Cambodian Islands Departure – Sihanoukville & Beyond – 2018
Following on from my last Part 8 blog where I dedicated the Island blog to my cousin and his wife the updated news on my cousin’s wife Kaz (Karyn) has been most tragic with her passing sadly before she could return to her hometown of Grafton NSW Australia. She had made it close by checking into Maclean Hospital some 23 miles from home. Ashamedly, there was no hospital bed for her at Grafton. My words are never enough and with this COVID-19 fiasco & unbelievable politics still tearing into people’s lives I am unable to provide hugs and be present with Michael & family during this very sad time. Prayers and thoughts abound. Live life to the most as Kaz did often. The testimonies that flowed immediately, and for more than a week after her passing is a true testimony to the life and love she gave and passed onto so many.
From my last blog (Part 8) I was heading towards Sihanoukville’s pier (8th May) via a speedy island ferry after some 8 nights in 3 island locations enjoying a variety of paradise influences, mostly natural (people and environment) and with my mind senses of being mainly alone. My main jolt of reality was approaching the confronting skyrise structures of ugly casinos blanketing the shoreline. Currently (2018), some 34 mega-casinos are in construction and another 16 are ready for approval to start, thus making a total soon of about 87 operating casinos; all with virtually no community infrastructure afforded to cope with these giants. All this in a city region of some 900,000 residents.
My first port of call (excuse the pun .. sea ferry talk) was straight off the pier to the left to find my usual window bench table at the Turkish Bar Café with a cold beer & watching mostly other backpackers arriving and leaving the pier before I headed up Serendipity Street hill to my next hotel stay at Mick & Craig’s Guesthouse quite near the large & famous Golden Lions roundabout. Lots of backpackers must of forgotten their sunscreen looking at their lobster look skin .. Ouch!!
Reaching the top of the hill I am reminded of the great supermarket on the left for critical supplies I’m in need of and almost next door my favourite haunt .. The Big Easy; but first I’ll cross the road and pick up my 6month Cambodia extended visa and my passport at the Travel Agent shop (10days for processing). It is a very satisfying experience to once gain possession of one’s passport and I must have it for checking in to my hotel. After a few minutes the lady finally found it in an unlocked desk drawer with about 20 other passports. Gobsmacked on this lack of security! It was still playing on my mind crossing the road in between the crazy traffic and Tuk-Tuks.
Checking into Mick & Craig’s Guesthouse was rather awkward but like everything in Cambodia, once you smile back the world gets sorted. The guesthouse is owned by Australian ex-pats but they have let it slide over the years on first looks however, location, location, location. After paying the $5USD deposit on my towel, the receptionist lady showed me to my ground floor room (Hostel was in the 2nd floor building). OMG!!! That’s different!!! I have a large tree stump in my patio to which I have to step around to access the front door. My room is fully taken up by the double bed and my ensuite looked reasonable, so all is good, as I have stayed in far worse … but still a cold shower. I have no TV and the ceiling fan is quiet only on one faster speed. Air conditioning was insanely expensive and only available in other rooms. Leaving my backpacks on the floor (no other option, no wardrobe, etc) I think it is time for The Big Easy respite a few doors up.
Entering The Big Easy, a few faces remembered me and I had the rare opportunity of selecting a bar chair at the street end of the bar with only 2 other patrons present before the regulars flocked in after their respective work duties. The Aussie/ USA & English-type music was flowing through the speakers at a good volume, my first beer was cold and soothing and chilling out was almost instant. Nearing the end of my first beer (a slow drinker and not a volume drinker either) I felt a tap on my shoulder with a “Look who’s here!”. Turning around I saw my Koh Rong island Aussie friends, Hugh & Donna who had just come off the late island ferry and was heading to their hotel when they saw the friendly entry and music of The Big Easy. Hugh was desperate for a beer too (always!) & Donna not far behind Hugh.
They couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw me at the prime position of the bar. The chances of meeting up again after the islands were at ridiculous odds, so that’s the universe at work most definitely. The beers and the talks flowed like an endless tide of course. It was well into the night when they both had to leave for a late meal and sleep; for they had decided to head south early in the morning and cross into Vietnam at the southern border in a few days’ time, which I heard was a bit brave but that’s what these globe trekkers do (no fear). They will tour Vietnam completely South to North. Surprisingly they will reappear in future Vietnam blogs.
Coming straight off the island I sourced a good place to hire a scooter @ $3.70USD/ day to overcome the daily hassles of varying prices of tut-tut operators but alas they required the handover of my passport to them … That’s NOT happening!!! So off on foot again. In addition, Mick & Craig required $5USD per day just to park my scooter on the premises (footpath) if you don’t mind. The Big Easy allowed me to do it for free … but I was not prepared to hand over my passport to the hirer so I was back to the tut-tuts.
I have a daily brekky deal with Mick & Craig’s so the first few mornings I had hassles with the so-called extras and finally Craig sorted things out but far too late so The Big Easy gave me a better brekky and at a better price anyway so can’t ignore that. The best thing at having brekky at Mick & Craig’s was looking out at the busy street and seeing a young lady and a tut-tut scooter operator. They smiled and waved each morning and I could not pass up the service they offered. The lady was the boss & spoke better English than the scooter guy. They were always there whenever I needed them, plus the scooter guy was even there when I was walking back from The Big Easy late every night with a loud “Good Night Aussie”. Felt terrible the long hours he did, so I used his services regularly.
One day at my usual bar spot at The Big Easy I met a fellow Aussie, Con from Mornington Peninsula, a seaside city South-West of Melbourne where he managed a large hotel and convention centre there. He was in Cambodia on a 2week binge for his well-earned holiday. Pls refer to the photo with myself, Adam & Con. We had lots to talk about plus viewing the regular AFL games (Australian Rules Football) broadcasted live on the large bar TV but I definitely left him to drink his required level of beers …. Far, far too much for me! He certainly made his last week here at full speed whereas I did everything at a responsible pace and savoured the better elements of Cambodia!!
Another Aussie working at The Big Easy was Adam. He was 43yrs old but looks like 35 .. purely on his easy laid-back life looking after him. He has been to 40+ countries and started travelling while quite young. We got on so well together and talked whenever he had spare time while working. He has been at Sihanoukville for 2 ½yrs and loves it (Backpackers Heaven he called it) but each day becomes harder due to the encroachment of the Chinese destroying all that made the place great. I totally agreed with him and anyone would find it hard not to. I was being tested daily on how long I could handle staying here; the Chinese are restricting things to do and creating havoc with demolition, construction and blackouts. Each day I awake to jackhammers and machinery at 6am 7 days a week. Some of the high-rise casinos work 24hr shifts, 7 days a week. Even pouring concrete at night.
I received a call from Kaz (Karyn – Cousin’s wife in Australia from my last blog and the start of this blog) saying she will be in Siem Reap from 25th May for a week to run her regular health retreat and was thinking of coming to Sihanoukville to catchup with me prior. On the same day I was contacted by Anita, a young German backpacker where my eldest son, Scott & I took her around the Sth Island of New Zealand for 3 amazing weeks in a Winnebago late 2017. She was currently in Vietnam and was hoping I would be in Vietnam (Hanoi) before the 25th May to catchup. Alas, I could not physically arrange this but she encouraged me that Vietnam awaits and will surprise me. I knew Kaz would not like Sihanoukville so I offered to find a way to get to her. With both these great women trying to connect and pull me away from Sihanoukville it certainly provided the escalation to do something and push me to another travelling advance to get me out of my comfort zone. With a bit of juggling I was able to work an itinerary to catchup with Kaz, gain my Vietnam 90day Visa (2 days processing) and sort a few things out in Phnom Pehn and then fly to Siem Reap.
Kaz, now thrilled on my offer to visit her encouraged me to partake in her Health Retreat wherever it suited me and gained a fantastic week’s rate accommodation at the Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel where the retreat is being held. It is owned and managed by Aussies as well. I could not pass this up. Meanwhile, Anita is providing more info on Vietnam. Yay!!!! I feel excited for a new adventure, albeit I’m not sure what Kaz has in mind for me in regards to a health retreat.
One day I had a catchup with Adam mid-morning at The Big Easy and he introduced me to another Adam, an English trekker & slightly younger than #1 Adam. He has resided on Koh Rong (Ko Toit) for some years and operates the world-renowned Adventure Adam dive and extreme trekking and fishing company www.adventureadam.org . He employed some 20+ staff and 3 boats and heaps of gear. When he originally arrived at Koh Rong with his mates, they did everything that was extreme adventure. Some people paid him so they could tag along and it was this that his mates convinced him to start up a company doing what he loves. He has been flat out ever since! Adam MUST write his life story and I told him so. Today, he had come to Sihanoukville to see his Bank Manager but now has to stay overnight due to their rescheduling. Adam hates this financial headache and dealing with ‘erratic bank rules’. Truthfully, we spoke for some 4hours straight. We ordered a late lunch and then Adam ushered over a very young lady (about 20yr old) sitting on her own. Her name was Julia and a French Canadian. She was apprehensive at first but the fantastic conversation continued even after her Canadian travel buddy, Cole turned up. Adam retreated to his unit while Julia, Cole, I & others played pool later on; so on this great day I didn’t leave The Big Easy from 9am till 1am. A great chilling and motivational day at the same time, if that makes sense?
Nearing my last days, I used my regular Tut-Tut scooter guy to take me to the Russian Bridge (Kaoh Puos Bridge) linking a close island (Kaoh Puos) to see what is there. It’s called the Russian Bridge locally because they paid for the construction & once completed the Cambodians kicked the Russians out for the Chinese money. Unfortunately, no traffic is allowed on the bridge nowadays so you can only walk over. Plenty of security in Police who guard the entry. Insufficient time left to walk this distance and another storm is brewing so we abandoned that event and went to see the roaming monkeys just up the road. They were so brazen and showed no fear in anything, not even the erratic traffic and they are breeding quite well. Going back to The Big Easy we took the normal coast road winding around tight corners and alongside the extremely large casino construction sites. OMG!!! The road I normally walked upon before my island tour had now been totally excavated and re-levelled into a mess of muddy clay. My Scooter Guy stated they (Chinese) did this with no notice and I could definitely see this now with store operators (Cambodians) handing down drinks & food to travelling patrons from random heights with no alternative to do business. Typical Chinese invaders. Look at the Serendipity Beach Market area where bulldozers overnight demolished this huge area along the sandy beach area and it has been untouched in this condition for almost 12months. Same for the green pond catchment in the photo below where Chinese Developers filled it in for construction and when the rainy season came there was unprecedented mass flooding. Totally disgusting.
I caught up with Julia & Cole on another night and we played Gin Rummy. I needed urgent lessons and played lousy but they were good to this old bloke. They left for a few minutes and then returned to say they obtained their bus tickets heading towards Phnom Pehn & ultimately Vietnam. We played a few more hands and with a Danish Girl, Sidsel (pronounced Sizzle) till 11pm when both Julia & Cole said good-bye & headed for the bus. Wow!!! Talk about instant decision making & 10 seconds to say good-bye. A little later (Midnight) Sidsel was catching her bus to Bangkok (16hr trip). I walked her to the nearby shop for safety & she was really thrilled for that. All of a sudden I was alone and to seek new ‘friends’ hopefully tomorrow. Post Blog: Believe it or not, I arrived in Hanoi Vietnam and walking an extremely busy street when I heard a call out of Brian!! I stopped, turned around and there were Julia & Cole. How’s that!!! They were with friends so we could not catchup for a longer time but what beaming smiles and hugs forthcoming. I really miss their open company and spirit.
The next night I was sitting at my Big Easy crowded bar but everyone was in group talks so it was just me & the large overhead TV & a spare seat next to me. Adam not working either. Suddenly, a sweet voice asked if the seat was taken. I felt my voice was missing … a vivacious gorgeous blonde lady sat beside me and ordered her drink. I assumed she was waiting on her partner for it is rare to see a lady around 40 being alone. After a few minutes I conversed and off started the most diverse and encouraging conversation for hours. Her name was Osa from Canada but born and grew up in Sweden but residing in Canada since her marriage. Her husband (there you go .. darn) .. was doing a karate tournament in Las Vegas so they had an agreement for her to do her own holiday trip. She chose Cambodia this time for 2 weeks and loving it. At the end of the night she could not stop thanking me for the conversation and so thankful for taking the step to talk. She usually sits alone and too shy to start up anything, being married, etc. She was also brave in insisting she gets a tut-tut back down alone to Otres Beach where she is staying (Midnight again .. jackhammers again at 6am).
My 2nd last day at Sihanoukville, I booked my bus trip to Phnom Pehn ($13USD), my overnight stay at Billabong Hostel, my flight to Siem Reap and ultimately, my flight to Hanoi on 2nd June and a hotel. My Siem Reap flight was gazumped so after a very long time and a call to USA I was able to rebook on another airline. I also received my Inca Trail (Machu Picchu Trek) info and itinerary for April 2019. I have a lot to plan for that trip taking my eldest son, Scott (pls refer to my earlier blogs for 5 weeks in Sth America).
Being my 2nd last night most of the Big Easy staff I conversed with were on their night off together which is quite rare and they quickly organised a night of alcohol, pool tables and a mate’s night for me at a place called “The Square” to send me off well. It is now 10pm. Before we left The Big Easy one of the guys (Englishman) was playing pool down behind the bar and a Swedish girl said she liked the t shirt he was wearing. He said he liked the top she was wearing. In the blink of an eye she took off her top and took his t shirt for the night … no bra at all … can’t believe I missed that action (refer to the photo of the now famous top .. Adam on the left). Sorry, no photo of the Swedish girl.
The Square is literally that … a Square of temporary looking shacks, much like construction site sheds joined together, each a separate establishment. I estimate at least 20 of them, all with bars, lounges, pool tables, video games, TVs, etc and you can basically step from one to another without any trouble. Sihanoukville also has the regular Pub Street but that was in the process of a Chinese shutdown, come demolition so basically The Square is the only place left. Prostitutes were aplenty and the place was abuzz, but we kept to a pool table bar where the guys knew the lady owner. She treated us like royalty and later we were joined by another friend, an Englishwoman/ teacher. Her husband was a business mentor for Cambodians and he was working this night. Adam was full of praise of me where he said I had been there for quite some weeks and I had always been of good temperament, respectful and a good communicator, etc unlike many he comes across. Quite embarrassing for this compliment. After much alcohol and numerous pool games in conjunction with all too frequent blackouts it was time to head home. It’s 2am … Where’s Adam? One guy said he saw a female friend with him and that was the last he saw of him.
My Last day and all was quiet. Adam surfaced in the afternoon looking like he was still 90% alcohol induced and very shabby. A friendly wave, we said good-bye and he was off to bed; he was what we call a shot duck! I will miss his friendship. I had an early night and caught the Phnom Pehn bus at 8.30am the next morning. I also was able to say good-bye to my tut-tut friends across the road as per normal heading for the bus station around the corner. It was now my youngest brother’s birthday (Rod) who had passed away almost exactly a year ago. I really miss him and the bus trip had lots of thoughts of him & he always travels now with me as my travel buddy. Shuffling out of Sihanoukville I could not get over the ongoing demolition & construction sites where it looked like 1 out of 3 or 4 premises were affected and then along one main commercial road, I counted 5 concrete plants side by side and then a 6th one about a kilometre away. That surely is a sign of mass construction. Good bye Sihanoukville and wished everything possible for the residents to overcome the Chinese invaders; knowing this place & the residents/ friends will remain strong in my memory.
6hrs later I arrived at Phnom Pehn 2.30pm amongst massive traffic and a thunderstorm (of course, almost daily now) and straight into a tut-tut to my Billabong Hostel where Janny (Manager) & staff remembered me immediately. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? Turned out to be a good sign … whew!!
Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, specially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog will be a bit of Phnom Pehn and heading for the magical week at Siem Reap with Kaz and co.