After a few days in Kratie, seeing the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins and exploring the countryside north of the town, I booked a bus to Sihanoukville, via Phnom Penh. The minibus showed up an hour late, filled with Khmer passengers and a large office photo copier crammed in on top. We took a bumpy backroads journey through northern Cambodia to the capital, where I was put on a more comfortable and less crowded coach to Sihanoukville. The whole journey took twelve hours and for most of it my ears were assaulted by the Khmer dance music that seems mandatory for all Cambodian bus companies.
I used to live in Cambodia and so, for me, everything there is filled with a mix of memories. Riding down the “Death Highway,” also known by the more prosaic “Highway #4,” from Phnom Penh to Sihanouvkille was a journey I’d taken many times. Once, I’d done it by motorcycle – a hair-raising ride that, on numerous occasions, nearly proved to be my last. Passing through little villages of tin shacks, wandering cattle, and ubiquitous roadside vendors selling coconuts and petrol, I was reminded of so many trips throughout this fascinating land.
For me, however, Cambodia is not only filled with happy memories, nor terrifying memories of wild motorbike adventures into the jungles and mountains. It was a place I went filled with hope, and where all was lost. It was the scene of the destruction of so much of my life; where everything fell apart and I was left with nothing. I’d long known that I would return to Cambodia, and to Sihanoukville, and yet it was something I mostly dreaded.
Yet as the road bends eastwards after the turnoff to Kampot and Kep, and emerges from the mountain valley and into the coastal plains, by Ream National Park, I felt a sense of excitement – of a genuine enthusiasm to be back. Although many of my friends there had died, or left the country, I still had a few close friends alive and well, and lots of places I wanted to revisit. I felt that, having turned my life around thoroughly in the past two years, it would be good to arrive back in town a different person, having overcome the calamities which beset my life there.
As expected, the bus was running late, and yet as we came within a few kilometres of the town, the driver inexplicably reduced his speed to a literal walking pace, and though I could see the Angkor Brewery, whose gates mark one entrance to Sihanoukville, the bus moved painfully forward. I wanted to shout, “You bastard, get a move on!” but eventually the driver came to a complete stop, opened the door, and handed a basket of fruit to a girl who appeared to be his girlfriend. I told myself I was lucky – this had been the driver’s only personal stop. On some routes in this part of the world, drivers will stop to give gifts to their girlfriends in every town along the road.
We eventually arrived at the Sorya bus station, which meant I could walk to the Golden Lions Circle and find a guesthouse without having to negotiate with the cut-throat tuk-tuk mafia. I shirked a few dozen offers and made the twenty minute trek, sweaty and starving. I checked in at Mick & Craig’s mostly because I knew their food was good. The room was fine, and at $7 for a night was quite reasonably priced. Having gone a whole day without eating, I ordered a steak, a rack of ribs, a chicken kebab, a baked potato, and a beer… and was delighted that the bill totalled only $6.
Ah, it was good to be back after all.
A few days passed by in a blur of beer. I caught up on all the changes in the town, including the expected gossip – a list of people who’d recently died, fled the country, or been shaken down by the whores or the cops, or, sometimes, both. This town has a bad reputation in many respects. The tourists who come here have long been the adventurous type – and often adventurous to the extent of being entirely reckless, risking their lives for seemingly no reason. The expats who live here tend to be older, alcoholic, with a propensity for prostitutes, and all-too-often they are plagued by some self-destructive impulse. People don’t last long here, and the talk of the town is invariably someone’s death or a horrific accident. There are also masses of Chinese and Russian criminals who come here, and Cambodians whose life of poverty in the provinces compels them to desperation in a town full of easy marks. It all comes to a rather combustible mix, a place where death is never a surprise, and tragedy a part of the weekly routine as much as BBQ Fridays and All Day Happy Hour Monday.
So it was I heard repeatedly in various bars a heart-breaking story of carelessness, callousness, and a life being ripped away in the night for no reason. It was the talk of the town – the latest and greatest tragic story in local circles. This year’s hottest Sihanoukville Scandal. And, unfortunately, it was a story about one of my closest friends.
After a few dark days ruminating on this sad tale, I moved out of town to Mien Mien Bunaglows on Otres Beach – an altogether more relaxing part of town. Only a few kilometres from downtown Sihanouvkille, Otres is the laidback, hippy mecca of Cambodia. While the parties rage and whores work the streets on Victory Hill and Occheuteal, Otres is usually asleep. It may as well exist on a different planet. In the day it is four kilometres of white sand and wild but shallow water, fringed by palm trees and small beach restaurants, and at night just a sleepy village where the guests head to bed early, tired from swimming, sunbathing, and smoking pot in the sun all day. There are no regulars here; no permanent population except for the few Khmers in the local village. Otres is the new backpacker destination – one of the premier chill-out spots in the whole of Southeast Asia. In any bar there are countless twenty-one year old gap-year students with beards, dreadlocks, and baggy elephant print pyjama pants, talking about vegetarianism and volunteering, eating banana pancakes and trying to haggle the price of a beer down from $0.75 to $0.50. Old women walk the beach offering massages, children sell bracelets, tuk-tuk drivers sleep in hammocks, sleepily raising their head at any passer-by asking, “Tuk-tuk?” and fat stray dogs play in the surf.
Otres, like the rest of Sihanoukville, is busier than it used to be, especially for August. This is the rainy season – the extreme low season when it’s not unheard of for a bar to go several days without a customer. Or at least that was what it used to be like. Tourism in Sihanoukville has been on a permanent rise for a decade now, and the Chinese started to get in the on the act about two years ago, fuelling an explosion of activity. The amount of development that has gone on since I left, just two years ago, is nothing short of incredible, and although I’ve never actually been out there, I’m told things are even wilder on the islands – Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The buyers are almost always Chinese and most space is being taken up by giant, sprawling casinos. Yet out in Otres it’s still just small bungalow complexes and beach bars. Here, the biggest change is that they’re moving from cheap wooden beach shacks to luxury stone beach shacks, at least at the far end of the beach, known as Otres 2. But it seems Sihanoukville will continue to grow under the influence of Chinese money, and I wouldn’t be surprised to return in another few years and find it spread all the way to the airport, some 12 km east.
My time in Sihanoukville, while difficult, was largely peaceful and pleasant – especially the days spent out at Otres – and I’m glad I returned. I caught up with old friends and said goodbye to a few ghosts. It has been good to see Cambodia once again – a country I truly adored before it became the scene of a great many tragedies for me. Yet Cambodia seems to be that sort of place. A look back through the country’s history is one of near endless human suffering. It seems unfair, almost like the country is the grip of a brutal curse. But there is, of course, beauty here, and peace in places, and beyond the whores and thieves and tuk-tuk drivers there are some incredible people here. And on a personal level I have managed to forge some new positive memories and dispel some of the dark clouds that hung over the town as it existed in my mind.
As I write this I am sitting at Phnom Penh Airport, awaiting a flight to Kota Bharu in Malaysia, the next stage in this journey. Yet before I left, Cambodia had one last trick to play on me. I woke up this morning to a light rain, which is hardly surprising given that this is wet season. However, less than a minute after I got my bags loaded up on my rented motorcycle, the heavens opened and an almighty rainstorm was unleashed. I had a bus to catch and a bike to return, so there would be no waiting it out. In a few minutes I was soaked to the bone, and the ride back to Sihanoukville was miserable. It was the sort of driving rain which hits the road and bounces back to eye level; the sort of rain which stings your skin badly with each drop, even when you’re not riding a motorcycle; the sort of rain that floods roads, causes mudslides, and hides treacherous potholes. I rode half-blind to the rental shop and then walked to Mick & Craig’s, where I was to meet my bus to the airport. I waited for an hour before it arrived, and then sat shivering for four hours in the bus’s freezing air conditioning. I should be able to get out of these soaking clothes and open my bag up to dry its contents when I reach Kota Bharu, in some nine hours…