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Cambodia #2 – New Year’s at The Beach

This post marks the halfway point of our trip, when 2012 became 2013.  Of course, as I post this, it’s well into 2014, so nothing here exactly counts as “news”, but nevertheless I hope you enjoy it.

 

Watching “When Harry Met Sally” ruined New Year’s for me.  That movie came out when I was 18 years old, too young to have experienced a fabulous New Year’s Eve but very ready to imagine one.  The scene was one of surpassing romance—totally unachievable in real life—and it set me up for a future of disappointment.  Year after year I’d get this vague feeling that someone, somewhere, was having a black-tie-clad, champagne-fueled time of their life, gliding smoothly to the sounds of a big band while they uttered perfectly conceived lines of romantic-comedy prose and fell head-over-heels in love.  What about ME?!!?  Why wasn’t I invited to that party???

 

So NYE is always fraught with the specter of disappointment.  And yet, on our year of travel there would indeed be a NYE and we’d have to find a way to spend it.  Since we would be in Cambodia, the setting of the movie The Beach and home to its mythically beautiful namesake, we figured a place with a beach would be nice.  We’d heard that the gorgeous bay where they filmed the movie had become overrun with tourists, so instead we selected the little beach town of Sihanoukeville, an easy 4-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, and decided to head down the day after Christmas.  That would give us a few days to check it out, and also a few days to explore the islands off the coast.

 

One of the amusements of travel is discovering the local variants of familiar things, like this lychee-flavored Fanta, which I happily drank on the bus to Sihanoukville.

One of the amusements of travel is discovering the local variants of familiar things, like this lychee-flavored Fanta, which I happily drank on the bus to Sihanoukville.

 

Sihanoukeville

In the end, the bus ride was closer to six hours than the advertised four.  This may have had something to do with the bus driver taking us an hour in the wrong direction to pick up a couple of friends who needed a lift and evidently weren’t able to make their own way to the bus station.  But, at $5 apiece, it was a comfortable enough ride and we couldn’t really complain.

 

The traffic in Phnom Penh can be a big chaotic.  No wonder it took our huge bus a while to get through town.

The traffic in Phnom Penh can be a bit chaotic. No wonder it took our huge bus a while to get through town.

 

We were released at a bus station a short distance outside town, in the by-now-familiar-to-us method of allowing the purveyors of local transport all over the developing world to get a little bit of income from shuttling new arrivals into town.  (Not so efficient for travel, but relatively efficient at spreading the wealth, which isn’t such a bad goal, after all.)  The last mile or so by tuk tuk cost us about half what we’d paid for the 250km bus ride but never mind, we arrived at the Panda guesthouse, where we’d reserved, to find a comfortable-if-soulless concrete block experiencing technical difficulties with its air-conditioning.  But it was a conveniently short walk from the beach, so we dropped our bags, swung by a store to pick up some beach toys for Orion, and headed straight down to the town’s main waterfront, the appealingly-named Serendipity Beach.

 

Serendipity Beach is a prototypical Southeast Asian (SEA) travellers’ beach.  It is, to put it simply, beautiful.  Wide soft sand, gorgeous water, west-facing to take advantage of the sun setting behind a half dozen local fishing boats floating in the water…you couldn’t design a prettier beach.  On top of this are layered the amenities that the average 20-something SEA traveller wants—dozens of little beach restaurants and bars with tables and beanbag chairs spilling out onto the beach.  And travellers were indeed taking advantage of them, with people playing frisbee, reading, writing, talking, drinking, eating.  It was a nice scene with the beach full of young folks—mostly Europeans in their early 20s—we even ran into the three Dutch medical students (who we’d met in Laos) for the third time in the past couple of months!

 

Allison enjoying a beautiful Serindipity Beach sunset scene.

Allison enjoying a beautiful Serindipity Beach sunset scene.

 

Comparing stories with them, we learned that we’d more or less been following their route a few days behind them.  They told us (yet another) story of the awful bus ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi—that was the bus trip that we had decided to skip in favor of flying.  Their story was disgusting and detailed in that way that medical people love to tell over a meal (much to the horror of their spouses, their friends, and their spouses’ friends).  I will spare you the details here, but please please please, I implore you, if you’re following that route…take the damn plane!

 

That trip down memory lane complete, we ordered a couple of drinks and relaxed on the beanbags while the sun set and a couple of local kids joined Orion as he played games on Allison’s iphone. It was heaven.

 

The problem with Serendipity Beach is that it is so beautiful that it has become a victim of its own success.  There are simply too many people there.  At least, there were for our tastes.  After an afternoon there, we were ready to move on—a feeling reinforced when we arrived at the beach the next morning to find a bunch of altered 20-somethings wandering like lost children on the beach, remnants of the all-night party that happens most nights there.

 

Serindipity provides all the amenities a Southeast Asian traveller could desire…except for peace and quiet.

Serindipity provides all the amenities a Southeast Asian traveller could desire…except for peace and quiet.

 

Fortunately, moving on is what we’d planned for that day.  We were wearing our backpacks, having already checked out of our hotel, and had come to the beach that morning in search of the boat that would take us to our next goal: the small island of Koh Ta Kiev.

 

We eventually did find the boat (it arrived an hour or two after we expected it, island time being the same all over the world), but not before bumping randomly into Ella and Paul, our Australian friends from Laos who, like the Dutch medical students we saw the day before, we seemed to come across from time to time.  SEA is, it seems, quite a small world.

 

There's our boat!  Uh, somewhere...

There’s our boat! Uh, somewhere…

 

 

A Camping Resort

A couple of weeks before, while we were in Hanoi, Allison had stayed up late researching islands near Sihanoukeville.  It had been my turn for a nighttime exploration, which meant that I passed a few hours strolling from pho stand to pho stand, happily stuffing myself with as many bowls of that delicious soup as I could stand.  I arrived home sometime around midnight, belly wobbling and tongue tingling, to find my son snoring and my bride sitting up in bed in front of the laptop, a little wild-eyed but smiling as she welcomed me with: “What do you think about a camping resort?”

 

A “camping resort?”  That seemed to combine two things that I didn’t think went together.  A resort is somewhere you laze about while people bring you fancy drinks.  The maximal exertion in a resort comes when you walk to the beachside massage place for a rubdown.  And when you get back to your room for a well-earned nap, you find that someone has sprinkled the hand-plucked petals of tropical flowers all over your bed.  In contrast, when you go camping, you carry all your own stuff, wrestle with your tent while it’s raining, get grimy and smelly, subside on jerky and water, and are (yourself) the main food source for every insect within thirty miles.  There are no warm meals—let alone warm showers or warm naps—and nobody brings you drinks, gives you massages, or throws flowers about.

 

Furthermore, the place that Allison had found was new, so it didn’t have much of a track record.  But what few reviews did exist on tripadvisor raved about the friendliness of the place and, at $5 a night for a tent and bedding for the three of us, it would allow our budget to recover from the excesses of Christmas at the Raffles hotel.  So we figured we’d check it out.  And we were glad we did, as the five days we ended up staying on Koh Ta Kiev were among our favorites of the trip.

 

Our captain for the hour-long crossing pulls on the string that operates the engine's throttle and leans with his thigh against the tiller as we leave Sihanoukeville for Koh Ta Kiev.  The engine would have looked more at home on a truck, rather than a boat, were it not for the long straight shaft connecting it to the propeller some 20 feet behind the boat, in the normal fashion of Southeast Asia's "longtail" boats.

Our captain for the hour-long crossing pulls on the string that operates the engine’s throttle and leans with his thigh against the tiller as we leave Sihanoukeville for Koh Ta Kiev. The engine would have looked more at home on a truck, rather than a boat, were it not for the long straight shaft connecting it to the propeller some 20 feet behind the boat, in the normal fashion of Southeast Asia’s “longtail” boats.

 

 

Crusoe Island

The name of the camping resort is Crusoe Island, a nod to both the remoteness of the island and the rustic feel of the place.  Allison’s first thought on arriving was that it was like being on Survivor, but without all the annoying bits…like the smarmy host.  About an hour or so by boat off the mainland, Crusoe is run by husband and wife team Liam (Australian) and Vanna (Cambodian).  Liam mostly runs the infrastructure and the bar while Vanna is in charge of the food.  I have a hard time conveying why we liked it so much—why we decided to extend our stay for an extra few days so we could welcome the New Year in from this little island—but I’ll try by quoting from my New Year’s Eve journal entry:

 

 

Journal Entry.  December 31, 2012, Crusoe Island, Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia:

Last Day of the Year!  We were originally supposed to be back in Sihanoukeville, on the mainland, by now, but here we are still on this little island without electricity, without running water, not a faucet to be found, only big trash cans full of water hauled from the well by hand and a scoop to use for flushing the toilet or showering, for those who are so inclined. 

Luxury it is not. 

So, why did we extend our stay from three days to five, choosing to remain here through New Year’s, rather than returning to the land of air conditioning and relatively few bug bites?

Because this is another of the magical places we’ve been lucky to find on this trip.  And we don’t want to say goodbye.

Physically, it’s beautiful.  The island has only three places to stay, each one a variant on the open-air bungalow theme (basically just thatched roofing to keep minor rain off +/- a hint of a wall for a modicum of privacy) and tents.  There are also a few high treehouses at the other end of the island, which look pretty cool, but like they’d be somewhat dangerous post-cocktail hour.  As for our place, Crusoe Island, the tents and bungalows here are placed from actually on the beach to about 30 feet back from the water’s edge, which means they’re already into the jungle.  The beach is lovely—very gentle lapping waves, warm water, soft sand, shallow a long way out.  It’s safe enough that Orion and the other visiting kids (a three year-old Dutch boy from Holland and a four year-old Indian girl who lives in Phnom Penh) can play unsupervised in the water.  There’s a big fir-like tree with branches flopping down out over the water near the hammock-littered base camp, providing a nice shady place for floating in the incredibly salty and buoyant water when the sun is strong. 

 

Shade tree on the beach in front of Crusoe.

Shade tree on the beach in front of Crusoe.

 

Hammocks and a bar surrounded by jungle make up the central area of Crusoe Island.

Hammocks and a bar surrounded by jungle make up the central area of Crusoe Island.

 

The younger guests enjoyed their freedom on the remote Koh Ta Kiev.

The younger guests enjoyed their freedom on the remote Koh Ta Kiev.

 

A shirtless, shoeless O fit right in at the bar…except for his lack of tattoos.

A shirtless, shoeless O fit right in at the bar…except for his lack of tattoos.

 

Orion reading in one of the hammocks on Crusoe Island, while others play in the ocean and the sun says goodnight.

Orion reading in one of the hammocks on Crusoe Island, while others play in the ocean and the sun says goodnight.

 

The snorkeling is excellent and easy; the reef starts so near to shore and the water is so calm that fins are unnecessary.  Vanna’s food is great and the beer is cold.  But it’s something harder to describe that keeps us here—something about the vibe of the place.

It’s mellow, friendly, relaxed, and fun.  There are people from all over the world representing all ages.  (I am not the oldest, which is nice, although the ages are skewed to the 18-22 range, unsurprisingly given the lack of creature comforts.) There’s spearfishing, archery (which Orion enjoyed and is done almost-safely on the range that doubles as the path to the toilet), and a kind of wild-west can-do mentality.  There’s a list of chores that need doing, such as making paths through the jungle, which one can do in exchange for reduced or free accommodation. 

It’s a quirky place, and that attracts an interesting group of people to the central table, where we’ve passed hours conversing, playing various card games, and getting to know each other.  There are Carmelli and Jimmy, an incredibly outgoing and friendly couple from the States, young but old enough to have had “real” jobs, which they chucked in order to explore for a while, currently travelling on their way to teaching gigs in Korea.  Jimmy, is a sandcastle buff.  He brought some carving tools and (along with a few others) spent the better part of a day building a truly wondrous creation with towers and arches and a sweeping stairway.  In a nod to Cambodia’s colonial past, Orion christened it “Chateau Escallier” for the staircase. 

 

Jimmy and Talu working on the sandcastle.

Jimmy and Talu working on the sandcastle.

 

Jordan, from California, isn’t long out of high school and jumping headfirst into all that life has to offer in a way that only a teenager can.  My guess is that he will do more with his life than most will dream of.  Kyle and Katrina are another young adventurous couple, Canadian, on their way to teach English and then whatever else comes their way.  Jenny and Lena, two bright young outgoing German women, Holly, their English counterpart, and Talu, a Turkish Rasta-Buddhist who spends more time hand-rolling his special “cigarettes” than pouring drinks while working behind the bar, round out our card games and walks along the beach, along with various others who have come and gone.

 

Card games and drinks in coconuts filled our days.

Card games and drinks in coconuts filled our days.

 

Orion, Holly, and Lena do their part to keep the hammocks full for a lazy afternoon at Crusoe Island.

Orion, Holly, and Lena do their part to keep the hammocks full for a lazy afternoon at Crusoe Island.

 

Looking back, it was a friendly, open-minded, free-thinking, sometimes-pretty-far-out-there (but always interesting) group of people.  It is hard to imagine that the world wouldn’t be improved with more folks like that.

 

In the interest of full disclosure, there were a few frays in the fabric of this paradise—although thankfully none as severe or as violent as those that tore apart the other Cambodian beach idyll depicted in “The Beach.”  The first of ours came when an English guy got a little disruptive and had to be evicted by the Cambodian Navy.  Seriously!  The island also houses a Cambodian naval base—really just two or three guys with green uniforms and a dinghy—but they relocated him just the same before coming back to join in the New Year’s Eve festivities.  Sadly, the timing was such that I never got to collect the few bucks he owed me for the use of the last few minutes on my sim card for his call home to England.  Oh well.

 

There was also an incident with a drunk French guy, who had before been quite friendly, but then became a little aggressive with his “teasing” splashing of my son while we all frolicked in the ocean.  I could tell O wasn’t enjoying it, but I wanted to give him a chance to solve the problem himself rather than helicoptering in immediately.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be: his initial “Stop it!” was ignored and his louder and now-tearful “STOP IT!!!” was also ignored.  I chimed in and told the guy to quit.  When he didn’t, instead deciding to splash yet again, my blood boiled and he flew about ten feet back in the water.  I didn’t want to hurt him, but I did want to get his attention and I definitely wanted him further away from my son.  The refreshing dunk worked and he spent the subsequent hour drunkenly apologizing and begging my (and O’s) forgiveness.  I’m glad to say that this episode was the closest any of us came to any kind of negative physical interaction on our entire trip.

 

But these few trifles aside, we had a wonderful time and hope to someday go back, if the planned Chinese mega-casino resort doesn’t trash the island first.  Now that Crusoe Island has a website (http://www.crusoeisland.asia/), we’ll be able to keep tabs on the situation.

 

Walking out of camp along the beach (with the ocean on your right) takes you, after 20 minutes and a short detour through the jungle, to the Abyss Absinthe distillery.  Abyss makes several versions of absinthe, ranging from “clear” (with wormwood content equal to that available in commercial versions) to “green” (rumored to be the strongest in the world).  There’s also an open-air bar near the distillery, which makes a fine place to enjoy a delicious tropical beverage containing their product, or obtain a bottle for a New Year’s Eve celebration.  :)

Walking out of camp along the beach (with the ocean on your right) takes you, after 20 minutes and a short detour through the jungle, to the Abyss Absinthe distillery. Abyss makes several versions of absinthe, ranging from “clear” (with wormwood content equal to that available in commercial versions) to “green” (claimed to be the strongest in the world). There’s also an open-air bar near the distillery, which makes a fine place to enjoy a delicious tropical beverage containing their product, or obtain a bottle for a New Year’s Eve celebration.

 

The slow rhythm of life on Koh Ta Kiev made us more aware of the beautiful sunsets that came each evening.

The slow rhythm of life on Koh Ta Kiev made us more aware of the beautiful sunsets that came each evening.

 

 

Journal Entry.  January 1, 2013, Phnom Penh, Cambodia:

The height of luxury.  For the first time in a week I’m in air conditioning, I’ve had a hot shower and shaved, there’s ice in my drink, and I’m wearing shoes.  Ok, that last part isn’t luxury, but the rest is.

We’re back in Phnom Penh after our lovely 5 nights on Koh Ta Kiev, which was a wonderful and beautiful place to stay up late drinking too much absinthe with our new friends for the New Year.  We’re having a bit of withdrawal from the people, a feeling softened but not completely quenched by the return to creature comforts.

We’re off to Singapore tomorrow, where we’ll meet Laurie and Olivia (Allison’s mom and sister).  Even though we’ll be in Malaysia with them, and then the Thai Islands for another few weeks, for some reason this feels like the end of a segment of our trip—the Southeast Asia adventure portion.  It’s been an amazing visit to gorgeous places.  It needs more time.  We’ll have to come back.  (As we come away thinking after almost every location…damn the world sure is a big beautiful place.)

 

Last sunset of 2012 on Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia.

Last sunset of 2012 on Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia.

30 Apr 2014