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Andy’s Travel Diary

Friday, 02 Feb 2007

Location: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

MapSIHANOUKVILLE - PESTER, PAIN, PARADISE (?)
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Sihanoukville has some of the best beaches in Cambodia. I've obviously been spoiled by Malaysian and Thai beaches because i was unimpressed.

The beach was a thin strip of white sand, so narrow in places that the legs of the beach loungers were washed by the waves. Curving round for some miles it was lined with small rustic cafes and restaurants, dotted with grass umbrellas and bounded by Casuarina trees. If i had come straight from England my reaction would have been different, but even then i would stop short of calling it beautiful.

My first morning was spent eating breakfast on the beach accompanied by a troop of kids swarming around me trying to sell the bangles all the way up their arms.

One in particular continued to pester me when the others realised my wallet was staying closed. His name was Tha, a friendly enough boy who insisted on drawing pictures in my journal including an imaginative map of the world. "This is Cambodia, below is Germany" he would say in a teacherly, pedagogical tone as he drew. Scotland came next, to the west of Germany, and below that lay the United States, and so on and so forth.

Sihanoukville is a demanding place to holiday; lying on a beach can be an exhausting test of endurance. Relaxing on a sun lounger dozing off is an invitation for women offering massages to stroke your arm or back without warning and who interpret "No thankyou" as "Possibly in the future"

"You help me yeah?"

"No thankyou"

"Later yeah?"

"No thankyou"

"Tomorrow yeah?"

"No thankyou!"

If it wasn't massage women it was amputee beggars, blind singers led by obedient guide dogs, or (still more) children with fruit balanced on their heads.

If you desire relaxation and rest, Sihanoukville is a place full of frustration. Even if you take it as it comes, the place can try the patience of a monk. Since entering Cambodia I had been eyeing up a multi-use, checked, red and white scarf so popular with the locals. I purchased one off of a young women patrolling the beach. Immediately Tha came up to me asking why i had not bought from him. I explained i had no idea he sold them; he had never offered any to me. This failed to satisfy him and he irritatingly asked that i never asked him if he had any. Apologies failed to satisfy him. "You don't like me", "You think my drawings are crap", "You wish me dead"(!).

While i was apparently casting a death wish, a young child was reading the last rites to Louis who refused to buy her produce - "I hope you get eaten by a shark and a dolphin eat you too." How lovely. Wal Mart has greeters, Cambodia has shamers.

After 15 minutes of abuse I put my ipod on. Tha was not to be deterred. He whinned and cried at the end of my lounger for half an hour until we all began to snap, eventually telling him the next day we would be buy bundles of bracelets, mountains of fruit, hundreds of scarves -and not a penny would go to him. In hindsight this was perhaps ever so slightly cruel.

The rest of our days were spent relatively hassle free; the kids must have smelled fresher meat. So we spent our days munching on juicy fresh pineapple, topping up our tans, and occassionally taking a dip in the sea, though not for long due to an influx of jellyfish.

Eventually i gave in to one of the massage women and i lay on the beach as the sun began to set, listening to the sound of the waves and watching the sand change colour while my back, legs and arms were soothed of stress with oil and adept handiwork. Afterwards, feeling highly relaxed, i collared one of the guys walking up and down the beach selling fresh baby lobster which he dressed with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of salt. The place was growing on me.

I know I shouldn't mention it, but i fear if i don't Ruth will. I spent a painful half hour having my back hair (only a few strands!)removed by a women with a piece of string. It felt like a hundred needles piercing the skin and i made adequate fuss the whole time, quite possibly forcing people nearby to move out of range of my screams, even though they were muffled by the sunlounger cushions.

With a back as smooth as a Tefall non-stick frying pan i could have cooked us dinner, instead we spent our evenings eating delicious BBQ'd fish caught fresh that day at one of the restaurants on the beach, followed by some drinks. One night we decided to venture into town for dinner.

Sihanoukville is a strange place. The beach and town are disjointed, separate spaces. Large tracts of wasteland separate hotels and restaurants. The resort feels unfinished, a view not far from reality. Construction is filling in the gaps now that the town can mature after its stunted growth.

Our journey to the Snake restaurant would have taken too long to walk so we hailed three moped taxis, two of us on each.
I've said it before, but feel it should be repeated - it is often the little things that bring into sharp relief a feeling of wanderlust; a boat trip to catch a coach, a women fetching water from a well, eating at a stall on the side of the road. These are ordinary made extraordinary in a foreign country. So it would be with this short trip to the restaurant, driving along dusty roads through a bustling town, the sun a huge red disc beginning to set and then stopping abruptly to allow some cows to cross the busy main high street.

The establishment we chose to eat at was called the Snake restaurant. It was an odd place. As the name suggests, the venue was not an ideal venue for those with ophidiophobia. Pythons, cobras, tree snakes, and others with bites that kill in minutes were contained in landscaped terrariums or within glass surfaced tables. Personally i've never found the presence of venomous fangs feet away from my dinner plate an appetite inducer. Neither is having to worry that rather than having dinner, you will actually become it; a crocodile was chained to the wall with a small collar around its neck, by a pond in the corner. It all seemed rather cruel and i would not recommend eating there despite the large menu and good food.

Afterwards we had some drinks at a nearby bar and asked our moped drivers to take us to the best nightlife spot in town. It was a large bar with little atmosphere and a crowd which doubled when the six of us walked in. Upstairs was a small nightclub with no one in. But we made it fun and got to choose all the music (from a cd collection smaller than my nan's). On the way back to our hotel we stopped by the beach and found one of the shacks still open, so we ordered a round of drinks and sat on the beach chatting. We all fell asleep under the stars before until five o clock when we woke up, thought it was perhaps not the best idea, and crept back to our hotel. Poor grandpa had to be woken up to let us in.

This was our biggest night out. In high season they reportedly have full moon parties, but Sihanoukville was largely empty of tourists. We did meet one guy however called K who proved only slightly less annoying than the massage women. At dinner one night he said he hated people who judge places before they had even been there. Later I mentioned Vietnam in passing. "Oh you will have to watch out if you are going there, people are incredibly aggressive!" "You've been?" i asked. "No, never".

We stayed in Sihanoukville for a couple of days. Some people rave about the resort. I found it a rather charmless place and failed to find the paradise so often described in the guidebooks. As a stop off in Cambodia it was fine. As a holiday from home it leaves alot to be desired. Give it time though, the resort is modelling itself after the more popular Thai beaches, so expect more parties, more happy pizzas and more people.