Island adventure

Koh Rong (without the rain)

Day One

Cambodia is a beautiful country. There are so many parts of it that are spectacular. Whether it is the rice fields that stretch from horizon to horizon in the centre of the country, the remote hills of Mondulkiri, the sudden mountains of Kirirom, or the lazy riverside towns of Kratie or Kampot, there are stunning places to see. I have a target to see as much of it as I can.

Last month was both Water Festival and Vitou’s birthday. So, we decided that to celebrate and to just relax after what has been a crazy year we would go to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem (/kɑh roŋ sɑnlɨm/ for you phonetics freaks out there). Whilst on the island was a relaxing experience, getting there was a bit of a fun experience (translation: if you are a control freak you would have hated it).

We hired a car to take us to Sihanoukville, which is a city on the coast. It left my house out about 8:30 am. We got out of Phnom Penh at about 10:30. What should have been about a 20 minute drive was two hours. There were heavy rains the night before and on of the four lane roads out of the city had been flooded and reduced to a single lane. We were stuck in traffic and even before we had left the city I was worried about whether we would manage to arrive in time to catch the ferry.

Waiting in Phnom Penh and the snacks are already out.

The first half of the journey to Sihanoukville is not particularly scenic. You’re in the Phnom Penh suburbs and even up until an hour or two out of the city, the road is lined by factories or dusty provincial town markets. (Once you manage to leave the national road – just by a few minutes, the scenery is beautiful, but you just can’t see it.) However, the towns lining the national road start to melt away and you get glimpses of mountains, rice fields and pagodas. They flash by in emerald green beauty. The jagged sharp mountains seem like broken flint edges. Then you enter Kirirom National Park. You begin to wind around the hills, with sharp drops and green jungle. There’s one particularly beautiful shrine that we passed. But we could not stop… except for lunch.

In Cambodia, time and plans are flexible. Even if we were concerned we were going to miss the ferry, we still had to stop for lunch. (It was probably a wise decision.) So, my anxiety was increasing. However, I reminded myself, I was in Cambodia where plans are flexible and things tend to work out. I was also with Vitou and his family, and that always gives me a sense of reassurance. I think it was mainly the pressure of just making sure it was a great experience for them.

We finally arrived in Sihanoukville. It was like entering a different country. Sihanoukville has experienced a lot of development over recent years, mainly with Chinese money. The constant Chinese writing was one factor to making it feel so different (I can’t complain – everything in Phnom Penh is in English). However, it was mainly the wide, new roads weaving over hills towards the sea. A lot of the development has been met with complaints, especially by foreigners. (And it has caused problems for locals which concerns me more than a slightly bizarre outworking of a desire for colonial control and a condescending idea that only the West should be developing. But that is another blog post.) I was actually really impressed with the city, and hopeful in a few more years when all the skeletons of half-finished high rise complexes are finally finished, it will actually be a beautiful place to visit.

We found our way to the ferry terminal. We hadn’t booked our tickets, which was good because the journey took three hours longer than I expected. We asked if we could buy a ticket. Everyone told us the ferries were full. Again, we needed to show some flexibility. There was the possibility of hiring fishing vessels. They were for eight people and cost only a fraction more it would have done to buy tickets for all of us for the ferry. So we decided we’d do it. Now, there was a poor young Khmer lady who had the same problem we had; she had been stuck in the traffic in Phnom Penh so arrived too late to secure a ticket for the last ferries of the day. The man at the checkout asked if we were happy to have her on our boat and as it wouldn’t cost her any more, we agreed.

A few phone calls later and a tuk tuk arrived to show us the way to where the fishing boat was parked. Vitou jumped in there and the young lady we picked up jumped into our car. We set off, when suddenly the tuk tuk pulled to the side on the edge of a roundabout. In the car, we had no idea what was happening. But suddenly the tuk tuk set off, the car driver following and we turned around and headed back to the ferry terminal. We were pretty confused until the heavens opened and it started pouring down. The fishing boats were quite small and it would have been too choppy to get us comfortably across.

We were hurried through the ferry terminal, through the crowds (with the random Khmer lady still with us). The staff at the terminal bundled us onto… a ferry. So, the ferries where all the tickets were booked apparently had seats to spare. (I think in these cases, companies end up sharing boats with rival companies and perhaps putting on extra services.) In the two minutes maximum we were outside in the rain, we all got absolutely soaked. Despite the rain, the ride to the islands was surprisingly smooth.

Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was dark, so we didn’t really get to experience how beautiful it was straight away. We found our way to our hotel, then found an Italian restaurant to eat in. Poor Veya (Vitou’s daughter) was a bit grumpy (as we all were) at this stage. But once she got a chocolate milkshake inside her, she was the happiest I’ve seen her in a long time. It did look pretty good. And if the standard of my pizza and the other food was anything to go by, it was probably as tasty as it looked.

We had a little walk around the village and bought some seafood for Vitou to snack on later. Then we settled in our bungalows for the night.

Day 2

Vitou and the children paddling in the sea.

We got up and walked the seafront of Koh Rong village and played in the sea a little bit. We also began our search for breakfast. Of course, we ended up going to one of the first places we passed, but still insisted on searching for other places. We had Khmer breakfast of kuy teav (noodle soup) and some really strong coffee.

One of the jetties at Koh Rong, with Koh Rong Samloem in the background.

After this we found ourselves a boat to Koh Rong Samloem, where we would spend the next two nights. This did take a bit of asking around, but of course, I had Vitou to make the task easier. We took a fishing boat to the Island.

We arrived and the family were teasing me about a habit I’ve obviously picked up from my dad. If I have somewhere to go (such as the hotel), I tend to march rather than walk casually. I probably need to learn the art of walking slower, as it’s probably one of the reasons I’m always so hot. So, we marched towards our hotel, which was right on the beach. We checked in, had lunch and had a rest.

I think the first day at Koh Rong Samloem was pretty much spent playing in the sea or napping. It was good to get a rest especially after the somewhat crazy day we had before.

One of the sad aspects of the journey, which was even more evident on Koh Rong Samloem, was the effect COVID-19 had had on the tourist industry in the area. Quite a lot of the hostels, hotels and bars that lined the beaches were closed. In front of those closed hostels, there were sometimes piles of trash that had been washed ashore as there wasn’t the staff to keep the area clean anymore. I didn’t really know the difference, but Kristi had been here pre-COVID and said the difference was actually quite dramatic.

Day Three

Vitou and I took an early morning stroll together and just chatted about life. It was a really nice opportunity to just catch up and to spend a bit of time together. He also suggested that we pray together and for each other as we walked back to the hotel.

One of the things Vitou was really looking forward to was going on a fishing trip. Vitou loves fishing. However, his fishing endeavours are sometimes unsuccessful. Spoiler alert: this was one of those occasions. I don’t know whether it was the weather conditions or the season, but apparently the underwater currents were particularly strong that day. It mean that often our lines were being dragged off who knows where and they got tangled quite regularly. We managed to catch two very small fish.

The boys were also particularly disappointed. We had said they could go snorkelling, but because the currents were too strong and they’re not particularly good swimmers, we decided against it. Kristi was also very seasick and had left her medication in the hotel room by accident.

So, overall, not a particularly successful trip. I think in hindsight, I would ask the boat driver just to take us a bit around the islands. We got to see some of them, but not a huge amount.

One thing I have learnt about Vitou over the years is that he is a person of habit. If he knows something and likes it, his preference is to do it again. (I don’t know whether that is a Cambodian cultural streak. I might ask a few Khmer friends if they prefer trying new places or going to places they know.) Also, as I mentioned before, not all the places were open due to the impact of COVID, so the choice was somewhat limited too. So we ate at our hotel for the second night running. That’s also because they served Vitou’s favourite food: BBQ seafood.

Day Four

This was our day to go back home. We booked the ticket for our ferry and told our driver to pick us up at Sihanoukville at 1pm. We actually arrived there at 3pm, but that’s Cambodia time for you. Of course, as we were crossing the water, the heavens opened and it started pelting it down with rain.

Our journey back to Phnom Penh was not as long as the journey on day one. There was one lesson I needed to learn. First, is to make my requests very specific and very explicit. I often will frame it in a British way, leaving room for ambiguity. I wanted to stop at a particular beauty spot, so I suggested we stopped nearby there to get food (there were restaurants there) and so we could enjoy the view. We ended up stopping 2km further down the road and opposite a petrol station. So much for enjoying the beauty spot. (I’m also going to be honest and say that my mood was not great at this point. I was also experiencing tooth-pain, which didn’t help. However, once I had some food and drink, my mood massively improved. I’m basically a giant toddler.)

We finally arrived back home at around nine in the evening. It was a great trip and I loved spending time with my family. I also need to be aware of my temperament and how I get hangry. There were also parts of Cambodia that I saw briefly and would really like to explore more fully. It’s such a beautiful country and the people are so friendly. I’m so lucky to live here and enjoy it.

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