Sep 2, 2014

Capturing Cambodia on Camera: Part Two

Remember Rob, he is an Aussie ex-pat whose travel journeys lead him on an unexpected path. What he found was Cambodia, a place he now spends most of his time writing about a land and a people that continue to surprise him. Rob shared his story, so that other Aussies might be inspired to venture to a land that he’s been thoroughly entranced by. We hope you enjoy Part 2.

Sihanoukville Then and Now

Sihanoukville was as much of a surprise to me in September of 2006 as Siem Reap had been, but for the opposite reason. I expected Siem Reap to be a sparsely populated village, and found a bustling modern city instead. I imagined Sihanoukville to be a busy tourist beach along the lines of Bali’s Kuta Beach. What I found on Ochheuteal beach was a long, mostly empty beach, with small restaurants crowded together along a short stretch of beach on the northern end.

Yes, it was a little rough around the edges, but what it lacked in modern amenities, it made up for in atmosphere. It didn’t hurt, either, that you could claim a beach lounge in front of the restaurant of your choice for the price of a 50 cent beer or $2.50 fresh fish barbecue.  I chose both, and spent my first afternoon in Sihanoukville enjoying a delicious meal and a view across the sparkling water to distant islands, wondering what mysteries could be found on their shores.

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Just as I was ready to leave, I noticed a wooden boat approaching the shore. As it grew closer, I could see its passengers were foreign tourists like me. I waited for the boat to come to shore and asked a couple where they had come from.

“Bamboo Island,” they told me with wide grins, and enthusiastically assured me it was worth the $10 round trip.

After a delicious breakfast of crepes and coffee the next morning, I went back to the spot at the beach where I had seen the boat, and stood around looking stupid until a young Cambodian man approached me and asked if I wanted to go to Bamboo Island.

“Yes!”I replied gratefully and he told me just to wait until more customers came to fill the boat. I briefly wondered how long I would have to wait because I was the only foreigner on the beach, but within 15 minutes, the boat filled with passengers and we were putt-putting out towards the distant islands. If I was expecting a Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson experience, I was mildly disappointed. Ours was not the only boat to make the journey to the island that day.

After exploring Ochheuteal Beach and Bamboo Island, I was ready for a land-based adventure, so I rented a motorbike. I wasn’t an experienced rider then, but the roads were virtually empty and the little 120cc Honda looked easy to drive, so I gave it a go. I didn’t venture down Serendipity Beach Road, though. I was curious, because my guidebook told me it was a centre of backpacker activity, but the potholes, ruts and stones jutting out of the rough dirt road looked too intimidating. I’m still kicking myself for not taking a photograph of it then, but it wasn’t very photogenic and I had no idea how radically the road would change in five years.

In about October of 2011, workers started grooming Serendipity Road. By January of 2012, the road was widened and paved. Streetlights on the meridian strip made the formerly dark and spooky looking road cheerful and inviting at night. A pier was built at the bottom of the road, and new hotels, shops and restaurants sprouted like flowers on the weedy blocks of land on both sides of the road.

I can count the number of times I went down Serendipity Road before it was paved on one hand. Today, it sometimes takes more than one hand for me to count how many times I ride down the road in a week. What’s the attraction? I love good food, and between the Mexican, Italian, Greek, Japanese and fusion restaurants on Serendipity Road, I can always find a great meal.

The first time I ventured outside the city limits on my rented motorbike in 2006 was to explore Sihanoukville’s southernmost beach, Otres. After a bone-jarring ride down a dusty, corrugated dirt road with the sun burning a hole through my tee shirt, I was relieved to find a few little beach front cafés that served cold water and soft drinks. I loved the wide, empty beach, but went there infrequently over the ensuing years because of that terrible road.

One morning in July of 2012, I decided I needed a day away from the city. Stealing myself for the journey, I headed for Otres, armed with a large bottle of water and a wide-brimmed hat. When I got to the dreaded 5 kilometre long dirt road, my jaw dropped. It was being paved! That was all it took for this almost secret beach to become Sihanoukville’s most popular beach within a year.

By January, several enterprising expats had already built beach bars and timber bungalows on the beach, and more upmarket accommodation were going up on the opposite side of the beach road, where zoning laws permitted them. The building hasn’t stopped, but fortunately, both Sihanoukville town planners and those who have invested in Otres want it to retain its pristine atmosphere. The beachfront restaurants are built well away from the shore, and development of any kind is not allowed along a two and a half kilometre stretch of beach appropriately named “Long Beach.” The Secret Garden at the far end of the beach, semi-officially called “Otres 2,” was the first accommodation to have a swimming pool, but not the last.

You can still take a longtail boat out to Bamboo Island from Ochheuteal or Otres Beach, and except for a facelift the island received a few years ago, it is still much the same as it was when I visited the island in 2006. The same can’t be said for Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second largest island, though.

In about 2011, some enterprising Europeans built a few bungalows on Koh Rong. Others followed suit. Word got out and backpackers started pouring into Sihanoukville just to catch the ferry for the two hour ride to the island. Now, over a thousand visitors a day are whisked out to the island in 40 minutes on fast boats from the pier at the end of Serendipity Road. Some make it a day trip, but others stay in one of the estimated two dozen bungalow establishments scattered around the island.

Those who want a more upmarket island adventure stay at Song Saa Private Island Resort, an exclusive resort built on a little island just off Koh Rong by Australians Rory and Melita Hunter. At around $2,000 a night in the high season, Song Saa isn’t exactly a backpacker’s haven, but it has been such a success, other upmarket island resorts are now in the works.

They have a saying in Cambodia:  “Same same but different.” Yes, things are very different here in Sihanoukville today than they were in 2006, but essentially it’s the same as it always was. I used to call it a diamond in the rough. Now I can see a sparkling jewel emerging. Give it a few years, and Sihanoukville just may become one of the crown jewels of the Kingdom of Wonder.

Stay tuned for more adventures soon.

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