Saturday, March 26, 2011

Coastal Cambodia

The story of how we ended up in Cambodia over the Chinese New Year break is one that could easily be a post in itself. It may appear in some form sometime down the road when we actually get to go to the country we'd been planning to visit, but since we have yet to obtain visas for said country, I'll refrain from saying anything about it until we're safely back in Canada. Needless to say, Cambodia was not our first pick, as we'd already been there and we were desperately in need of filling in our Facebook maps with countries we had yet to visit. Not that we regretted the decision, nor was it a difficult one to make (actually, it was kind of made for us since we booked the tickets three days in advance and the airfare to anywhere remotely close-by was out of our budget). Ever since I'd seen pictures of some of the islands off of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, I'd been keen to explore the coastal region of Cambodia, but I didn't quite know where to fit it in. I guess I should be thankful then, that the decision was more or less made for us.

We flew into Phnom Penh and after a hearty bowl of street noodles, we boarded a coach bus full of middle-aged caucasian male sex tourists bound for Sihanoukville. Situated on the southeastern coast of Cambodia, Sihanoukville is considered to be the country's beach capital, and has secured a reputation for attracting the wrong kind of tourist. Our fellow travellers served to reinforce the darker side of Cambodia that has continued to allow the exploitation of women and children to continue, largely unchecked. While most reputable guesthouses and hotels abide by child protection policies, the fact that guesthouse rules include a stipulation that only prostitutes over the age of 18 are allowed in rooms is a strong indication of what is allowed. The fact that the man behind us on the bus told his travelling companion rather matter-of-factly that "he never took a woman home on his last night 'cause he liked to have some time to himself to pack and unwind" sealed the fact that we weren't unjustly stereotyping our fellow passengers (although it did little to prevent our skin from crawling).

Fortunately, we saw little to suggest that this kind of tourism was prevalent along the beaches of Sihanoukville (granted, we weren't looking for it either). We hadn't planned to stay in Sihanoukville longer than one night, for the real reason we had come was to find passage to one of the many islands that lay a few hours off the coast, many of which are largely untouched. With a tourism industry still in its infancy, however, there are very few islands that have facilities that cater towards tourists and as a result, things get booked up fast. Unable to book a room for the following night, therefore, we ended up staying in Sihanoukville longer than anticipated - which really wasn't such a bad thing. The beach wasn't nearly as destitute as I'd imagined, and it's hard to argue with a day or two lounging by the sea with fifty-cent beers in ready supply.

The day we left Sihanoukville for the island of Koh Rong was a journey in itself. I suppose it's part of the country's charm, but travelling any significant distance (beyond 500 meters for instance) can often take a few more days than expected. We were picked up at 12:30 up the road from the beach and loaded onto a flatbed truck, driven twenty minutes to a pier on the other side of the city, and left to our own devices as we waited for the boat that would carry us out to our destination some 2-3 hours offshore. The pier was a hub of activity, as fishermen arrived in boats to sell their catch and boats were loaded with goods to transport to the outlying islands. Scooters and motorcycles darted up and down the span of the wooden pier, whose width couldn't have been much more than a meter in length. With the additional obstacles of people, goods and livestock, navigating a safe path was no easy task.

Three hours later and we were finally aboard the vessel that would transport us to Koh Rong. The boat defies any attempt at description, and also seemed to defy all physical laws of maritime physics. It seemed to resemble the shell of something formerly used as a detached garage perhaps, with its walls and roof removed to construct the base of the boat. However, there's something about the pilots of these boats that engender a sense of absolute confidence and trust in their ability to deliver you safely to your destination. After all, if they've made it through safely all of these years, then the odds are pretty good in your favour.

The sun was beginning to set as we neared the island, but despite the dimming light, we knew that we had stumbled upon something special. When people in the West imagine what the ideal of an isolated, tropical island should look like, they imagine Koh Rong. Apart from a smattering of guest bungalows and a small fishing village on one end of the island, there is no other human presence to be seen. Instead, long stretches of white sand, crystal clear water, palm trees and outdoor showers combine to make Koh Rong the closest thing to paradise I've ever seen and probably ever will. Despite the fact that there were a number of other backpackers staying in neighbouring bungalows, it truly felt like we had the island more or less to ourselves.

While we could have easily stayed on Koh Rong for longer than we did, the limited time that we had to spend in Cambodia forced our hand. Considering that we would lose another day just getting back to the mainland, our chance to see much else on our trip was already cut short. After another overnight in Sihanoukville, we boarded a minibus for the seaside town of Kep. If Sihanoukville and Koh Rong were the ideal beach destinations for Westerners, Kep typified the Asian beach experience. The perimeter of the shore was in fact a paved promenade, forming a kind of seawall that more or less provided a barrier between the land and the sea. Being Chinese New Year, the 'beach' was buzzing with visitors from Phnom Penh, and eager entrepeneurs had set up carpets and open-air tents all along the stretch of the promenade for families to have a place to sit and enjoy the cool ocean breeze (and naturally, to avoid having to make contact with the earth). Nearly every square inch of the seawall was packed with people, with cars and motorcycles honking their horns and kicking up dust as they sped by.

Kep had once been a seaside resort town popular with the French, who had built decadent villas there during the early part of the twentieth century. With their expulsion and the long and bloody conflict with the Khmer Rouge, the villas had long been abandoned and remain only shells of what they once were. Biking through Kep, however, we spotted dozen of these ruins, where masses of vines and roots threatened to consume the crumbling walls and gates, making it impossible for me to not consider the ruins of Kep to be a kind of Angkor of French imperialism.


One of the spectacular draws to this part of Cambodia is its food. Obviously, seafood is a staple here, but even more importantly is the abundance of Kampot pepper. Used to prepare the famous Kampot Pepper Crab, it's easy to understand why countries went to war to get this kind of stuff. I've always liked crab, but I didn't realize it could be this good. Several restaurants line a particular stretch of the shore in Kep, all of which have traps that float on the water just a few meters away. During the day, this is the sight of a busy crab and seafood market, but at night, restaurants send people out to collect crabs fresh from the ocean upon receiving a customer's order. You can't beat that for freshness!

Another sight that will forever remind me of Cambodia is this:

Having trouble figuring out what it is? It's a gas station obviously - Cambodian style. Actually, this is a pretty advanced set-up. More common is a shelf or two of glass bottles filled with petrol. Sadly, these testaments to third-world poverty seem to be on their way out, as more and more actual gas stations have sprung up in the time since I'd last been to Cambodia. Damn you, progress!

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