(Photo: The street running alongside our resort – Sihanoukville)
I’m still trying to figure out how we didn’t spot the dangers and horrors of this place, Sihanoukville before we booked a ten-day stint here. By all accounts, the reviews and articles that we read about it led us to believe that it was a paradise on earth with beautiful stretches of beaches, palm trees and restaurants. It also had an airport that would fly us on to Australia, our next destination after Cambodia. And while we didn’t expect top class accommodation having stayed in the more southern areas of Cambodia, availing of budget accommodation in the main, we certainly did not expect what came next.
We excitedly scoured the internet for accommodation in advance of travelling to Sihanoukville (a city just north of Kampot on the mainland of Cambodia). We booked a quaint looking bamboo cabin at a beach resort, with a traditional looking Cambodian restaurant and bar attached to the premises. The beach was literally a few steps from our doorstep with sun loungers and comfy couches and chairs with sun umbrellas for shade. The photos we viewed had the most picturesque views of beautiful scenery and surroundings. The reviews were relatively good, or so we thought. It was only in hindsight that we realized that many of the reviews were from many years ago, and hadn’t been updated. What could go wrong?…Basically, in a nutshell, we got it wrong! So wrong!
Our three hour bus journey from Kampot to Sihanoukville was the stuff that nightmares are made of. We had been advised not to travel after darkness fell as the roads were in such dangerous condition that there was a really high risk that we might not arrive at our destination in one piece, if at all. And so we opted for an early afternoon bus ride with a private company that seemed to have a relatively decent safety record. The bus was basically a converted mini-van that we shared with other westerners who were brave enough to take the risk of travelling by road. The World Health Organisation has raised concerns for many years about the high rate of road deaths in Cambodia, pointing out that it is the leading cause of death in the country. Over 2,000 people on average are killed every year and in 2018 a further 5,539 people suffered serious injuries. Compare this to our own statistics of c. 150 road deaths each year in Ireland and it brings some perspective to what Cambodia is dealing with. The roads are death traps! Regulations and rules of the road are practically non-existent and the lack of money being invested in building roads, let alone maintaining them is clearly evident. To travel short distances, there are small “Tuk Tuks” which are basically motorbikes that pull you along on a seated cart, with luggage tied on to the same cart with bungee cords. However, their ability to travel long distances is limited. There is literally no public transport in Cambodia, albeit one train runs from Phnom Penh (midland Cambodia) to Sihanoukville daily, and so we had no choice but to take the risk of travelling by bus. The bus travelled like a snake along main traffic filled roads. At points of the journey the bus driver couldn’t see the road in front of us because of the clouds of dust rising from traffic travelling in the opposite direction, and there were a few ‘near misses’ as we sped along what was left of pot-holed roads swerving to avoid both them and oncoming traffic. We were certainly getting the “how the locals live” experience as we had signed up for on this journey. The saying “be careful what you wish for” came to mind on numerous occasions during this particular part of our trip! 😱 With a huge sigh of relief from everyone when we disembarked in the city of Sihanoukville and changed over to a local Tuk-Tuk which took us a few more kilometers along just as treacherous roads to our final stop, Otres Beach 1 along the coast.
On the face of it, when we pulled up outside the resort, (albeit in darkness), it looked relatively ok. We rocked up to the bar in the middle of the restaurant and introduced ourselves. A friendly Cambodian guy checked us in and proceeded to show us to a row of lovely bamboo cabins that flanked the fringes of the restaurant. As we made our way to our cabin, out of the corner of my eye I was sure I spotted a large rat running into the one next door. But it was late and I was tired and thought I was imagining things. Until we closed the door behind us and above our heads, scurrying along the beam over our bed was the biggest rat I had ever seen in my entire life. It was the size of a small kitten! In shock, we both agreed that under no circumstances were we staying in this cabin and quickly made our way to the bar area again. Nearing tears I explained that we could not possibly stay in a room where there were rats running around. He kindly transferred us, temporarily, to a room above the restaurant, off the ground floor, until, he assured us, the problem would be resolved the following morning. Reluctantly we agreed to climb the wooden stairs to another bedroom at the top, with floor lino for wallpaper and just one bed in the centre of the floor. We slept very little until the sun came up the next morning. The ocean view from the window of the room was spectacular, and the comforting sounds of the waves lapping against the shore calmed everything down. Temporarily! Our bathroom was a communal bathroom with showers and a sink at the entrance to the building. My first attempt at having a shower failed miserably when I discovered that the water was a trickle of freezing cold water, and that the sink offered only the same. “Maybe it might improve after breakfast” I thought. And so we sat for breakfast in the vast open space of the restaurant and placed our order. Lying in the middle of the floor in front of me was a clearly neglected female dog, yelping in pain and biting aggressively at her front legs where her fur had been bitten away exposing large areas of pink flea infested flesh. Being covered with fleas, she was biting and scratching and yelping trying to ease the horrifying discomfort she was in. She circled the floor trying to bite at her tail continuously as her yelping intensified. And then another dog appeared out of nowhere with the same neglected look and biting and scratching continuously. These dogs freely walked in and out of the kitchen of the restaurant and having eaten one small portion of my breakfast, I decided, there and then, that we needed to find somewhere else to eat at the very least, and to stay. As we waited for our new cabin to be readied, I agreed to hold off and take a day on the beach first before making any decisions. I was upset. Seeing dogs in this condition and rats in our room was taking its toll on me and so I made my way into the ocean for a swim, to try to get my head together and figure out how to get out of a ten day stay at this nightmare of a place, and what options we had to stay somewhere else. We made our way out of the resort for a walk to scour the area for a place to eat that was relatively clean. As we walked along the road, my worst nightmare came to pass. Right outside the resort, on the side of every road, were piles and clearly weeks of garbage stacked and sprawled along the streets. The putrid smell was unbearable. I wanted to run and hide and find somewhere clean and safe, but there was nowhere. Each place was as bad as the next! No wonder there were rats! Mangy, undernourished, neglected dogs, scratching themselves vigorously, were lying around outside every building in the searing heat. Only kept by local businesses for the purposes of killing rats it appeared. That evening, on returning to our resort, we sat on a couch near the restaurant floor and witnessed rats running back and forth across the floor every few minutes. It was rampant with these vermin and even with four flea-infested dogs (another two appeared out of nowhere) keeping watch, these rats weren’t intimidated and weren’t going anywhere. As soon as one was killed, another would appear.
When I asked a local boy working in a nearby restaurant, who was responsible for dumping all of the rubbish on the streets, … his response was “the Chinese”?!! Unsure that he understood my question properly, I was desperate to find out what he meant and what was going on in the area. A friend of mine who had visited Sihanoukville only a few years earlier explained that this was not her experience of staying at the same location. On seeing some of my photos, she explained that it was certainly not like this before and that something was clearly going on in the city to bring it to what I was seeing today.
I had noticed a number of lavishly decorated, brightly lit, Chinese gambling casinos en-route to our accommodation that looked very much out of place against the backdrop of the poverty stricken Cambodian homes we passed along the road. It was time to talk with the locals and foreigners in the area to see what was going on. It turns out that more than 30 casinos catering exclusively for Chinese gamblers have been built in the city and there are another 70 under construction. That was the reason that the city looked like a building site at every turn! As we spoke to more and more of the local people we discovered that Cambodian businesses have been forced to close and thousands of tenants turfed out of their homes in order to make prime land available to not only Chinese investors, but to gang-lords and mafia. The local people have become hostile to Chinese visitors and tourists and they are understandably angry. Implying that the Chinese are responsible for dumping rubbish outside businesses to the point that local businesses cannot function because of rats etc. making businesses untenable to the point of closure, might only be said by the local people out of anger, but it begs the question as to the power, or lack of power that these local people have against such huge Chinese conglomerates taking over their city. The Cambodian people themselves can never work or play at these glittering multi-million dollar casinos as it is illegal for any Cambodian to gamble, let alone work in these playgrounds of the rich Chinese. To add insult to injury the Cambodian Prime Minister has embraced this Chinese investment (neighboring countries have not). The southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2bn worth of power plants and offshore oil operations, all owned by Chinese companies. The Chinese businesses are obviously attracted to the tax free haven that has been offered to them by the Cambodian government. Naturally there is rising hostility between the locals and the Chinese arriving in their thousands. But hang on! If the Chinese are investing all of this money buying up prime land and building huge casinos and hotels; opening businesses and setting up offshore oil operations. Where is all this money being reinvested by the Cambodian Government for the local people? And yet, this is never questioned by the local people on any large scale? And why? Because they can’t! Because if they do they risk their lives and that of their families for raising any concerns about their government! It’s as simple as that! So the Chinese get the blame and the local people deal with living in even more horrific conditions than before. And no one helps them. Sure it’s a democracy…why would anyone interfere?!!! (Eye roll). Yes, the wealthier Cambodians are most likely gaining from all of this Chinese investment, but the local small businesses and ordinary poor Cambodian families are being run out of their homes to live in dire conditions under tarpaulin sheltered hovels in filth and dirt. They are down-trodden and bear all the signs of people that are wonderfully welcoming to the non-Chinese foreigner, warm and kind, but people that clearly feel that they have no hope for their future and that of their children. Their homes have become multi-million dollar casinos, and basically no-one gives a damn. Not even they care anymore about their surroundings. Piles of rubbish can be burned away. They didn’t even have the will to do this. No will to bother about hygiene and basic sanitation for themselves, let alone for us tourists! And again, clearly the link between poor sanitation and health did not ring through for them. Without a proper education system for its people, this is what happens! What corrupt government wants an informed electorate?!!! And what I was seeing, was the result of this!
(Photo: A home in Sihanoukville, Cambodia)
Another piece of advice that we received within the first two days of our arrival was to stay no more than three days in the area. Foreigners are not safe in Sihanoukville. We were told stories of tourists’ movements being monitored by hardened criminals over a three day period, and once a pattern of movement is established they go in for the kill, robbing and beating tourists for their valuables. Of Chinese gangs and drug-lords shooting people in broad daylight on the streets. Stories of foreign girls being raped and beaten were far too many for me to feel safe in this city. And bringing a crime to the attention of the police is pointless. We heard stories where badly injured tourists tried to follow up with the police about their attacks, only to be told that if they paid the police money they might “consider” trying to solve it. It was time for us to abandon ship and find a safer place to stay until we could return for our flight to Australia. By day three, having been given another room on the ground floor, I had not slept for longer than two hours each night with the sound of rats scurrying around. By then, I had had a serious “head-to-head” with the manager of our resort about having dogs on the premises that were being totally neglected. Freaking out at him when he made feeble excuses as to why the owner of the premises and the dogs was not having them cared for and treated for fleas and whatever other godforsaken disease they happened to have. I’d had enough! It was time to grab a Tuk Tuk and head for a boat that would take us to an island, Koh Rong Samloen, off the mainland and away from this “Hell on Earth”! A place, I hoped, where I could shower and clean my teeth without the noise of rats and dogs and the putrid smell of garbage permeating in my nose at every turn. What was very much on my mind at that point was how lucky we were that we could afford to “run away” from this hell. The local people living here have nowhere to run. No matter how bad it gets, this is their only existence. For them there is no escape! In Cambodia, one out of every eight children born dies before his or her 5th birthday from diseases associated with these poor unhygienic conditions. For every 1,000 babies born in rural Cambodia, 170 die in their first year, with most of these deaths occurring in the first month of life. Another 33 plus out of this 1,000 die before their 5th birthday. It has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Asia. Malnourished mothers are uneducated and are unaware of the benefits of immunization and therefore their children are exposed to so many illnesses. The lack of knowledge on how to treat children for basic illnesses such as diarrhea as a result of poor sanitization results in a huge number of deaths. And this is happening in 2018! 2018!!!! 🤬🤬🤬😡😡😡. And yes, it makes for depressing reading! Yes it makes for …”let me turn this off” reactions! Yes, I would often do the same when pictures of poor people from third world countries flashed up on the screen in front of me. But to see it, in all its glory…the reality of what’s happening in some of these countries. The conditions that people are living in as we jump into a warm bed at night time after a nice dinner and a few beers. The frustration of not being able to do anything that would make any sort of a meaningful difference, apart from raising awareness and a few attempts at raising money … because we’re dealing with a government who controls all of this. A government who controls all of the charitable donations made to its people, for its people, that never reaches its people in any real sense. The huge efforts and obstacles that NGO’s and charitable organizations have to overcome to even begin helping these people! It’s an “eyes-wide open” moment that changes you, to the very core of your being. What we have seen cannot ever be unseen and everyone, or should I say every western foreigner that we met along the way, had the very same experience. In 2018, people should NOT have to live like this! But what is the solution? The biggest question … what is the solution????
With a huge sense of relief, we boarded a boat that would take us to a safer place. We arrived on the island of Koh Rong Samloen early that morning, a boat journey of only 40 minutes, to a room that was clean, with a running shower (albeit the water was cold), and a proper toilet and wash hand basin with a full stream of water flowing from the tap. And not a sign of a rat! It was heaven and even more so when we arrived at the local café to find it immaculately clean with lovely hot food on the menu. And while it boasted that it had electricity for 24 hours per day, this wasn’t the case. But considering what we had left behind, the lack of electricity was a small price to pay for providing us with a safer and cleaner environment. We took a stroll across to the other side of the island (only a few kilometres away) along the white sandy beach, through the island’s jungle, where monkeys lurked and signs were pinned to trees advising us not to feed them, again, due to their tendency to give pretty serious bites to the naïve tourists trying to attract them. It was on this walk that we bumped into the most wonderful, funny, Malaysian guy, Lucas, who had travelled to the island alone and asked if he could join us on our walk. And am I glad we agreed. He was a breath of fresh air and after a few lessons from him on how to make seats for ourselves on the beach from the leaves on the nearby trees, and some more such tips, we made our way back to the local café to spend the evening being totally entertained by this wonderful soul. We shared so many stories about his and our travels and said farewell to him at the end of the night, as he was leaving for his onward journey the following morning. Early the next morning, just after the sun rose, I heard a rapping on our front window. With a fuzzy head, and even fuzzier hair, I opened the door and it was Lucas! He was on his way to the boat and called to say yet another goodbye to us. Now Lucas is the type of person that has the ability to bring a beaming smile to the face of anyone he meets, just by looking at him. He’s colourful and mischievous and I felt I knew him forever even though we had only spent one day with him. He was exactly what we needed right there and then. A godsend and medicine for our souls! We spent only three days on this island, and to be honest, I could have stayed forever. I had contemplated coming home at one point while in Sihanoukville. I was ready to abandon our trip altogether, but after our stay at Koh Rong Samloen, it settled me somewhat and gave me some extra vigor and enthusiasm to continue the journey and to move on to yet another island nearby, Koh Rong. Could any more Koh Rong? 😛😛😛
(Photo: Lucas, Colm and Me on the island of Koh Rong Samloen after our escape)
Arriving on the pier to catch our boat, we came across two other couples who were touring Cambodia. One couple from Finland, and another from Holland. Sharing stories again with these people as we sailed out onto the Gulf of Thailand was just wonderful. They too had been shocked at what they had seen as they travelled through Cambodia and it formed the basis of much of our conversation as we travelled. We reached the Island within a couple of hours and arrived at our accommodation in the early evening. On arrival, we were greeted by none other than David, a 73 year old Irish man who lived and worked at the resort, and who offered us an extra warm welcome when he saw our Irish passports! We spent the next few evenings sitting in his company in the restaurant, enthralled by his story telling. Stories of his family in Ireland, of him growing up in Dublin and the time he spent as a student at Trinity College majoring in English. About his journey since leaving Ireland over 40 years ago, never to return, and his decision to live in Asia since. Learning about his life experiences while living in Asia was fascinating. His insight into how the powers that be operated in Cambodia offered us some explanation as to what we had just experienced in Sihanoukville. He told us stories of what he had witnessed during the years that he had lived here and kept us riveted to our chairs on many of those story-telling nights. During the days we walked to the nearby village of Prek Svay where we met with local children at a nearby run down dilapidated school. A school where the playgrounds swings, slides and see-saws had long since given up the ghost. David explained that many of the beautiful children that we met on the way to the village would most likely not be aware of what a proper playground looked like, let alone ever had the joy of playing in one. With 300 pupils attending the school and only 3 teachers, education isn’t a priority for the children of the village, and there is really no incentive for them to attend school. We suggested to David that we might take another trip to the school the following day to see for ourselves what the possibilities might be to provide a basic swing, slide and play area for the children. David immediately put us in touch with a local man, Mr. Hun, who lived and worked in the village, giving up his time freely to the locals to teach them cooking, English and about how important it is to protect their environment by disposing of their garbage correctly. Mr. Hun works alongside the village “Chief”and is a highly respected individual amongst his community. We travelled back to Prek Svay the next day and met with Mr. Hun. He struck me as an almost angelic figure, who devoted his whole life to improving the lives of the people of the area. We spoke at length about how we might be able to provide some play equipment for the children at the school in an effort to encourage them to go, and in particular ensuring that any funds raised would be used for just that and only that.
(Photo: A little boy we met on our walk to the village of Prek Svay, Koh Rong island)
After much to-ing and fro-ing and discussions with both David and Mr. Hun, David happily agreed to arrange for the transportation of any play equipment we could fund by arranging for a boat belonging to a friend of his to transport it free of charge from mainland Cambodia to the island. Mr. Hun also explained that if we could fund the play equipment that the local men in the village would work to install it in the grounds of the school for the children. Both men reckoned it could be provided for less than €3,000. I have recently since set up a “Go Fund Me” page where I’m now trying to raise as near as possible to the €3,000 target for this project. To date, there is €250 in the pot! So any more contributions for this, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated! (Link below).
Our time in Koh Rong was just as wonderful as that in Koh Rong Samloen. Our stay at both islands was a lifesaver for us. But the day was coming soon when we had to go back to Sihanoukville, just for one night, to catch our flight onwards to Perth in Australia. I dreaded going back, but we did our research properly this time and booked a room at a resort that was totally secluded, albeit near to where we had previously stayed. We had come across it on one of our walks and it was the nearest we could find to a clean and comfortable place to stay before we travelled.
The night before we left the island we had one more thing to do. David had told us about some bio-luminescent plankton that were visible under the water at a stretch of the beach not too far from where we were staying. He thought we might like to enjoy the experience before we left. With his directions memorized, and his advice that we had to find the location at night time when it was totally dark to enjoy the full display of flickering lights shooting from the plankton as we walked through it on the waters edge, we headed off with torches in hand, and excitement in our heads at what we were about to find. He told us that the plankton lay below the water in the sand at a point between two large bushes. A large tree stood between the bushes, and if we followed the line of that tree along the sand to the water, that was where the plankton lay. After a few attempts at running into the water with no success, suddenly out of nowhere, between my toes, sparks of beautiful pink and red lights shot up through my toes like magic fairy dust. Barely visible to begin with until I walked further into the water, there, right at my feet were more and more shooting starlike lights surrounding my ankles. It was breathtaking and yet another, more positive “eyes-wide open” moment. This time, I was so delighted that this was a vision that once seen, cannot be unseen! It was the most perfect way to spend our last night on Koh Rong. We left the following morning on the boat that would take us back to Sihanoukville. David came along to wave us off. A sadness came over me momentarily as the boat left the island and David stood on the pier waving. I wondered at that moment would I ever get to see him again, to spend even one more glorious evening in his company, learning so much about his adventures. I really hope that some day soon I will get to travel back to spend some more time with him, captivated by his stories.
(Photo: Our wonderful friend David. Koh Rong Island, Cambodia)
And so we spent an uneventful night back in Sihanoukville (well uneventful in the sense of things I can write about here…ahemmm 😂😂😂😂) thankfully. We left for the airport, relieved to be leaving, but all the richer for the lessons we had learned on our journey through Cambodia, and thankful for the fantastic people that we met along the way.
And oh boy! The thoughts of a hot shower and a washing machine was a dream about to come true once we hit Australia! But we had a stopover at Bali enroute! Another eventful first-time experience was yet to come!
More to follow…. 😛😁😜