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Escaping Serendipity

My initial impressions of Cambodia were good ones, though in the back of my head I expected the transition from Vietnam to here to be similar to when I travelled from Argentina to Bolivia a few years ago; that is to say the things like buses and hostels would become I little more shit. This turned out to be somewhat true but it wasn’t apparent right away.

I arrived in Phnom Penh and transferred to a bus with Sihanoukville with Owen, Chantel and Kristina. While waiting for the transfer we had to hide in the dodgy bus terminal to escape the onslaught of over friendly tuk tuk drivers shouting out “My friend, my friend! Tuk tuk?” every time you accidentally made eye contact. When the bus to Sihanoukville arrived we got on and enjoyed the Cambodian scenery pass by while being blasted by the freezing air conditioners. It was strange that it just felt different to Vietnam, though i cant explain my. Perhaps because it was just long stretches of greenery with no rice paddies or coastlines in sight. I was still pondering this as I was nibbling on a fresh pineapple at our half way rest stop when a curious man came shambling by. He was a tall skinny Cambodian guy with long black dread locks. He looked wild and homeless, like a ghetto Mowgli, wearing nothing except for some tiger stripe leotards which were torn and thus only covered one leg. He kind of shuffled around at the side of the road then came over to rummage through a rubbish bin at the stop, though he only seemed to pull out plastic bags. With his loot of plastic he retreated back across the road and started sorting them, jamming some into a bag tied around his waist. Perplexed I stood there wondering what he was about, by now Owen and Chantel had also joined me. Without coming up with any reasonable answers we turned back towards the bus. As we were boarding Mogule came back over towards us and pulled down the front of his leotard and started playing win his man bits. Thankfully the bus took off at this point and we were spared with only a fleeting glimpse of whatever was next.

Born in the USA
Our tuk tuk driver's helmet looked like it came right out of the Vietnam Top Gear episode.

We finally made it to Sihanoukville after dark and got a tuk tuk to a place called Monkey Republic at Serendipity Beach, the current nightlife spot and backpacker hangout of Sihanoukville. This backpacker feel might not last though as the whole Serendipity area appears to be a construction zone with rubble filling the roads and alleys and the skeletons of mega hotels rising up everywhere. I’m scared to see what this place will look like in 5 or 10 years.

Under constuction
Serendipity alley... negotiating this rubble filled street at night while intoxicated is a bit of a challenge.

On the way we were joking that we would probably see Andy here again. Andy was a large English northerner who we had last seen in Nha trang, the beach party spot in Vietnam. He seemed to be trying to reinvent himself on his first big travel adventures, and in his growing process managed to upset a few of my traveling companions and made me think him a little ignorant of the larger world. Well speak of the Devil and he shall come, and no sooner did we walk into the Monkey Republic when I spotted Andy and Marin (also from Nha Trang) sitting at the bar. I went over and said hello, and after a couple more nights with them I decided I had grown to quite like Andy and could forgive him his not so great first impressions. Anyway, the republic had no vacancies so we checked in to Mick and Craigs next door, dropped off our bags and got changed, then headed straight back to the bar at the Republic for food and happy hour beers. I ordered a traditional Khmer dish, chicken Loc Lac which is chicken in a peppery sauce, and it was amazing. I suspected that I would greatly enjoy the food in Cambodia. (The Khmer are the race of people that make up the majority of the Cambodian population, the Cambodian language is Khmer, the food Khmer etc).

Ferris Wheel
Night time shot of the night markets near Serendipity Beach.

My three nights in Sihanoukville were basically the same and consisted of heavy drinking and general partying. The basic pattern was we would drink several beers at the republic, then stumble down the decrepit dirt road towards Serendipity beach to where the most popular bars were. Since it was low season most places were empty so everyone would end up at the same place, a place called JJ’s. On the way would stop in at the place next door to use up our free drink vouched they would inevitably give us on the way past. I can’t remember the name of this place but I called it prostitute bar as it was full of, well I’m sure you can figure it out. It’s cliental was mainly middle aged and older single men who were trying to get cosy with the young (some illegally young) Cambodian pros who haunted the place. After finishing our free drink we moved along.

Owen hangs his head as the JJ''s crowd turns the bar top into the dance floor.

JJ’s was a small seedy dive bar filled with backpackers. It’s staff was two Khmer boys, Jason and his cousin who’s name also probably also begins with a J, who were the owners, plus a bunch of westerns who worked the bar. Jason spoke amazing English with a British accent and had a trendy hipster haircut and a mustache so I didn’t think he was Cambodian at first. Apparently his family had escaped to California during the Khmer Rouge and he grew up there. This still doesn’t explain the accent though. The other staff were mainly British and Aussie, and it seemed to be their job to get drunk and start the party in between serving drinks. Our first night there was Andy’s quarter century birthday, second was a half moon party with glowing paint, third night was a supposed beach party but by then everyone was pretty hung over and the high tide removed most of the beach. I remember one night sitting at the bar with Martin and noticing blood on his shirt. Earlier in the day him and a friend had been relaxing on the beach when they were attacked by monkeys. The blood was either a monkeys of his friends, I can’t remember which.

Just Fishing
Some travelers fishing off the pier out the front os JJ's at dusk.

While the nightlife of Sihanoukville was good, day life was something else entirely. My first day there my travel troupe and I decided to hit the beach. Unfortunately Serendipity beach doesn’t live up to it’s name, I think it should be called Death Valley. The beach is extremely narrow, with only 5 or so meters of sand before the wall of beach front “resorts”. There are sun chairs all the way along interspersed between pipes pumping out dirty water, which may or may not be sewerage, into the ocean. Also there are legions of sellers circling like vultures waitin for you to show any sign of weakness. We sat down to order brunch and within seconds were surrounded by about 30 people looking at us like zombies while some tried to sell fruit, others lobsters, and the majority little bracelets made out of string. It was extremely daunting and we left the beach as soon as our food arrived, which seemed to take forever.

The word through the grape vine said that Outré beach was the place to go to get away from the Serendipity circus so in the afternoon we got a tuk tuk there. Indeed the beach was much nicer, cleaner, and less crowded, but the sellers were still there just in smaller numbers. While sitting and enjoying a fruit smoothy in the sun along came the first wave. Two girls trying to sell pedicures and telling me I needed to cut my toe nails. I escaped into the water for a swim while Kristina and Chantel ended up getting their legs done with threading, which took hours.

Outre Beach
A nice view of Outre beach before the arrival of the bracelet selling kids.

After swimming Owen and myself got harassed by two boys making bracelets. Kids making bracelets are the typical beach seller here. They start by asking questions and being all friendly, then they ask your favourite colour and next thing you know they have put a “friendship” bracelet around your wrist for “free”. After this they won’t leave you alone till you buy something from them. I said I would pay a dollar if he made me a Cambodia flag bookmark, and instead he made me a red blue and white bracelet, which now lives on my camera lens instead of my wrist. Oh well. I did got a really good 45 minute massage for $5 though. A lady came by offering massages and I really needed one, and since we were on the beach in public I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about wandering hands or happy endings. But the pedicure girl heard and shouted out “hey you promised me!” as apparently I’d agreed earlier that if I wanted a massage she would do it. After some Khmer shouting between the two they agreed to split it and I got a full body massage from two people at once while lying in the sun on the beach. It was good. So in the end we left Outré beach still spending far too much money because of the persists sellers. Apparently the only way to truly escape them is to do a boat trip out to the islands, which I did the next day.

Bracelet Boy
One of the Outre beach kids making a bracelet for Owen.

The boat was a very nice three story cruiser, which took us out to Koh Rong Samloem island (I think). Kristina decided to stay behind and Owen, Chantel and myself arrived at the boat in the morning where we were greated with tea, coffee, doughnuts and banana cake. It was a good breakfast and after we were introduced to our captain, an eccentric portly German man. We also met another Australian, Simon, who was a drama teacher from Melbourne. He had that slightly camp way of talking that drama types often have, and this kept making me think of him as Mr G from Summer Heights High. Following introductions we cruised for one hour to a dive spot where we could go snorkeling and jump off the seven metre tall boat. The snorkeling was great, though the overcast sky ment the water wasn’t as clear as it could have been. I still saw many different sorts of fish and coral and fields of sea anenomies.

Me and Owen leaping off the the top deck of our boat.

Back on the boat we were told that if anyone did a backflip off the top they would get a free beer. A British guy, Jake, was trying to build himself up for it but just when he was getting reading for a warm up jump his wife told everyone he was doing it. Peer pressur forced his hand and he went for it, and it all went horribly wrong. He jumped and tried to bail an ended up just twisting sidewise around a full rotation and went splat on his back. It looked painful and I managed to capture it as a photo sequence. Next stop was the island, another two hours away, and on the way we had lunch. Lunch was an amazing khmer buffet, the highlight being fish Amok, a delicious mild curry. I went back for seconds and thirds of this. One of the crew also caught a huge barracuda just after lunch, which meant we got to eat super fresh sashimi on the ride home. It tasted good, really good. When we got to the island I chilled out on the super white sands for awhile and swam in the crystal clear turquoise water. It was everything a remote beach should be, and was blissfully free of anyone trying to sell me something. We had finally escaped serendipity.

Jake Falls
Jakes attempt at a backflip off a 7m boat. It didn't go so well for him.