In talking with/writing to friends and relatives back home I have compared Sihanoukville to Queensland Australia’s Gold Coast, but actually I think it is more akin to Byron Bay in New South Wales. It has the same bohemian vibe. One long weekend, six of us volunteers headed down to Sihanoukville check out the beach scene. Our volunteer coordinator sorted out tickets to get us there. It is a bus ride of about four or maybe five hours, which seemed longer because the buses here invariably have some very loud Khmer music videos and stand-up comedians on the TV, which gets a bit wearing after a while, and the seats are never comfortable. Once we arrived we bought tickets for the trip back and grabbed a tuk tuk to Serendipity Beach, which is the main backpacker hang-out in Sihanoukville. There are actually three main beaches, but we didn’t manage to get to the others. I would definitely recommend Serendipity: the guesthouses are right on the beach, with outside seating spreading out onto the sand, and a room in any one of these is an extremely reasonable price. Our guesthouse had a bar looking right out across the bay to the islands in the distance – so amazingly beautiful. At night they let off fireworks all along the beach, they fire up the barbecues for that authentic beach feel, and some of the places have comfy couches right there on the sand, looking out into the pulsing black sea and the stars. I kept feeling like I was stuck in a “wish you were here” postcard the whole weekend.
That first night most of us headed across town a bit to a restaurant called “The Snake House” which was a guesthouse that also had a reptile display. This was a fairly upper-class establishment with very reasonable prices, and the restaurant has a huge, open fish tank in the middle of the eating area, where you can watch the fish and look at coral. While you’re waiting for your meal you can wander around and look at all the different snakes and lizards. They had some really spectacular iguanas! After that relaxing first night we parted company and the next morning a few of us headed across to Bamboo Island (Koh Russei) for a night. One of the other volunteers had recommended it as being worth a visit and I for one was absolutely blown away.
First of all, to board the boat we had to wade waist-deep into the sea and climb up a little ladder (the water was perfect so it was a lovely novelty). Thankfully a man from the boat transferred our backpacks from the beach to the boat on his head, because knowing me I would have accidentally dropped mine in the first wave! The boat itself was a long fishing boat with an outboard motor, and a canopy over some long bench seats. The trip there was fine – I usually get seasick, but the breeze in my face was just so delicious and everything was so interesting I didn’t have time to think about it. I can’t say the same for the golden Labrador that was one of our fellow passengers. I’ve never seen a dog look so sick! It got sicker and sicker as the trip went on, until it was lying on the bottom of the boat with its tongue sticking out and its eyes closed. It perked up very quickly when we weighed anchor at the island though. And wow! What an island! The beach so clean and white, the water so blue and clear, the island itself so green and lush… we immediately went to the first eating hut and booked a bungalow for the night. It was a few doors down, right on the beach, and very simple – but who needs more than a place to lie down and a mosquito net over your head at night? We swam to our hearts’ content – sometimes in the rain, which was unforgettably delicious – and read books, drank fruit shakes, played cards and generally relaxed.
The next morning we got up early to watch the sunrise and do some yoga on the beach. The sand was cool under my feet and the air was fresh. It was like something out of a daydream. I laughed to myself at the end while doing savasana (the final relaxation pose) because usually I have to imagine I’m lying on a tropical beach with the sound of waves in my ears and the sun on my face! Afterwards we went for a dip and the rest of the day was spent pretty well in the same way as the first. One major difference – if you do ever end up heading to Bamboo Island, make sure you take the trail across the island to the other beach. You walk up this green, semi-beaten path, past the wooden stilt-huts of the villagers decorated with strings of shells hanging from the verandahs, past chickens roaming free and cows in their fields, through a patch of jungle, until the trees clear away and you see the other beach spreading out before you. This one has really good waves for body-surfing, and an equally lovely eating hut where we hung out playing 500 and chatting. Then we headed back to catch our boat to Sihanoukville again. The trip this time was not quite as tranquil and I had to work hard to concentrate on the land and the sights instead of the rocking of the boat. Lucky I was because I saw a sea eagle snatch a fish right out of the sea! We were pretty glad to get back to the guesthouse at the end of the trip though, and have a nice warm shower. When you’re sharing rooms you can get pretty classy accommodation for not very much a night!
The rest of the trip passed pretty uneventfully until halfway through the bus-trip on the way back to Phnom Penh when something fell out of the bottom of the bus with a clunk. After a brief stop the bus kept driving but it soon became evident from the pungent fumes that something needed a decent looking at. We all got off the bus and it drove off towards Phnom Penh without us. We felt a little bereft, especially because no one had explained anything to us about what was happening next. We just followed everyone else trudging towards Phnom Penh, calculating in a half-laughing manner how long it would take us to walk back to the city as we passed each road marker marking down each kilometre we walked. 92, 91, 90, 89… one of the volunteers struck up a conversation with a few different passengers who spoke a bit of English, and was given the impression that the bus would come back eventually. It was certainly a peaceful way to see the countryside, and I was glad for a chance to stretch my legs. Kilometres passed and we ended up hopping into a mini-van that pulled up, soliciting passengers. We hadn’t gone far with this driver when we came into a fairly large town and spotted our bus at a garage. So the Khmer guy travelling with us, one of the men we spoke to on our trek and our self-nominated translator, got the driver to stop and went to see what was happening. Well, the bus had just finished being fixed, so we all piled out of the mini-van and back onto the bus. The bus went back to pick up stragglers, pulled a crazy u-turn on the fairly narrow road, and a few hours later reached Phnom Penh: home sweet home.