I was going to start with how we’d got scammed on the border with Cambodia, but I started writing and got angry and wound up so I’m going to forget that and tell you about finally getting on the bus for the four hour drive to Sihanokville.
For the first hour or so the charabanc climbed like an old arthritic dog climbing the stairs, wheezing and straining. There was tarmac and very few vehicles and we drove through valleys and looked out over miles of jungle with no sign of habitation for as far as you can see, which is quite far when you’re on a high road.
Trees and forest, jungle and trees and forest and the wheezing old bus occasionally overtaking a bike or a heavily laden lorry doing twenty miles per hour. Usually on a blind bend on a hill. You just have to relax and trust they know what they’re doing, which of course they do.
After an hour or so, we began to see the odd roadside shack or food seller and an hour later we stopped at a roadside settlement by a bridge over a river.
The driver and his mate got out, walked around to the side of the bus and started hefting bags out onto the dirt.
Ok. So what’s happening?
The back seat of the coach was taken by five white people, two blokes from London, us two and an older Canadian man.
We got off and lit cigarettes and found that those of us travelling to Sihanokville were changing bus. Ok. We put our bags on the bus that was waiting there and all went to find toilets.
The Cambodian toilets are the colonial French type, the hole in the floor with raised pads to stand on
The flush is a plastic saucepan in a big ceramic bowl, Belfast sinks that people buy from reclamation yards for loads of money, that type of thing. There’s not much in the way of plumbing to speak of really. In our hut where we’re stopping there’s just a big water butt with the plastic saucepan which is a dual purpose flush and shower. You also use it to fill the sink to shave.
I won’t dwell on the toilet stop but while we were smoking waiting for the coach to fill, I turned to see a cow walking towards us between the two parked coaches. ‘Nel, cow!’ I warned Nel, ‘eh?’ she said. ‘Cow!’ I pointed out to her, and then just grabbed her and pulled her out the way cos it didn’t look like it was going to stop and wait for her to get out of the way. She looked quite surprised and reproachful, that I’d manhandled her like that, that look quickly changed to one of surprised only when she realised I’d just pulled her out of the path of a large cow moving quite quickly in the confined space between two busses.
The road got more muddy and less tarmacy. We passed by fields with water buffalo up to their chins in water, and air buffalo soaring between the treetops, nibbling leaves. We saw a man making his way across a field up to his shins in mud with his trousers held above his head. Often the driver braked to avoid cows and buffalo. The road got less tarmacy still until we were slowly bumping along a wide dirt track, swaying about inside like a load of drunkards.
Sharing our back seat was a Canadian man called Ron, a big ebullient white haired man with a laughing face and a big voice.
When the bus arrived at Sihanokville we were immediately surrounded by ten men asking if we wanted a taxi. Shouldered our packs we walked through, smiling, til we could draw breath and get our bearings. We needed to get to the dive centre, where we’d booked the boat from and Ron didn’t know where he was going and so we shared a taxi, the dive centre was as good a place as any for him.
We booked our place on the boat for early next mornin and the driver took us to a guesthouse just around the corner. It was Chinese new year soon and there were only two rooms left, both with twin double beds and we had to pay twelve dollars but Chinese new year is like that, the prices go up and the rooms are all booked.
It’s best to set the ground rules it saves any unfortunate misunderstandings later
We showered and ate at the guesthouse restaurant cos it had been a fraught day and we had to be up early and couldn’t be bothered with exploring what looked like a big party town.
We sat talking with Ron and drinking Angkor beer. His work is as an agent for migrant workers in the temperate part of Canada where he finds jobs picking cherries for foreigners. This takes him through the summer months and then he goes travelling for four months. He speaks Spanish and usually goes to south America but decided this year to go somewhere he doesn’t speak the language. He reminded me of a an Hemingway type, a big man with a loud voice and a hundred stories to tell.
A few years ago he was diagnosed with a pancreatic condition that meant he could never drink alcohol again. ‘Man, it nearly killed me,’ he shouted, ‘I love to drink beer!’ I fully sympathized.
Doctors had been monitoring him and there was no improvement and no prospect of recovery until a shaman in Colombia gave him herbs and cured him.
When the doctors next checked they were utterly baffled, had no explanation, but Ron was pleased, he can drink beer again.
We told him about Nel’s dog bite rabies incident and he said that apart from himself she was the only person he knew who’d had the jabs. Only he’d been bitten by a fox he’d trapped in Canada when he was young. The government had to send a doctor by helicopter who had to trek without snow shoes to get to him. In those days the vaccination was so big that the stomach was the only place that can absorb it all, and they left him with twenty doses that he had to administer himself daily. He told us he’d almost torn his cabin apart in pain. Thank Christ medical science has progressed!
Next morning we were up with the lark, or whatever bird it is here that you get up with, to go just around the corner to Island Divers for the boat.
There was half an hour panic when we couldn’t withdraw any dollars until we tried getting a smaller amount, then some hanging around til a minibus came to take about ten or twelve of us down to the pier where the boat was waiting for us.
The journey by boat took about two hours and was uneventful, apart from the times when the skipper saw a slightly bigger wave coming at us and turned the boat into it and everybody’s rucksack went sliding across the floor as the boat pitched and rolled.
The boats are built the same as in Thailand and are quite flat bottomed and rolly. I imagine they don’t go out in anything more than a gentle swell.
We arrived at the pier. All of the others on the boat were doing a diving course, and we were met by a smiling young man called Pieron, or something, who took us down to the hut.
The village is maybe two hundred meters long, which means there’s a meter for everyone here! It’s built on a beach just meters from the shore and there are boats lying around at all angles, and children and dogs everywhere. Then there’s a small stream which you have to cross by a floating bridge made out of barrels and planks of wood. At high tide this little raft floats and you have to haul it across with a rope tied to a tree at either side. One day somebody might build a bridge I suppose. Then there’s a two minute walk down a sand path.
This part of the resort has four huts and a restaurant, all thatched with palm and raised eighteen inches on stilts, which is just enough space for ants to build a nest under the floor.
Pieron gestured to ours and left us to it.
The first thing we noticed inside were two ten inch long lizards on the wall, similar in most respects to the little house lizards we’ve become accustomed to but they’re ten inches long. Ten inches! And with orange patterns. They’re quite beautiful and they stay still and silent as statues, only statues of lizards, even when you’re poking a camera at them. Which I did for ten minutes or so.
There is a bed with a mosquito net and a bamboo Ikea style shelving unit thing which we put our clothes on, and there’s a bathroom with a toilet but no plumbing. The water supply is a large water butt supplied by a blue pipe from outside. There’s a little sink with a plug that doesn’t work and the plastic saucepan that’s used for flushing, filling the sink and showering. Drainage is a hole in the floor and any water left evaporates, which is good news for the tree frog in the roof cos it keeps him nice and moist.
One of two massive geckos
The rafter frog which sometimes swims in our water butt shower
The hut is built from six inch by one inch hardwood planks, roughly finished and nailed to the frame at intervals leaving five to ten millimeter gaps for ventilation and lizards.
There’s a porch with a hammock and two chairs and a little table for smoking at and drinking Klang beer. It’s not exactly five star but the ocean is about sixty feet away so you can lie listening to it after the generator has gone off at twelve.
The whole village has power for six hours at night, which we get delivered through a socket from which the plug springs out of, so I’ve tied a piece of string round it to charge the phone which we use as a torch because the path from the village isn’t lit.
The restaurant stroke bar is about fifty feet from us but they keep the prices high to encourage guests to eat at one of three vendors in the village on the beach.
The menu at the first of these isn’t really what AA Gill would call extensive, he’d be more likely to call it rice or noodles served boiled or fried with either veggies or pork.
The third restaurant stroke bar serves pretty much the same but you also get a squid option.
The first time we ate there I had rice and pork and Nel had noodles and pork but Huar also bought out some Vietnamese style spring roll things which are bits of pork rolled up in some kind of leaves with lots of mint and then wrapped in a sort of transparent rice noodle blanket, all clammy and veiny, the vegetarian Anne Summers option. You would get a shock were you to be handed one at a naturist picnic, but they were very good.
We’ve met an Aussie/German couple, Evan and Bjella who teach English in Hanoi and they told us the food is Vietnamese, which stands to reason seeing as how the lady who drinks whisky and runs the place is Vietnamese/Chinese.
We met Huar on the first day, if you think of the word met, and the words were accosted by as meaning the same thing.
‘Hello’ she yelled ‘come in Cambodian whisky’, she continued.
We tried to decline saying we’d come for a drink tonight but she was having none of it and chased us down the road, which is a beach, remember, with a water tap in the middle and children washing clothes and washing themselves and she insisted we went inside cos it’s Chy-knee new year.
About six Cambodian boys and a Dane were there with her and they had a big champagne bottle full of home brewed Cambodian whisky which they poured big glasses of for us.
‘foodyoupay, beerKlangyoupay, Cambodianwhisky, you nopay.’ Then bought us a bowl of food each. We all said ‘happy new year!’ and cheers! in Khmer, which is dou moy, or something, and we were allowed to leave after an hour or so and more whiskey, and promising we’d be back later. Well we didn’t go back later because Nel’s ear got painful again. Instead we sat on our porch and went to bed early. Except you can’t really go to bed early because the generator is running from six til midnight and it’s really quite loud, so I sat on the porch looking out over the ocean, whichever one it is.
Happily we’d bought penicillin in Trat, and a few days later she’s ok finally. The dog tablets didn’t work.
Koh Rong Samloem has been open for business for less than two years I think, judging from the date that somebody drew in the concrete that the restaurant sits on, although there is a similar resort at the other end of the path from the huts here and someone said there’s one the other side of the island too that you can get to by trekking through the jungle. And it is jungle an all. Without a path it would be impenetrable, and apparently it’s best to take a villager with you because the path isn’t actually all that clear and you probably didn’t pack a machete when you came, did you?
Plus there are centipedes, and I know this because yesterday morning Mr Ned, a one armed local who works here called me across to see him thrash one to death with a palm branch. It was four or five inches long and brown with orange legs and he mimed a bite on his leg, saying not good, which means bad in Khmer.
I showed the corpse to Evan the Aussie later and he said that not good is understating it somewhat, it’s quite seriously bad to get bitten by one and will require hospital treatment.
Mr Ned lost his arm during the Khmer Rouge times, when his weapon exploded, so Evan said. He’d sat and spoken with a bunch of men here one night. I think it’s probably best to leave it at that, about the Khmer Rouge and all that.
A couple of nights ago when Nel and Bjella had both gone to their respective bye byes Evan and I went to the restaurant to get a couple of Klang and were invited to join three men drinking their homebrew palm whiskey from a bucket with a plastic cup they passed around. Dou moy!
And yesterday when Evan and I were sat on our porch, Mr Ned said hello and gestured for us to go with him. I didn’t know why but I called Nel and we followed him down to the village. Evan explained that as far as he could understand, he’d said that he’d help Mr Ned to collect coconuts. He also said that he didn’t really feel up to climbing coconut trees, and I said that neither did I, particularly.
This didn’t make a lot of sense to me anyway, there being many many strong and wiry looking young men in the village who, I was sure, would make a better fist of climbing a coconut tree than two wheezing middle aged westerners.
Happily Evan was proven to be wrong and Mr Ned only wanted to take us to his home to feed us coconuts.
We climbed the steps into his hut, which was raised on stilts high enough for a hippopig to live underneath, with her hippopiglets.
Mr Ned’s wife introduced herself and sent one of the six or so boys into the jungle to fetch more coconuts, which one of his daughters machete’d and put a straw in, handing us one each.
We’d tried this before and found coconut milk to be foul stuff, but I was determined to not pull a westerners face.
The coconut is not a really convenient drinking vessel, weighing around a kilo, and being quite bulky. You can’t get many in a Tesco bag to carry to a party. A further example of the inconvenience over say, a bottle of beer, is that you can open a bottle of beer with a bottle opener whereas a coconut requires a two foot long knife and some sobriety to operate it.
There are many ways in which a bottle of beer scores over a coconut. Having said that, it was delicious, and there’s something much more gratifying about watching a young Cambodian woman hacking away with a sword at your drink than your mate down the pub passing you a bottle opener. Without a doubt!
After we’d drunk the milk, the coconuts were hacked apart and we were given spoons to eat the flesh with.
We mimed and spoke our thanks in English and Khmer, saying, thank you, aw kuun, and we were all given a Klang and taken through to the living space where a woman was feeding a new baby and there really weren’t enough beds for the household.
It was after six, and so we sat on the floor in front of a tv and watched a show that was specially selected for us, we thought. Some kind of Indian soap opera with English subtitles which made no sense at all anyway. The coconuts and the beer were good but the entertainment after was lacking. Really!
We tried talking, as best as we could but dinner was cooking on an open fire in the kitchen and we left them, bowing and thanking and smiling because we didn’t want them to feel obliged to feed us. And if it was squid, we really didn’t want to feel obliged to eat it.
Mr. Ned’s daughter opens a refreshing drink for Nel
The ocean, whichever one it is, gently kisses the rocks just sixty feet or so away from the porch, we can see it just through the palms and the mangrove trees. A quarter of a mile away there’s an island, conical in shape that slopes on one side more gently than on the other, not an inch of which is not covered in trees. There’s no beach on it, not barely a rock exposed. Small boats pass noisily between that one and this coast. The beach takes about five minutes to walk to and is strewn with fallen trees and sandstone weathered into sculptures.
There are many dingos here, and weirdly, they seem to accept you into their pack as soon as you get off the boat. Wary as we are of them, the dingos wait for you on the track and accompany you to the beach, and often sit with you and accompany you back.
If they get bored with waiting, a different dog will take you back, waiting patiently while you stop to look at something, or take a photograph, and then they sleep on the mat outside your door. Strange.
We walked along the beach and our guide dog chased crabs. If he caught one, he’d bite it and toss it into the air and then leave it unhappy, and dead. And we were expecting him to eat it!
On our first night here, a large beetle landed on our porch and I instantly heard a flopflopflop sound as the ten inch long gecko ran down the wall and across the planking quick as lightning. I could hear it crunching the bones.
On the first day there was not another person on the beach.
Just past the last hut on the way there, there is a Buddhist shrine with the usual incense and glasses of spirits, and stone carved into dragon snakes, and, bizarrely, two ant hills wrapped in cloths with just the top six inches exposed, looking like two Mexicans siesta-ing without their hats on. Very strange.
The weird ant hill shrine thing
The water washes slow and glassy and warm as your bed, so flat that you can lie with just your eyes an inch above the surface and look out to the island opposite across a quarter of a mile of lazily undulating glass and occasionally see a foot long fish jump clear of the surface.
The insects in the jungle just feet behind are like high pitched chainsaws. They must be a foot long to make that much noise! They’re probably an inch or something.
Yesterday we watched three dingos accompany some bathers to the beach and then start patrolling. A particularly keen dyed one spotted another dog maybe half a kilometer away, and instantly they @ alert and the three of them took off at a run. The other three met them at a run and there was a massive ruck with much shrieking and growling. The fight spilled into the sea and then back again and the first pack ran back, and then regrouped and charged, fell back and charged and then made a tactical decision to regroup on three bathers towels. It really is as though you’re their pack. Then they withdrew to our towel and I have to say I wasn’t too happy with our position. They’re very nice but I didn’t want to get dragged into a scrap and so I grabbed a stick. I really didn’t want a fight on our towels. Maybe the other dingos felt outnumbered, but there was a truce and they passed by peacefully.
You hear them howling at night in the village. We also hear a rat or something in our room.
Last night somebody had lit a fire on the beach and Evan thought we should go and revive it. I did wonder as to what purpose, it being thirty degrees and all that, but we collected driftwood anyway and soon got it going again, and there we sat, talking for a couple of hours with a couple of Klang.
Evan pointed out the bioluminescence in the water, and so, like children, we all stood in the surf grinning and scraping our feet across the sand and going wow as tiny bright green flecks sparkled and washed over our toes and then faded. Amazing!
Huar, the Chy knee Vietnamese lady runs a restaurant, so we and Evan and Bjella ordered food. The choice is noodles or rice with pork, or noodles or rice with squid. Or you can have it without the meat. Only there was no pork. We explained that we didn’t eat squid so she went and found some pork. We hoped it wasn’t Mr Ned’s hippopig.
She then bought out dishes we hadn’t asked for, dried stuff that tasted like fish, but which Nel swore was pork and happily ate. It was indeed fish, and so were the small balls floating in the other dish. The last dish contained squid which we felt compelled to try. It’s not as bad as durian fruit but I wouldn’t eat it often. It seems Nel has conquered her aversion to fish.
Evan and Bjella just got up and came over for tea and muesli and a long discussion about whether to go today or stop another night.
Bjella is a pretty twenty eight year old German girl who seems very reserved and quiet and like she might jump if a moth fluttered by. She’s not like that at all though, she’s very impressive. She’s spent the days getting her diving certificates and she speaks quite blithely about going to Singapore to do the next one. Singapore! It takes me weeks of fretting to get to Swindon!
They talk of travelling round south east Asia as if it’s no more than nipping down the shops for a bottle of milk and some bread. For my part, I get stressed by it all, all the time. Nel’s much better at this than I am but they just carelessly amble around Asia. I really hope I get to be as confident as they are.
We have contacts for them and they’re going to show us Hanoi, as much they can cos they’re going to be working when we get there.
And that, as far as I can recall, is about everything that there is to tell so far except that there is a development at the far end of the beach. So far it seems that some locals have built a pier and then soon it will be time for the Chinese developers to move in, and then this tiny unspoilt, untamed and beautiful island will be like Koh Samet and there will be moto’s and nightclubs and fire shows on the beach, and Russians and Chinese and Europeans and all the amenities they expect.
And people will stop smiling and inviting white men to their houses for coconuts, and they’ll have showers and electricity around the clock and all the shit they make will be pumped into the sea.
The tiny baby we saw being fed by his mother at Mr Ned’s will have a very different life and his parents and uncles will tell him how the island was before.
We, the same as everybody else, come to find a paradise, and then we lose it.
We have another two nights here before we leave for Sihanokville and have an internet but I’m sure there will be more to tell before then.
More to tell: a hammock is a particularly obtuse piece of furniture. And I for one find it difficult to relax with my feet higher than my head anyway, something to do with blood pressures. Nel finds it difficult to get into and did the classic sit down, fall back onto the decking, and then sat, helpless with laughter until I’d stopped laughing enough to help her up. Graceful, very graceful.
Mosquitoes. Who do they think they are, coming round here with their proboscis and putting their nose where it’s not wanted. We’ve been bitten badly. Very badly. Especially Nel. Were you to use her for darts practice she would hardly have more red spots than she has now and I don’t understand it. Other people here are saying how nice it is to have no mosquitoes around, and we’re not seeing them, that’s the thing.
They are huge invisible mosquitoes. Barely credible I know but the evidence is all around us, it’s just that we can’t see it, because they’re invisible.
Sandflies, who do they think they are, eh? They’re little bastards an all.
I’ve got to admit I was beginning to feel like we should leave tomorrow, and I was thinking maybe they’re bedbugs that are biting us but the bites ain’t like bedbugs, which leave bloodspots on your sheets and bite you in a linear pattern for some reason. Also with them you’re meant to be able to see black specks, which is their faeces, and smell a musty smell. The only faeces we’ve seen in the hut is gecko shit.
The mozzie net in our room has got a couple of holes in it so we’ve taken it down and put up the one we bought with us that’s impregnated with DDT. Is it DDT, this deet stuff?
We’ve decided to check out today instead of tomorrow because Nel is just a mass of bites. I was woken at four by a boat leaving, the dingos going mental and a full bladder. I heard the sound of the boat and the dogs for about an hour. Happily my bladder took less time to finish.
At that time in the morning the sound of insects and the birds is just unbelievably loud.
There’s a bird that makes the same noise as hitting the frozen canal with a stick, that kind of reverberating percussive sound. The chainsaw insects are just unrelenting, day and night and the morning birds in the jungle, whistling and whooping a hundred different songs.
However, we’re leaving today. It’s hard to know whether Nel has been bitten more in the night because there are just so many bites. Many of them are sandflies, you see the little bastards when you’re on the beach, but she seems to be very attractive to them.
Our rafter frog left us last night. I went into the bathroom and he was sat on the edge of the water butt where he’d been for a swim. He hopped up onto the wall and then he was gone.
It’s quarter to eleven now and the boat leaves at three. The plan is to overnight in Sihanokville and get the bus to Kam Pot tomorrow morning, it’ll be five by the time we get to the mainland and we don’t want to be arriving in Kam Pot in the dark and trying to find a room.
The bridge not quite far enough