average wheel. They didn’t have drop down handlebars, but they did have special ones with several different places to put your hands. Their pannier racks fit the bikes perfectly. They had front racks and rear racks, though they only had rear pannier bags. I noticed that they also had Ortlieb bags. They had the exact same bags I had except they were black and not yellow. Theirs were full loaded though and bulged high above the racks. They also had a stuff sack of some kind strapped to the rear rack between the bags. And they each had a big handlebar bag. I wonder why they packed like that and didn’t go for front pannier bags.
I met this couple just two kilometers from Veal Renh and after we said goodbye, I reached the town. Veal Renh is essentially an intersection town. It is right on the intersection of NH4 and NH3. It is a very busy place. There is a large market and dozens of share taxis vying for customers. Several of them tried to entice me and my bike into them. They knew I was going to Sihanouk and figured they could drive me there. I rode the full length of the town, but I didn’t see a guest house anywhere. I turned around and rode back a second time, but I still didn’t see anything. Then I stopped and asked some people and they pointed me to a place with a red roof right beside a gas station. I hadn’t found it myself because they didn’t have a sign. It’s a fairly standard place for this neck of the woods. It’s actually quite large with lots of wasted space. I wonder about the design of these places. They don’t seem suitable. The buildings are huge with giant lobbies and wide spiral staircases leading upward. Yet, all of that lobby space is completely unused and just left to fill with dust and junk. The room they showed me is just fine, though a bit dirtier than most I’ve stayed in. It has a large double bed with a big wooden frame. There is a big wardrobe with mirrored doors, a towel rack, and a nice fan. It’s been a big surprise for me how unnecessary air conditioning is. I haven’t had a single room with air conditioning and it isn’t like I’ve been depriving myself. There just isn’t a need for it. A fan is all you need.
I quickly unpacked and showered. I’m going to stay out of the sun until it gets a bit cooler out there and then ride around the town a bit. Maybe take some pictures if the mood strikes me. In terms of time, there was no reason to stay here. There was lots of time left in the day to get to Sihanouk. I guess if I was eager to get onto a beach, I’d have kept going, but the beaches in Sihanouk aren’t really a big draw for me. Sihanouk is just a destination and nothing more. I may not even go there tomorrow. There’s another town a bit up the road that might be interesting. If they have a guest house, I could just stay there and spend the day cycling down to the coast. The problem is that it’s the weekend now and Sihanouk gets very busy on the weekend. I’d rather arrive there on Sunday or Monday.
February 24, Saturday, 2007 1:00 p.m. Sihanouk
I passed a very uneventful evening and night in Veal Rinh. After settling into my room, I got on my bike to ride around the town. The young fellow who had shown me my room told me to be careful of the traffic and robbers. I never did see any robbers, but I took his point about the traffic. I guess Sihanouk is Cambodia’s major port and that means all of the country’s sea cargo comes in and out of Sihanouk. I never imagined that Cambodia had anything to export, but I guess they do because the road was jammed with trucks carrying the big containers that get loaded onto ships. The trucks thundered up and down the road non-stop. They are the biggest things on the road, and that means they don’t have to move for anybody. They certainly don’t move for a Canadian on a bicycle. They would often pass each other on the narrow road, meaning that they took up the entire road in one direction. Anything coming towards them just had to get off the road or get creamed.
I went off the main road as much as I could and cycled through the residential parts of the town. I felt slightly on edge, though. I don’t think it was the boy’s warning about robbers. I think it was joining up with the busy N4 after days of being a little bit off the beaten track. Things felt a bit more out of control here. And as I rode around the narrow little lanes, I encountered one too many groups of men who seemed to be sizing me up. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I didn’t feel comfortable back there. I especially didn’t feel comfortable when my road ran into the back side of the market. I tried to roll my bike through the market but it was impossible. The little openings between the stalls were simply too narrow and there were too many people. Plus the smell was overpowering. It was one of the worst-smelling markets I’ve ever come across. There were piles of garbage everywhere and clouds of flies attached themselves to me from everywhere. Little rivers of foul water flowed here and there and gathered in disgusting pools. I didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary and I quickly turned my bike around and rode back to the main drag. I picked up three bottles of cold water and retired to my big empty room at the guest house. I passed the evening reading my next book and went to sleep early. I wanted to be up and on the road by seven at the latest so as to beat the sun and perhaps some of the traffic.
I was successful in being on the road before seven, but in order to beat the traffic I guess you have to be on the road a lot earlier than that. The trucks were thundering through already. A good dozen of the transport trucks had stopped at my guest house and they were doing a roaring trade in breakfast. It was hard to believe it was the same place. When I walked through the restaurant the day before, I thought that these were the most optimistic people in the world. They had a good fifteen tables with eight or nine chairs around each table. Not a single chair was occupied when I showed up. But that morning, every table had a group of truckers around it and the waitresses were rushing back and forth to get their orders. I was half-tempted to get breakfast myself, but I didn’t want to risk it and I cycled out onto the road and out of Veal Rinh.
According to my map it was about 46 kilometers to Sihanouk. I figured it would be closer to sixty by the time I got settled and I was right. These towns in Cambodia are very stretched out and you can easily ride another ten km before you find a place to stay.
It was quite beautiful that early in the morning. Most of the sky was clouded over, but it was patchy cloud and rays of the sun broke through from the horizon. I guessed the clouds would clear early and that I’d be cycling in full sun eventually, but I thought I’d be most of the way to Sihanouk by then.
I was in no hurry and I stopped several times along the way to get cold drinks. I didn’t do much photography, but I snapped some pictures of some pigs in a basket, an overloaded van or two, a couple of wagons being pulled by bullocks, and some overloaded hay wagons pulled by motorbikes. Most of the time I spent monitoring my rear view mirror for transport trucks. I hardly needed to because I could hear the monsters long before I saw them. But once in a while, if the wind was blowing strong and I was preoccupied with saying “hello” to all my fans, one of these trucks would sneak up on me. I’d then spot it in my mirror and quickly get off the road. I didn’t absolutely have to. If I was the only other thing on the road, they could pull out and go around me, but it was always a dangerous thing. Often there would be a second transport overtaking that first one and I wouldn’t be able to see it in my mirror. Then there was no way for the truck to move over. In any event, I took no chances and I went off the paved road and onto the gravel shoulder every time a truck came up behind me. It was just safer. Plus if I was off the road, they might stop honking their horn. They usually didn’t, but sometimes they did and the blessed silence was worth it. Those transport trucks had air horns and my bones shivered and cracked when they blew.
I looked at all those dozens and dozens of loaded container trucks and couldn’t for the life of me guess what was inside of them. What does Cambodia export? I haven’t seen any manufacturing anywhere.
The best part of the day was when I got close to Sihanouk. About twenty kilometers from the town, I started to hit some hills and the road began to climb. I honestly can’t say what it is about hills and mountains, but I’d much rather cycle up steep roads than on flat roads. The flat roads here in Cambodia have been the worst thing about the country, though many people have said that the flat roads make it ideal for cycling. I find the opposite. These moderate climbs were wonderful. There weren’t great views or anything like that, but the climbs and then the descents added some variety to my day and I enjoyed them very much. This bike wouldn’t be able to handle the climbs or roads I faced in Ethiopia or Guinea, but the lowest gear got me up these hills on paved roads quite easily. I got a good sweat going and just grinded my way up. One fellow on a scooter took pity on me and he stopped and literally offered me a rope. He said he would tow me into Sihanouk. I thanked him, but said no.
My first indication that I was somewhere different was a gas station with one of the variety stores attached. Those were my haven in Phnom Penh and I hadn’t seen one since I left. I pulled in and stepped into air conditioned comfort and got a cold drink out of the cooler. I scanned the cooler and they had all the yogurts and things, but no milk. That’s the one thing I really miss, especially since I’ve been sick for so long. Milk would easily get me through.
Coming into Sihanouk you get a nice view of the container port and the coast off to the right. The road goes down quite steeply into the town and then that view vanishes and I was totally lost. I had a vague idea from a map how the town was laid out, but as I cycled around I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I couldn’t imagine arriving in a place like this on foot. I guess you couldn’t really be on foot and get around. You’d have to hire a moto driver.
I rode past the shipping port and then rode along the coast for a while. Then I passed Victory Beach. I thought with that landmark, things would make sense, but they still didn’t and suddenly the road cut inland and climbed up and away from the coast. I reached an intersection and I had no idea which way to go. I finally made a decision based on the number of backpackers I saw go in one direction on the back of scooters. I figured the guest houses had to be in that direction and turned that way and followed them. The road went for quite a while and suddenly I found myself in downtown Sihanouk. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought downtown was back around the port, but apparently not. The town was nothing special. It wasn’t as horrible as some people had made it out to be. It certainly had none of the charm of Kampot or Kep, the sophistication of Phnom Penh, or the sheer nastiness of Kampong Trach, but it was a basic sort of town. There were a lot of guest houses in the downtown area so I figured that even if the beach area was full, I could at least find a home.
I rode through the downtown and then turned left and then rode to a roundabout with a couple of golden lions in the middle. Just on the other side of the roundabout is Serendipity Beach, the area that is the most popular with foreigners right now. I cycled past that area and then down a long road that went beside the main beach area for Cambodians – Occheuteal Beach.
I had been hoping for a nice sort of beach experience in Sihanouk, but my glimpse of Occheuteal put paid to that dream. It was nasty. The beach was sandy, but was jammed with people from one end to the other. They were all sitting in beach chairs under umbrellas and seemed bent on producing as much garbage as humanly possible. All this garbage was just being piled up and dumped by the road away from the beach. A couple of garbage trucks were making their way up and down the road while I was there and they were gathering up the largest piles of garbage in bags. But it was not like a determined effort to get it all. Vast fields of garbage stretched out all across the area. I looked around me in horror. Nothing could have been further from my hope for a nice beach.
I rode to the end of Occheuteal Beach. I had thoughts of continuing along the coast to Otres beach, which my map told me was 6 kilometers farther. However, the road suddenly ended at an 8-foot-high corrugated iron fence that stretched from the water all the way up to the inland road. I decided to leave Otres for another day and I turned around and cycled back, marveling with every pedal stroke at the amount of garbage. I can only hope it is only this bad around Chinese New Year.
A short climb up at the beginning of Occheuteal beach got me to the Serendipity Beach area. It was a bit hard to figure out, but I saw some backpackers heading down a rocky sort of road and I went that way. A bunch of backpacker type places started to pop up on both sides of the road. I kept my eyes open, but I didn’t see any place that appealed to me and I rode my bike to the end of the road where it ended at the beach. To explore further I had to leave my bike there and then go on foot. That caused some problems because I couldn’t take all of my bags with me. But I just grabbed my survival kit and the handlebar bag with my camera. Someone could steal the other bags, but there was no money or anything like that in any of them. I asked at one place and they showed me a dingy little room full of garbage that was $10 a night. It was just one of a series of rooms that opened onto the rocky road. It was nowhere near the beach or the water. I also went to a place across the way that looked a bit nice. They showed me a tiny little room for $30 a night. It came with air conditioning and a TV and all of that, but it too was just a small room way back amongst a bunch of other rooms and far from the beach. In the end I just grabbed a $7 a night room at this little dive of a place. It at least had easy access for my bike and the room was big and comfortable and clean. It wasn’t the beachside bungalow I was hoping for, but it at least got me off the street. I took a shower and then went out for a walk along the beach. Then I saw the bungalow places that I was looking for. There was one place in particular called Cloud 9 that looked very nice. Unfortunately, it was full tonight and tomorrow night. They don’t have bungalows right on the water. There isn’t enough room here. In fact, this end of the beach isn’t even sandy. There are just rocks out here. But it is far nicer than the Occheuteal Beach area. Rather than being on the beach, the bungalows are built up on the hillside one stacked on the other. It’s not ideal, certainly nowhere near the bungalows that I’ve had in my life in Thailand and in the Philippines, but they’d be comfortable. I wasn’t that surprised to see the same couple from Kep and Kampot sitting at a table at the Cloud 9. They struck me as people totally in control of everything and everywhere they go, they seem to just get rooms at the nicest places. They both look like young models and never seem to be in dirty or mismatching clothes. The man has a baby-face and brown curly hair. The woman is tall, blonde, and very striking, and the two of them are either sitting over a candlelit meal or swaying around in nice beach wear.
I’m thinking about reserving a bungalow here for Monday night. But I don’t know if I want to stay here that long. A bungalow here would be nice, but there’s no point staying longer than I need just to have a nice place to stay. With my usual turtle pace, I imagine I won’t do much more than sit around and relax today (after my grueling 67 km of cycling). I want to ride out along the coast to the west one day. There is supposed to be a nice fishing village out there. There might be a nice snorkeling trip to one of the outer islands that I can join. That would keep me busy for Sunday and Monday. I’m sure I could easily pass another day here. Then I could move into my bungalow on Monday and have at least two nights here.
Well, that plan didn’t last long. The fellow at Cloud 9 that I first spoke to said that there were bungalows available Monday night. But I just spoke with one of the new owners and managers and she said that they don’t take reservations. It seems an odd way to run a place as popular as this, but that’s the way they’ve chosen to go. While I’ve been sitting here, her cell phone rang once with some people wanting to reserve a place for March 1st. That’s a week from now. She said they didn’t take reservations, and when she hung up the phone she turned to her husband and partner and laughed about it, as if it was a huge joke to try and make a reservation that far in advance. It seems to me that that’s the point of making a reservation. In any event, they get enough people just showing up and looking for a room that they are always full. They don’t need to offer reservations to fill the bungalows. And by not offering reservations, they can let people who are staying here just opt to stay longer at the last minute without having to commit themselves. And of course it’s much easier for them. Dealing with reservations would be a big hassle I think. It doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth, though. I spent a half hour talking to the husband of the husband and wife team who now own the place and then a few minutes talking to the wife. They got to know my story a little bit and I admired their place. But then when I want to stay here, they won’t make a reservation. All they can suggest is that I keep coming back in the afternoon and checking to see if anything is open. I’m hardly going to do that. It starts to feel like begging for a room. And it gets complicated, because you have to check out of the place you’re in, pack up, and then come over here on the off-chance that they’ll have a room. Their bungalows are nice, but they’re not that nice.
I found out that this husband and wife, she’s German and he’s Australian, stayed here over Christmas. They liked the place and when they found out the current owner wanted to sell, they bought it. They got the business and everything attached to it, but not the land. They have to pay a certain amount to lease the land I guess, but it amounts to very little, far less than rent would be. They could just live in the place and treat it as their own private bungalow home and it would cheaper than living in an apartment or house. But they’re running it as it was run before. The bungalows go for $15 a night and I think they have 9 bungalows, plus the restaurant.