Sunshine Slums and a Private Paradise

After an eventful few days in Phnom Penh, I decided that I was in need of another trip to the beach. Krabi had been the perfect detox from the big city lights of Bangkok, and while Phnom Penh was no comparative concrete jungle, it had dealt me my fair share of hard knocks and cuts and bruises, and I felt it was time to move on. Some of my fellow travellers in Saigon had suggested Kampot as a fun town to visit, while a number of other people had also suggested Sihanoukville. Both were towns down on the coast of Cambodia, both seemed an equal distance from Phnom Penh, and both had been given pretty good reviews by my peers. I was having a tough time choosing where to go – I knew my time was limited, and I wanted to see one town thoroughly rather than skimming through two. In the end, while I was sitting on the couch in the hostel common room mulling over my disaster date with Sana, my mind was made up by two other travellers who had stumbled into the hostel and placed themselves next to me. I said hello, and we had a brief discussion in which they told me they were travelling to Sihanoukville the next day. “You should totally come!” the female of the pair urged me, “but I’m getting the 6am bus, I have no idea why I did that, but he’s going on the 1pm one,” she said as she pointed to her male companion. “It’ll be awesome!” And just like that, fate had stumbled into my life to point me towards me next adventure.

However, I didn’t leave the next day. I went out and rented a motorbike, fell off that motorbike, met Laura, and ended up staying for a couple more nights. And while I never met up with that duo in Sihanoukville, after agreeing to follow them there I couldn’t shake this feeling that it should definitely be my next destination. So on the Friday morning after my week in Phnom Penh, I boarded a mini bus and hit the road for the sunny shores of Sihanoukville to unwind on its sandy white beaches.

***

When I arrived in the centre of the town, I asked a tuk tuk to take me to a cheap hostel, anywhere with dorm rooms. Such a request can be quite the gamble – my hostel in Phnom Penh was reasonable for a budget price and the dorms were actually quite comfortable. The hostel I ended up in here in Sihanoukville was a third of the price, and that measly $2.50 per night placed me in the “VIP” dorm. Seven bunk beds with yoga mats for mattresses, the air conditioning was limited to late at night and the early hours of the morning, the toilet cistern leaked a consistent and steady flow onto the floor, and there was sand everywhere. But in my optimism, I wrote all that off as a relaxed, ‘beachy’ feel. I stuffed my things into the tiny locker, pulled on my board shorts and headed down to the beach.

Unlike Krabi, the beach was only a 5 minute walk from the centre of town, so I literally set out with nothing but my towel, my thongs, and my locker key secured in the pocket of my board shorts. The water was nice – not shallow or warm like the Thai beaches I’d visited. I dived into waves, washing away the afternoon sweat sheen, and wincing as the salt water washed over my wounded knee. It was definitely refreshing, but as I paddled around in the water, my eyes travelled up and down the beach, observing the scene. The long strip of sand was lined with reclining chairs, umbrellas, bars, and inevitably, the local people pedalling their wares and trinkets. The beach itself had become a strip catering for all kinds of tourist needs, and while that does sound like some sort of paradise setting, it was a little intimidating. I didn’t feel as though I could just go and sit on the beach and relax without someone trying to sell me a drink or a foot rub.

***

The hostel was the same. I sat down by the pool with a 75c beer and my iPad, to write some emails home to my family, and suddenly I had one of the Cambodian girls working at the hostel crawling all over me, trying to get my attention, complaining suggestively about how she wished someone would buy her a beer, and asking me question after question after question. I know it’s a petty thing to complain about, but I just wanted to relax. I would soon learn that I had definitely come to the wrong hostel for relaxing – Utopia was the party joint for Sihanoukville backpackers, and later that evening I would find myself surrounded by blasting music and drinking games. Which normally I would be thrilled about, but I had been slowly sinking beers all afternoon and then found myself at Happy Herb Pizzas for dinner, so by the time the party was getting started all I wanted to do was sit in the dorm and strum my ukulele while sucking on the lollipop I had brought from the corner store – don’t ask me why.

But nobody likes a party pooper, and it was a Friday night, so I threw on a singlet and headed to the bar area. I didn’t bother having a shower – I was running low on clean underwear, and I figured I might as well embrace the beach bum lifestyle that was definitely the status quo here. I chatted to a bunch of people throughout the night, rolling through the same introductions again and again and making polite small talk, but either my head was really somewhere else by that stage, or everyone I spoke to was just really boring. Probably both. I went to bed when I’d drunk so much beer that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I awoke the following morning with a seedy hangover and a feeling that the night I’d had hadn’t really been worth it. Disheartened, I crawled out of my bottom bunk, still in my board shorts from the day before, and went to grab some breakfast before hitting the beach for another swim.

That afternoon, as I wandered the main streets of Sihanoukville sporting nothing but my bright pink board shorts and a groggy hangover, I came across a couple of diving shops. Remembering how much I had enjoyed rediscovering SCUBA diving back in Krabi, I went into each of them and made a few enquiries. There are a few islands about two hours from mainland Cambodia that are home to dozens of beautiful diving sites, and all the places offered day tours out to the islands, as well as overnight packages where you stayed on the island overnight. Reflecting on my night at Utopia, that was definitely something that interested me.

***

When I first arrived at the Sihanoukville hostel, there had been a guy sitting on his bed using a laptop. He’d worked away as I’d unpacked some of my things, but after a while he’d slapped the lid shut, let out a noise that was a cross between a groan and a yawn, and said in a thick American accent, “Oh my god, it is so hot in here!” I think he’d just been in general, to no one in particular, but as the only other person in the room I felt almost obliged to reply. I just chuckled and smirked to myself, as I did when most people complained about the heat – we’re in South East Asia, duh! – and then said “Yeah, it is… How long have you been staying here?”

The American jumped down from his top bunk and shoved his laptop into his locker. “Too long man, too long. Five days now, I think.” He pushed his locker shut and turned to face me. “It’s just so chilled and relaxed, you know? It just sucks you in!” Then he turned back to his bed. “Aww man, and now there’s sand all over my bed!” He brushed the sheet with his hands a few times, before shrugging and walking out of the room, without speaking another word. Maybe he had been high during our encounter, or maybe I just really am too highly strung, but the mood in this hostel had descended beneath ‘chilled and relaxed’ and reached ‘filthy and decrepit’. I made a mental note to get out of that place within a few days, lest I become a zoned out zombie patting the grains of sand on my own bed sheet.

***

So I knew right away that I wanted to stay on the island, Koh Rong Samleon, and I wanted to stay there as soon as possible. I shopped around for prices and packages, booked with the one I liked best, and was told to meet at the dive shop at 7:15 the following morning. I had a quiet dinner and went to bed early. However, being a Saturday night, Utopia had other plans. The music was pumping until about 1:00AM, and after that people were stumbling in at all hours of the morning, to the point where three girls staggered into the dorm just as I was getting up and ready to check out. I met one of the staff members from the dive shop and 3 of the other customer divers like myself, and we were put into a tuk tuk and whisked away to the dock.

It was too early for me to really engage in any kind of conversation, but I listened to the exchanges between my companions. The dive shop employee was a British man named Andrew, and he was telling the others about the socio-economic situation in Sihanoukville. “You’ll see it once we get out of the main tourist street, just wait. I mean, these guys have nothing. And anything they do have, they only have because of the tourists. It’s a vicious little cycle, but you know… It’s not all paradise down here.” As the tuk tuk carried us further from the centre of town, his words echoed loud and clear in the streets around us. You didn’t have to go far to escape the idyllic façade of a tropical paradise and discover that poverty is just as rife here as it is in Phnom Penh, and I can only assume everywhere else in Cambodia. I felt a little guilty, being one of the tourists that fuel these poverty traps, but Andrew had assured us that Koh Rong Samleon would be nothing like mainland Sihanoukville. “You won’t see any motorbikes or tuk tuks, and no one is going to try and sell you anything.” I was tired and groggy from my interrupted night of sleep, but that assertion made me feel extremely confident that I had made the right decision for myself.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

Just over two hours later, the boat pulled up to the dock on Koh Rong Samleon. We unloaded our stuff, and then before long we were ready to head out again to go diving. The other three customers were doing their dives to complete their PADI Open Water Diver Certificate, so their schedule was going to be a little different. Since I was already a certified diver, all I had to do was gear up and take the plunge off the boat. I would be accompanied by my dive master, a lovely little English woman named Justine, and Kyle, a young Kiwi guy who was in the process of training to become a dive master himself. They were both lovely, and I had a lot of fun diving with them. The water at these Cambodian dive sights was pretty similar to the water at Ao Nang when I stayed at Krabi – perfect temperature, quite good visibility and lots of marine life. We saw a couple of stingrays on the first dive, but for the most part we just saw a huge variety of fish. During the second dive I found myself swimming alongside schools of fish that swam close enough together to form a huge silver wall, shining and glittering in the sunlight. Being under the sea really allows you to appreciate its immensity – you literally just feel like a drop in the ocean, a minuscule spot on the surface of this vast, blue planet. I didn’t see anything particularly amazing or breath taking, but there’s something about SCUBA diving and being under the sea that really taps into philosophical side and sense of wonder.

***

The days activities consisted on the morning dive and the afternoon dive. After that, I was left to my own devices to explore the island. My basic accommodation was covered by the diving company – a basic dorm room in a shack over the water, suspended on stilts and connected to the dock – so I didn’t have anything else to plan or worry about. I set off into the village with nothing but the clothes on my back, just like a had in Sihanoukville, but I quickly learnt that Andrew had been right – this island was completely remote. Some of the children would scream, smile and wave at you as you passed by, but other than that you could walk down the street completely undisturbed. The main street was simply a strip of sand that was lined by the tiny local huts on either side. I wandered through the town, returning smiles and waves, and continued on past the village and through the rainforest along the coast. I’d been told by Justine that there was a nice long beach, aptly named Longbeach, were you could relax on the sand and go for a swim, and due to the tiny island population it was rarely very busy.

As I stepped out onto the sand and let the water wash over my feet, I instantly knew that I had found the perfect beach that I had been looking for all this time. It was a sheltered bay, so there were no rough waves, and the water was a clear cool blue, not shallow and warm the beaches at Krabi. The white sand was completely deserted – not a soul in sight. I strode out into the water, and kept walking until the water was up to my neck. I spun around, drinking in the sights of the ocean, the shoreline, the mountain on the smaller neighbouring island – to me, this was paradise. I could have stayed there for hours, just floating around in the water, no belongings on the beach to worry about or other swimmers to distract or disturb me. It was pure bliss.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

Though I had another destination for the end of the afternoon. Kyle had told me about another beautiful spot on Koh Rong Samleon called Sunset Rocks. Basically, the western side of the island was a rocky shoreline from which you had a completely unobstructed view of the sunset over the ocean. As the end afternoon drew nearer, I made my way back through the main street to the other side of the island, acquiring some companions in the form of two of the local street dogs. There, I perched myself on a large flat rock, and waited. Growing up on the east coast of Australia, I’d always found sunsets over the ocean to be particularly exciting. I saw a few while I had been in Costa Rica a few years ago, but the novelty has yet to wear off. I sat there with my canine companions and watched the sun bleed into the ocean, the sky turning a beautiful shade of orange.

View from Sunset Rocks.

View from Sunset Rocks.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

***

My night on Koh Rong Samleon was a peculiar experience. After dinner I spent the evening sitting on the pier with one of the dive master interns, and Australian guy named Dean, watching lightning flashing across the bay. There was no thunder to be heard, nor any specks of rain to be felt – just a cool ocean breeze with the lightning lighting up the sky. When I leaned back, I also noticed something that I hadn’t seen in a while – the stars. Moving between city to city, with the traffic and the smog and the light pollution, I couldn’t actually remember a night during my time in South East Asia where I could clearly see the night sky. It was an unfamiliar sky, and even though I was in the Northern Hemisphere, I couldn’t help but try to find the Southern Cross in every cluster of stars. I sat there for a while, just watching the sky in all it’s natural wonder, content with my decision to leave behind the so called Utopia.

I began to yawn, feeling tired after my long day, but just as I was thinking about heading to bed, Justine invited me to come down into the village with her, Andrew, Dean, and the rest of the other divers for a few beers. Figuring I was only going to be there for one night, I decided to check out whatever nightlife this tiny remote island had to offer. The local bar felt more like a large room on the back on someone’s house. The bartender was a chatty Cambodian woman, despite her very limited English, and she knew most of the divers who lived and worked on the island. She smiled and waltzed around the table, laughing and smiling saying, “You drink beer, you no pay. You play pool, you no pay.” It seemed bizarre to me, considering we were her only customers, but I took her up on it and had myself a beer, and challenged Dean to a round of pool. Later, our hostess began pouring shots of the local liquor. “You drink whiskey, you no pay.” I could only stomach one shot before my eyes began to droop and close involuntarily. I cursed myself for being so tired, because usually I would not be one to so quickly pass up a free drink, let alone free shots. I thanked the woman for her hospitality, bid the rest of the group goodnight, and headed back to the pier and crashed in an exhausted heap under my mosquito net.

***

And was jerked awake in the morning by the sound of the world coming to an end. Or so I thought – the storm I had watched from afar last night had finally reached the island, and the thunder sounded as though the sky was being savagely ripped in two, shaking the earth while the rain bucketed down and flew through the open windows. I jumped up to close the shutters, then laid in my bed and listened to the storm rage around us. It passed soon enough, and while the others got up to continue the dives for their Open Water Diver course, while I spent the rest of the day wandering around the island, relaxing on the dock, and swimming over at Longbeach. It was incredibly peaceful, and exactly what I needed – except for a brief run-in with an anemone. When you’re SCUBA diving, you can see all the creatures around you, so you know not to touch anything that looks potentially dangerous or unfriendly. However, as I put my foot down onto what I thought was a sandy ocean floor, I felt a texture that was very unusual and unfamiliar. I pulled my foot back in shock, and a few seconds later was met with an intense stinging on the top of my foot. I splashed my way back to the shore and sat on the sand – there were a few red marks where the stinging sensation still remained, but it didn’t seem too serious. I went back to the pier to check with Justine, who said there are a couple of different types of plants that could have delivered that kind of sting, though I still thought it was a little bizarre that the stinging was on the top of my foot, and not on the underside that had initially stepped on whatever underwear creature I had stumbled across. We poured some vinegar on the marks, which relieved the pain a little, but Justine assured me it was nothing to be concerned about.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

***

As the end of the afternoon rolled around, it was time to say goodbye to Koh Rong Samleon and head back to Sihanoukville. I had booked an overnight bus from there to Siem Reap, and rest of my Cambodian adventure awaited. As I sailed back to the mainland, I realised that my time on the coast hadn’t been anything like I was expecting. Instead of being completely relaxed, I’d found myself in a grungy den of a party hostel, and instead of feeling refreshed I had spent four days in one pair of shorts, having not had a proper shower and only brushing my teeth once. However, I felt as though I had overcome another challenge by taking on my anal retentiveness when it comes to personal hygiene. It’s not something I’d like to make a habit out of, but I now know that should I find myself in such compromising situations again, I can survive without having any kind of breakdown.

I’d also done some awesome SCUBA diving and seen a handful of sights that few people will ever see in their lifetimes. So when I made it back to the mainland and boarded my night bus to Siem Reap, I felt content in having explored another unique corner of the planet on my round the world adventure.

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One thought on “Sunshine Slums and a Private Paradise

  1. Pingback: A Nomads Life For Me | Tino's Travels

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