Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Cambodian Coastal Adventure by Saigon Charlie

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville
by Saigon Charlie

Day 1 - 06:20 AM - October 27, 2004

I awoke this morning in Phnom Penh to a gloriously beautiful day with the air cool and a crisp breeze blowing, which seemed like a great way to start another journey out of the capital and make my way to the coastal towns of Cambodia.

After grabbing my 2 small bags and making my way downstairs to the street, I hailed a motorcycle taxi and headed out for the Central Market and the G.S.T. bus station located near there. Paying a generous 2,000 Riel (.50) to the driver, I decided to head over to the large, Chinese "Sorya Restaurant" for a spot of tea and an omelet after purchasing a seat on a southbound bus for 14,000 Riel ($3.50)

Sorya Chinese Restaurant in Phnom PenhAs I waited for my food, I started to watch the beginnings of yet another day in the city, with all the rituals and ceremony associated with life in Asia. Of course there is the mandatory spirit house and the sweet aroma of incense sticks with staff members taking a moment to make their prayers to their Gods and family. a light, lyrical Chinese music is played from the overhead speakers and as I drank my pot of hot Khmer tea and jotted down my notes, I couldn't help but feel all was well with the world (...although I knew different.)

As I've already gotten my ticket and seat assignment, I waited until 7:10 before heading back next door to the awaiting G.S.T. buses. I noticed during this short stroll that the former Shell station on the corner across the small street from the station has lost its Shell name and logos but had been freshly painted with the same Shell colors. Changes are constant here and I suspect this trip south to be nothing different.

G.S.T. is one of the major bus companies that ply what are loosely described as "highways" here in Cambodia. Considering what these tired workhorses go through, I really never get upset with the frequent breakdowns of air-conditioning and coaches. Usually however the stops along the highway are short, with drivers carrying their own tools, often times crawling under some part of the bus or another and fixing whatever has become broken or loose. If they can't, another company bus is not far behind and if worse comes to worse, you simply switch buses and finish your ride to your destination while standing in the aisle.

G.S.T. buses leaving Phnom Penh's Central Market presently have the following schedules and costs (11- 2004).

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville - 14,000 Riel - 07:15, 08:15, 12:30, 13:30
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - 14,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:45
Phnom Penh to Poi Pet - 20,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Bangkok - 56,000 Riel - 06:20, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Battambang - 12,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:30, 07:55, 09:00, noon
Phnom Penh to Pur Sat - 10,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:00, 07:55, noon, 13:00

G.S.T. Bus Station in Phnom PenhAs the bus won't leave until it is as full as it can be without being too late for the scheduled arrival time of 11:30 in Sihanoukville, it is only after 2 more "barang" (foreign) woman arrive on the back of motorcycles that the driver blasts his horn and the doors close and we make our way out onto Monivong (Street 93) from Street 142 (the G.S.T. Bus Station) at 07:30, 15 minutes later than scheduled.

As we head south out of the city we soon turn off of Monivong onto Russian Boulevard and follow signs pointing to Highway 3 and the Phnom Penh International Airport. It is also at this intersection you will notice on your right the old, colonial main train station and rail yard still serving freight deliveries from Thailand to Phnom Penh and Cambodia.

As the price of oil continues to climb around the world, with prices at or over $55 a barrel, I can't help but notice the numerous gas stations as we inch our way out of town. It seems every station, even though they are different companies, have all posted the exact same price for each grade of fuel with Diesel advertised at 2,350 Riel a liter, 3,000 Riel (.75) for unleaded and 3,100 Riel for "super". It wasn't that long ago I remember buying barrels of diesel for my hotel's generator at .44 a liter.

As we continue to crawl out of the city in the very early morning traffic, we pass several large and famous institutions of higher learning including the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, the Engineering Institution of Cambodia and the huge campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. (The only thing that seems to be missing in any of these thousands of high sounding names throughout Cambodia's education system is the use of the word "Imperial".) This is quickly followed by numerous nurseries for flowers and plants as well as countless stands selling freshly baked loaves of French Bread at 500 Riel each.

People are everywhere doing what people do on the streets of Cambodia; selling, buying, praying, bartering, eating, arguing, etc., and even though you are in the middle of city of over a million people, chickens, roosters and children roam the sidewalks and alley ways everywhere.

As we make our way closer to the airport, signs for the Hong Kong Garment Company, Toyota, the Phnom Penh Water Park and the National Technical Training Institute pass buy. Cambodian Air Force Headquarters is also visible on this stretch as well as the infamous Dragon World Disco long since closed.

A half hour after pulling out of the station, we reach the entrance to Phnom Penh International Airport and the buildings for the Cambodian Air Traffic Services (C.A.T.S.) and the ornate looking building belonging to the "Department for Foreigners".

You might also notice if you look closely at the area across from the airport as you continue down its perimeter, a large army base with open bays for aging (that is a nice term) APC's (Armored Personnel Carriers) and trucks as well as large early morning formations of troops around its barracks area. While observing this, the "bus steward" starts up some Khmer music and the bus starts to pick up speed. I guess the driver likes the music.

As we approach the circle where signs point to Sihanoukville and Ta Keo, for the first time we have to stop at a police check point where they seem to be making vehicles coming into the city unload items stacked high above their vehicles as is so very common on the roads here. Although we are obviously headed south and a bus, it never becomes apparent why we have to wait the 3-4 minutes that we did.

For many months I have noticed a large compound of new buildings just south of the circle on the road to Sihanoukville. I had speculated that it was going to be a new Wat or university as it obviously had large, ornate, multi-leveled housing areas/dormitories as well as central offices or classrooms. It seems I was wrong on both accounts as a new sign now indicated it was the base for the "High Headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Air Force". Sharp looking soldiers holding bayoneted rifles guarded the entrance and activity seemed everywhere. I couldn't help but wonder what this was all for in a country that had no operational air force? Was something about to change? Was it all show for the new King and his upcoming coronation?

Almost immediately past this new base is the older and better known "Special Forces Airborne 911" battalion on the right where many have gone in recent years to fire small arms or blow up a cow with a hand-held grenade launcher. Recently however, the cows are gone (many survived the experience as the sites were rigged...) and it has become a bit more humane and low key.

As we pull through the toll booth, military formations continue on the right, soon followed by numerous textile factories lining the road south out Phnom Penh. A new, obviously modern truck weighing facility has also appeared on the north bound side of the toll booth where trucks are stopping to be weighed. That's another first.

It isn't long before the insanity of the capital's streets disappear and fields of rice paddies soon dominate the landscape. On this early fall day, the sky is is perfectly clear with not a single wisp of cloud to be found. Combined with the amazingly, almost luminous green of the countryside, it makes for an incredible treat to the visual senses.

About an hour from when we started, a sign welcoming us to the "Kompong Speu Province" appears and I once again start to notice the red and white concrete kilometer markers on the east side of the road that inform you of your distance along the road south to Sihanoukville. As street signs and addresses are practically non-existent once you leave the city, with villages not having signs indicating their names, I have found the road markers to be the easiest way to describe locations and cross roads for travelers south.

At marker 41 you will notice the Kompong Spey Meteorological and Water Office. Sort of an interesting combination but knowing the importance of weather and the rains to life (or death) of rural and urban Cambodians, maybe not so strange after all.

At markers 42 and 43, the larger town of Kompong Speu lines the road. Here you will find the hospital district headquarters, Veterans and Youth Affairs (...does that seem like a strange combination to you?) and the Provincial Election Commission (...what a fun job that must be.).

Schools are of course everywhere as well. It often makes me wonder where all the students come from and how they get there. You of course see the motorcycles with wagons attached to them carrying tens of students but even with that, can there really be that many children from such small villages? This makes me even wonder more as recent reports indicate that Cambodia has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world with 1 in 7 children dying before the age of 5.

More signs indicate that Kompong Speu has a Teacher's Training College, a Post and Telecommunications office and a Women's and Veteran's Affairs Office ( that different than the Veterans and Youth Affairs office?)

As I peer from building to building you realize that there is literally nothing behind them and the entire town is literally lining the American built roadway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Sort of reminds me of a Hollywood movie in which the old, wild west town is in reality nothing more than the facades of make believe saloons and town buildings.

Shortly outside town the bus overtakes an old blue dump truck with numerous warnings indicating it is a "driver's education vehicle". From the looks of the terrified occupants in the front cab holding on to the front dash for dear life and the 15 or so "driver trainees" in the rear, it appeared that this driver wasn't one of the better students. Fortunately, we overtook the menagerie quickly and left them in our dust!

Between markers 87 and 88 a sign indicates the road that veers off to the southwest leads to a national park called "Preah Suromath". At marker 90 a long and ornate fence appears and once again, it is another Cambodian military installation belonging to the "Mixed Officers Training School". Immediately past this and on the right is where the Wah Genting Bus Company stops on its way between Phnom Penh and Sihaoukville. Actually the food and facilities are a bit better here than the G.S.T. stop a short distance further.

Shortly after this at 09:15 (right on time) we enter the roadside rest stop used forever by G.S.T. and tourist other buses headed north and south between the coast and Phnom Penh, as it is the "half way" point between the 2 destinations. It is also where you leave the central, flat plateau with its thousands of rice paddies and descend into the lower, more rugged coastal plain with its numerous hills, streams and recently planted orchards.

Over the months of the monsoon rains, it is here you will find the dividing line between the perpetual rains and mist of the coast and the clearer skies and occasional, afternoon rains of the capital. Although only a couple of hundred meters difference in height, combined with a line of low lying, steep hills, it seems to be just enough to block most of the southwest winds and the monsoon rains.

After a 15 minute "breakfast" break, the driver gives notice he is ready to depart by a single blast of his air horn and as we start off continuing our journey south, I have often thought this would be a perfect place to begin a bicycle journey as the scenery and landscape quickly changes, becoming hilly and steep to the east and west of the highway with heavily forested, lush hills hiding numerous plunging waterfalls during the rainy season.

Spirit HousesBefore the descent however, we pass by the spirit houses occupying the higher hill guarding the road to the coastal plain. Occasionally we have stopped for riders to offer prayers to their ancestors and pray for luck and prosperity for them and their families. Today however, we continue on.

Soon after this another military camp appears indicating it is the Cambodian N.C.O. (Non-Commissioned Officers) School followed by a huge sign indicating Sihanoukville is another 125 kilometers away.

At market 114 I notice something else new on the trip and that is a rather large sitting Buddha with accompanying buildings. At marker 117 the terrain starts to change again with numerous streams winding their way around fields, dikes and the ever present water buffalos hidden up to their sides in mud holes.

The traffic has now become quite light with long straight stretches of roadway with cattle of various descriptions. Everywhere as far as the plain stretches you can see thousands of fig trees lined up neatly in rows and neat little villages for the workers working the plantations.

A "New Life Retreat Center" appears off to the right at marker 144 and I guess if you are a fundamentalist Christian, as good as any to get closer to your God.

At 10:50 and marker 197 the toll road ends and another new weight station appears. I am wondering who is making money on what will obviously be many fines to come with this little innovation or is it in fact an effort not to destroy the best highway in Cambodia?

At 11:00 and market 208 the new Sihanoukville Airport appears followed by signs at marker 219 indicating we have finally arrived at the outskirts of our destination, the port city of Sihanoukville. After passing CamBrew (Cambodia Brewery) where you can savior their products for free in their private pub in the late afternoons (with the right connections), we finally arrive at the taxi/bus station downtown at 11:30, pretty much on time.


After arriving in Sihanoukville, I made a beeline to the Spitfire Guest House owned by an old time friend of mine, Randy an American from Humboldt, California and his Khmer wife, Sor.

Randy is someone who I have known a long time having first met many years ago in Phuket, Thailand while we both lived there in our respective relationships (...both since long ended) and later in Pattaya on the eastern seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand.

As is normal here in Asia, there is no way you can spend any length of time here and not have a "story". Randy has more than most to put it mildly but has now settled down to an almost nirvana existence with a beautiful guest house, a beautiful wife and two, very brand new twin sons.

Twins are considered very lucky in this part of the world and having had twin boys, exceptionally lucky, so I have a feeling I need to hang around this guy a bit so his luck rubs off on me and my adventures!

It seems others might feel the same way as shortly after I had dropped my bags, people from everywhere started turning up. Locals from around town as well as a couple from Thailand and his mother Gladys from Huntsville, Texas! Seeing the pulls in many directions that this very popular guy is having to deal with, I politely excused myself after depositing my bags in my beautiful room and headed over to the Freedom Hotel to see if I could meet up with Reinhard (Reini) , another friend of mine from Zurich, Switzerland who I was a week late in hooking up with.

Fortunately for me he hadn't left yet and as I was sipping a cold beer, he turned up with Jonnie (the manager of the Freedom). It was good seeing him and we were soon talking about his past 12 or so days of adventuring around Sihanoukville and where his next adventure would be taking him before heading back to his air traffic control job in Europe.

We decided we needed to hook up for dinner and he extended an invitation to a French run restaurant at 8PM. Seemed like a damn good idea to me so after finishing our drinks we parted for a couple of hours and I headed back to Randy's Spitfire.

It is interesting to note how Randy chose the name for his establishment as he had told me that his wife Sor was so "spirited" that she reminded him of the American phrase, "...a little Spitfire" to describe someone who is very spirited and maybe a bit difficult to control, like the horse with the same namesake from the American wild west.

I guess if you know Randy like I did from earlier years in Thailand, seeing him now as the proprietor of a beautiful port town guest house and the husband and father to a lovely lady with two beautiful twin boys, makes you wonder about how we change with time. For me however, it was a bit too much to take in all at one time...

Day 2

The day started off early at 5AM with me working on some articles and photos from my room. Over the quiet hum of the air-conditioning, I could hear the constant crowing of roosters in the neighborhood reminding me that sunrise was only a short time away.

Gladys, Sor and the twins, Ronald and Robert

Gladys, Sor and the twin boys, Ronald and Robert.

At a little before 7AM, I got ready for the day and headed downstairs with my papers and computer and found everyone up and about. Galdys, Randy's mother, was once again there, friendly and engaging. (I guess I now know where and why Randy picked up all his people skills and was such a great host.)

Anyway, she started chatting me up about various things including the running of the guest house and what was needed to make it better, as well as the many changes that had taken place in Cambodia from her earlier visit two years ago.

Yes, changes were everywhere and I indicated to her, change was going to become even faster due to many political and economic factors both here and in the region. Those changes however will most probably be good for Cambodia and the area around Sihanoukville and that Randy was most probably in the "right place at the right time". But having been here 6 years already and having been through the trauma of those times, he deserved it!

We talked about simpler things as well, including the guest house getting new DVD players for each room, 2 more air-conditioners, large king size beds or 2 twin beds in the new rooms and Randy's idea to add new serviced apartments to the roof area. I also suggested they set up an area for free tea and coffee for the guests. She quickly got the hint and asked me if I would like some coffee....for which I smiled a big grin and said, "Yes, that would be wonderful!"

I went on to start working at my desk in the guest houses' huge "living room" (...for lack of a better phrase) and it wasn't long before freshly brewed coffee arrived. As they were out of milk, Randy was there a few moments later telling me he was headed to the store and did I prefer cream or milk. Does it get in better than this?

A few hours went by and around noon we decided to all head out to Independence Beach for an afternoon swim. As I had no transportation and since I was going to be on the coast for a week or so, I decided to go to the corner where the G.S.T. bus station was and where they also rented motorcycles.

As I had gone there earlier on my own and priced the bikes at $5, I asked Sor to come with me as I knew we could get one cheaper. Sure enough, we agreed on a price of $3 a day but unfortunately there wasn't any bikes immediately available, so I had to wait.

A short time later we headed to the beach together, winding our way around the coast out of town to the far end of Independence Beach, right where the old and imposing Independence Hotel stands.

Randy and Rob liked the little area and knew the Khmer woman who ran the beach hut. Gladys was with us as well and it wasn't long before the 3 of them were in the water while I chose to write a bit and take some photos.

It was shortly after they entered the water that some monks came onto the beach. As always, they were dressed in their golden robes which made quite for quite a foreground of beach shots as they sipped their soft drinks in the chairs next to me.

I had also gotten a bit hungry and tried to communicate with the woman that I would like some chicken and rice. She smiled and shortly scurried off to get me some.

I continued to take photos and write and the time started to slip by. My compatriots had now left the water and were sipping their drinks next to me under the hut's roof. 10 minutes became 20, 20 became 40....but where was my chicken and rice. About 50 minutes after I ordered I tracked here down and she kept saying "10 minutes". 10 more minutes went by and than 20.

It was than that we started to wonder if they were killing and plucking the chicken.....which was about the time that a procession of people appeared...and sure enough, a full chicken was on the plate! Of course plates and a huge bowel of rice was also presented.

Charlie and his chicken and rice!I just hung my head. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Of all my years in Asia, I couldn't recall such a miscommunication for a food order but as everyone was a bit hungry, I had lots to share! After a bit, I couldn't stop laughing as I tried to eat the obviously very fresh and very tough field chicken. This time however I opted not to eat the feet or the neck...and instead feed them to the half or so dozen dogs hanging out under the shack.

After the "chicken feast", I guess the only thing I could say was I guest I didn't order "pig" and rice!!!

Headed for CamBrew

After arriving back at the guesthouse, we decide to take a bit of a break and plan for a later afternoon excursion up to the Cambodian Brewery, where with the right connections, free "samples" of their finest flows for hours at a time.

Joel was to by our "guide" into the wilds of the brewery and after he arrived, we piled into the Cambodian Camry taxi and headed out of town north to where "CamBrew" is located. Having been there before, I had no problem being convinced in going there!

Although not open to the public in the evening, you can visit if you have the "right connections". Knowing the brewmaster, Mr. Limm however seems to be an excellent calling card and it wasn't more than a couple minutes later after we arrived, the gate security guard waived us through and we were setting at one of their three pubs, drinking down cold glasses of Angkor draft.

Randy and Charlie at CamBrew in Sihanoukville CambodiaAfter countless numbers of "cheers" and "prosts" front both the 4 foreigners and the half a dozen Khmers, we said our goodbyes and thanks at 18:30 (30 minutes later than we should have) and headed back to our car and home at the Spitfire Guest House.

Randy had been cooking up a beef and vegetable stew earlier in the afternoon and although we were quite hungry, it wasn't quite ready yet. Decisions.... what do we do next?

A consensus was quickly reached that we should stroll down the street to the Angkor Arms and have a beer while we waited for dinner to cook. Supposedly, Bert was still gone so we made a plan to head to the "Dusk to Dawn Bar" after a beer or so.

As we walked up however, two of the outside tables were filled with Bert, his son and others obviously having a good time from their day's motorcycle trip to Bokor Mountain. It wasn't long before rounds of beers were being bought and deep discussions about things happening in and around Sihanoukville were taking place.

It seemed that the highlight of the conversations were the numerous motorbike trips that had taken place in the past or were coming up, both in Cambodia and around other parts of southeast Asia, as most around the tables had their own stories to tell about such adventures.

A table of "Barangs" at the Angkor ArmsAfter that, conversations slipped to the discussion about yet another expat that had "slipped and fallen", or as some might express it, "gone off the deep end". As in Thailand, the stories about farangs (foreigners) succumbing to the wild freedoms of Asia are both notorious and endless. Cambodia, although not as large, populated or as accessible for many years, has developed its own legacy of expats "gone missing". Michael, an American "stockbroker" was yet another example of this.

After I jotted down a few notes and indicated I would see what I could do once I returned to Phnom Penh, the conversation shifted to the rapid growth and development of the area. Besides the now official announcements of ChevronTexaco about their oil concessions off the coast and the beginning of drilling, there was also the continuing rumors about US Military deployments to the area.

As I listened to the comments I couldn't help but glance over to Bert's newspaper rack and see the two headlines from the that day's and the the previous day's Bangkok Post. One screamed "Cambodia may be next 'terror haven' while the other informed us that 87 Muslims had been killed in one day by Thai troops in their southern provinces. I was thinking to myself it seemed a situation ripe for US intervention...

Anyway, the day had been long and poor Ron (Randy's guest from England) had started to slip a bit from way too many beers and an overload of the day's activities in the sun and gulf. We decided it was probably best to head on back to the Spitfire and call it a day.

We paid and strolled back across the street to the guest house. As it was around 11:30, things had quieted down and the gate was nearly closed. Sor was up with the babies but made sure I was taken care of and got me a bowl and spoon for what turned out to be some of the best stew I have had in many a day. I guess after three bowls, I was qualified to make that assessment!

Sor with one of her new twin baby boys! Robert...or is Ronald!

Sor and Randy. A really wonderful and happy couple at the Spitfire Guest House.

Charlie and Randy in the Spitfire
"living room".

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