A beach week in Cambodia

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A place where you have to wait for the cows to cross the road, where you can hear roosters crow, and where you have to watch out for the chickens underfoot, is a place worth being in.

I would have liked it if that sentence had begun with, "I've always said..." but then it would have been untrue. It's just something I've always had at the back of my mind, and probably explains why I think the (very incipient) move in Toronto to allow backyard chicken coops is a masterstroke.

In any case, in Ireland in 2010 I enjoyed being surrounded by sheep as they made their way across the road, blocking traffic for several heart-stopping (for the moderns) minutes, and in Sihanoukville I think it's aces when the cows amble up the road, moving bovinely, that is, slowly, disrupting an already pretty slow pace of life.

On April 9th I began what is likely the last leg of my sojourn in Southeast Asia, flying from Bangkok to Phnom Penh ready to be shocked by yet another culture. It's a way-station of sorts on my way to my second sojourn in Viet Nam, which will begin around April 24th. There's little hope, I think, of seeing/learning much about the place in the little time I've allotted, especially if you take into account my little plan of spending the first week in this once-benighted place lazing around on a beach.

So as not to exhaust myself, I spent a night in Phnom Penh, in the picturesque River Star Hotel, just north of the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. Best moment? While walking through the park along the river, I came upon a group of about 300 Cambodians ... line-dancing ... to what seemed to be Cambodian folk music. And it's moments like these when I never have my camera! Couldn't prove it to save my life!

Next day I headed on a bus to Sihanoukville, one of the coastal sun-and-fun capitals of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Did I say "Kingdom?" Yes, I did. I had somehow completely missed that Cambodia was returned to a constitutional monarchy in 1993, with the inimitable Norodom Sihanouk ascending to the throne once again. (Having once been King, the king who freed Cambodia from vassalage to the French, he abdicated in 1955, turning the throne over to his father, so he could enter politics, eventually becoming Prime Minister. He then returned as Head of State for reasons that are murky, and best left to your own research.) But it's not a kingdom like Thailand, with storeys-high portraits of the royal family everywhere you look. In fact, you're hard-pressed to find any.

But never mind that. I was in Sihanoukville to visit MF, my friend from earlier Chiangmai weblog postings. He'd gone to Sihanoukville to escape the Chiangmai pollution and pervasive coughing fits, much as many other expats had done, heading to cleaner air in Cambodia. He kindly arranged for a room in his guesthome for me, and a local rental motorcycle, a Honda Wave, 100cc, which is one of the standard bikes of SE Asia.

And thus began a pretty indolent week, getting up in the morning to go to the beach, showering, going somewhere for a splendid breakfast, riding around on motorcycles, having lunch, napping, going to the beach, another shower, dinner, and, for me, anyway, a bar and a pool table. (After a week of this, I'm getting pretty good.)

The Sunset Garden Guesthome is run by local character "Mama Medicine," apparently a 68-year-old, French-speaking Cambodian who's likely seen a thing or two. She's well-entrenched in the community, and can tell story after story of the guests who go off and make their own travel arrangements, only to spend lots more money than they would have if they'd just let Mama do it for them. The "medicine" part of her moniker comes from her being an apparently accomplished purveyor of alternative medical arts, spending lots of time with her floral and other natural ingredients, cutting them up and drying them on the top floor of the home in the sunny Sihanoukville weather, often punctuated with pretty dramatic thunderstorms. At times there can be some scurrying to keep things out of what are always pretty short-lived rains (although perhaps not during the rainy season).

The guesthome itself is a rather haphazard affair, with some rooms having air conditioning, some not; some having toilets that flush, some having toilets with buckets of water you have to use to flush them; and no hot showers (unless you're lucky enough to be showering on a very hot day when the water tanks on the roof have heated up, and no one else has taken the hot water, although sometimes, I'm told, though I never experienced it myself, the water gets too hot, and, since there's only one tap, there's no way to cool it down). You can get up in the morning and order breakfast, which will be delivered by the staff of a neighbouring guesthome, owned by Mama's daughter. Coffee and/or tea are made and delivered by Mama herself.

There's a laundry service; in my case, mine was done three days after I'd given it to them. In the eight nights I ended up sleeping there, my sheet was not changed once, though I'd asked after the fourth day. If you want clean towels, you have to ask.

The beach near the guesthome was very nice. The public part of it was a tad smallish, though no one's prevented from walking or swimming in the parts that are fronted by private businesses (one of which was a cavernous disco called "Airport"). The view is amazing, out across the Gulf of Thailand, some islands in the distance, much, much sky. It's one of those places where you can see any number of weather systems in the distance at any one time.

MF and I spent a magical hour in the water watching one of those weather systems in the sky directly over us. It was a long front of some sort which gradually marched from horizon to horizon, bifurcating the heavens in two distinct systems. Marching behind the edge of the front itself was a dramatic thunderstorm that belched and crackled and spat cold rain down on us. Up to my neck in soothing, warm sea water, the drama and temperature differences were an unforgettable experience. "Ack! I'm getting wet!" I exclaimed, cleverly. Not so cleverly, neither of us could remember what you're supposed to do when caught in a thunderstorm while in the water. Run on to the beach and under the trees? Don't think so. Maybe I should look it up.

On an otherwise not-so-memorable snorkelling excursion (USD$15, three islands, two stops to snorkel around very small demarcated areas, one incredibly long stop for lunch on a beach with nothing else to do and where the chairs, lounges, and toilets were all for rent) I managed to stumble into the sea with my camera. Only for a second, but well long enough to put it out of commission. Not sure if I'll be able to get it fixed while in Cambodia—there doesn't look to be any clearly reliable Nikon repair outlets in Phnom Penh. Damn! Will have to wait for Sai Gon before I can take any more decent photos. Still have my Blackberry, though.

Another lowlight of the week occurred on the same day as the excursion. MF took me to a seafood restaurant that he highly recommended and wanted me to experience. As we sat down in the large, busy, semi-outdoor cavern, I said, remembering other experiences we'd recently had, maybe we'd better check on what's not available before we get our hearts set on anything. Good thing, because there was no crab, no shark, no shrimps, no rays, in fact, not much of anything except beef, chicken, and small amounts of fish. Not the point, I observed, and we repaired to a beach-side restaurant we'd been to before. In this place, MF got his food and was done with it before my meal even came. As I'm fairly tolerant of restaurant eccentricities, I let it go for a while, but about 15 minutes after he'd finished, I began to discuss with the waiter (expat Slav) how incredibly inept this was, to let one patron wait and wait while his seat-mate has a meal. The server took umbrage, blaming "these Asian cooks" and their ways of doing (and not doing) things. I observed that that was not the point, that it is his job to keep an eye on things, ride the cooks, let the patron know what's going on, not just let her/him sit there in mystery, etc. etc. It was largely unfamiliar terrain for me—I almost never get cross with servers, partly because they have hard jobs, and partly because I'm not convinced it does any good. Anyway, once the Red Snapper arrived, it was exquisite, and it was hard to stay mad.

The next day, a day I was supposed to get on a bus back to Phnom Penh, I woke up with terrible stomach cramps and diarrhoea. My mind immediately turned to the evening before, thinking it might be another demonstration of why it's not good to have a server mad at you. But then I also remembered the snorkelling trip and the chicken breasts it took the boat driver and tour guide and their beer-swilling mates way too long to get on the fire, and thought that might be a more likely vector. Anyway, fresh banana, plain rice, and black tea was recommended, a regimen I mostly pursued, and I slept most of the day away, and then all the night as well.

Next day, feeling much better, I got on that bus. Though, surprisingly to me, I had actually got used to taking cold showers, a hot one was the first order of business in my new residence.

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