Despite a few scratches and nearly 100 souvenir bug bites smothering my legs, I had the most amazing weekend I’ve experienced yet in Cambodia. If the rigor of city life has left you feeling blue (which it has for me this month), then a trip to Sihanoukville is just the right prescription to rejuvenate you. From the clear, sparkling ocean washing up on sandy white beaches to the abundance of delicious (and cheap!) seafood, all signs in this resort town point to an interesting mingling of relaxation and adventure.
Road Trip: Khmer Style
Probably the best part of my long weekend expedition to Sihanoukville was the fact that I didn’t have to go it alone. Although I’m getting used to my own company during my travels, it was nice to have Bandol and Boly along. As an added bonus, Boly took us in his car, so we got to forgo the annoyingly long bus ride.
So thus we have my first Khmer road trip. Just like everything Khmer, the road trip had this fluidity about it. We left at 7 a.m. (we managed to talk Boly into leaving an hour later than he had planned) and it felt like we stopped every 5 minutes. First we stopped for drinks. Then for gas. Then some breakfast. Then some bananas. Then we stopped to offer the bananas to Buddha and other dead ancestors along the side of the road. Somehow, among the myriad of pit stops (and visits with dead ancestors), we managed to get to our destination by noon. (Time sure is tricky here.)
After driving around town a bit, we decided on a guesthouse across the street from the famous “Serendipity Beach.” For $10 you get a comfortable bed (at least I thought it was comfortable – the boys didn’t sleep so well, apparently), A/C and a hot shower (oh how I miss hot showers!). The guest house itself is what you might imagine as a budget level tropical getaway bungalow. The buildings were fashioned out of weathered boards and surrounded a garden of big leafed plants. Outside each of the rooms hung towels and laid sandy sandals of all the beach goers. There were even some beach bum hippies hanging out, completing the tropics scene.
Just a 100-meter walk across the street and we found ourselves at the beach. This particular beach – officially called Occheaceal Beach but known affectionately as Serendipity Beach –is the hotspot among backpackers, with bungalow after bungalow offering comfortable papazon chairs, delicious eats and happy hour specials, all with a spectacular view of the aqua clear waters of the Indian Ocean. It’s the only beach in the area to have rooms for over-looking the water, and if you are looking to cut costs (and are really brave) you can take up one of the seaside restaurants on their free accommodations. I secretly wanted to give this a try, but when I saw the signs for a free stay then saw no building to stay in, I became a little skeptical.
Although this beach was great and, being the rainy season, wasn’t overrun with tourists, we headed off to a more deserted beach, free kids trying to sell you cheap junk and where the tourism industry has yet to plant its dirty hands. Bandol found the area during one of his past trips and it’s quite the find. I, of course, was eager to claim a spot in the sand and dive into a book while catching some sun. This is exactly what I did. However, this also meant I got bitten by sand flies, which have left my legs spotted and itchy. (That’s the price of paradise, I suppose.)
Then I decided to go for a swim. It’s amazing how warm the water is here. Even in the middle of the summer, the Atlantic can be quite chilly and take some adjusting to, but here it was like tepid bathwater. And to add to that, there’s all sorts of treasures to find. We discovered sand dollars! (At least that’s what we determined they were.) Thousands of little black “coins” were scattered along the ocean floor. I didn’t realize they are black when they are alive and then turn white when they die. You learn something new every day.
On Saturday, we decided to snorkel at the main beach to see what else we could find. At the end opposite from our guest house, we found an area full of coral. I think most of it was dead because it was hard and it really scratched up my legs, but it was still cool to look at. Among some of it, we did manage to find some sea amebas, hermit crabs, some sort of mussel and schools of tiny fish. If I ever do this again, though, I’m buying a body suit – the scratches hurt!
There’s no denying it. I’m a foodie, and this weekend I discovered, hands down, my favorite thing about Cambodia – the Sihanoukville seafood markets. Another great thing about traveling with friends who know the area, you can avoid all the man-made hype and experience the real culture. Sihanoukville cuisine is all about fruits of the sea – food so fresh it’s still moving.
Bubbling aquariums at the market boasted shrimp, crab, squid, mussels, scallops and fish of all shapes, colors and sizes. This is how it works: you walk into the market (probably salivating, unless seafood makes you queasy, then probably holding your nose). You point to whatever it is your taste buds and stomach desire. The vendors spot you a price by the kilo. A kilo is a pretty standard amount to buy, but of course, you can always ask for more or less depending on your hunger level. Then another vendor, if need be, can boil or fry your selections as you desire.
We bought about 4 kilos of food for dinner – blue crabs, two types of shrimp and scallops – and this rang up to about $20. Can it get much better than that?!? Of course, as is in Khmer custom, we also had to buy some rice and sweet and sour sauce for dipping. Then we bought some wine and took our feast to the beach for a seaside picnic.
The second best thing about Cambodia (after the fresh seafood, of course) is the monkeys. Monkeys are just plain fun. We were riding around town doing a bit of exploring and decided to venture up a hill to check out a ritzy (or maybe not so ritzy… it was actually kind of drab looking) hotel. On the road up, we came across a colony of monkeys! Check out the video of us feeding them bananas:
Unfortunately, our getaway was a short two-night stay. (Although, I contemplated quitting my work and becoming a beach bum living off the free beach “accommodations.”) However, that didn’t mean my Cambodian exploration ended. On the way home, we stopped at Kabal Chaay Waterfall for a bit of play.
At first, I was content to take some pretty pictures of the pristine beauty, perhaps dip my toes in its crisp, clear water, but the Cambodian way of life wouldn’t allow it. Without too much convincing from Boly, the little girl selling food, and a Cambodian Australian girl we met, I found myself – fully clothed, mind you – bearing the weight of the waterfall on top of my body.
If ever there is anything bothering you in life that you just can’t let go of, I recommend standing under a waterfall. (I mean, granted its not the magnitude of, let’s say, Niagra Falls.) I should have taken my cues from the little girl, who dragged me by the hand behind the waterfalls, so she could let out a shrill scream. Scream your troubles away and end with a giggle – she could market this sort of philosophy.
The day and the weekend put me in just the right state to sleep away most of the car ride home.
P.S. My legs REALLY itch!