Ahh, let’s skip on over to some of my favorite memories of Cambodia: Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is a small coastal city that I imagine has been built up quite a bit more in the last two years. At the time, Sihanoukville estimated over a million tourists hitting its beaches every summer and that number was growing exponentially every year. I posted a short blog about Sihanoukville back in 2016.
Sihanoukville was our last hurrah together as once the weekend was over our Thailand teachers would be departing for their teaching country and we who were going to China and Vietnam would be heading back to Phnom Penh for another week before we’d be on our way, too.
We stopped a couple of times for food breaks and at a small roadside stand we all got to experience squatty potties for the first time. We got some interesting snacks and listened to some caged birds sing before piling back in and heading down to Sihanoukville. The roads were paved so we didn’t get as wild of a ride, but it was still fun.
I don’t really remember the hostel we stayed at in Sihanoukville, I know we were only a two-minute walk from the beach and it was across the street from a tattoo parlor. But that is really all I remember.
The first full day we were there we went island hopping. Sihanoukville is a great launch point for the many tiny islands off the coast of Cambodia, each one more beautiful than the next. I always get seasick the first fifteen minutes I’m on a boat; so I zoned out staring at the ceiling for a bit waiting for my stomach to settle. But the sun was warm and the water mostly placid and it was a delight.
We had lunch on the beach, staring out at the water, watching the waves come in. After that I wandered away from the group and found a private stretch of beach and breathed alllllllll the stress away.
The next morning, I got up early, just about sunrise, and headed back down to the beach. I walked down the dock and found a nice view of the sun coming up over the trees and the fishing boats moored in deeper water. I did some writing and enjoyed the breeze before heading back into the heart of town to grab some breakfast. I ran into one of the other women and we sat at a small café open to the breeze and got our coffees and some crepes and talked a bit about the future before we caught up with more of the group heading down to the beach.
Our last day was a half day and we spent it lounging in the sun and enjoying the warm water.
It was a nice send off for everyone who was heading to Thailand. My next stop after a little paradise break: China.
The next day in Sihanoukville we went island hopping. As a group, we got on a tourist boat—$20 a person with breakfast and lunch included—at nine in the morning and set sail. I’ve never considered myself much of a beach person; I’ve always pictured my dream home either snuggled in a mountain or part of sunny meadow. But nine hours moving from tropical paradise to tropical paradise can change a girl’s mind. I could totally live in a treehouse on Kong Roh or Koh Rong Sanloem.
But I know you don’t give a damn about me hanging out on the beach, so here are some pictures. Live vicariously, my friends.
And after a really great day of sand, sunburns, and thorough relaxing, we went back to the hotel, changed, and headed back to the beach for dinner. I had a delicious fruity drink that was served in a an actual pineapple and spent a couple hours on the beach, digging our toes into the sand enjoying good food and company. We splintered off a bit after that. I gave “going out” about half an hour before deciding that the club scene is not and never will be my thing. So I walked around for a bit with a couple others looking at shops and postcards and talking. We were some of the first back to the hotel but after nine hours on a boat–I burned the top of my head!-I was out cold in less than fifteen minutes.
Sihanoukville, named after a Prince, is a really new city in Cambodia. It wasn’t established until the mid-1950s and during the Khmer Rouge it was kind of swallowed by the jungle again, but it is rapidly becoming a tourist hotspot.
To start our last weekend together we woke up to clouds instead of bright sunlight like we were used to. No matter, it was still warm and we were about to head to the beach. Now, when we went to Siem Reap we had a mini bus and it was juuuuuust big enough for us and one bag. This time, all the people going to Thailand have to bring all of their luggage, because Sunday morning they’re heading across the border to start their new adventure.
When I looked outside, expecting a bigger bus, I spied two ten passenger vans.
This is going to be a very long trip.
And as more people come down with their luggage we all eyed the vans with increasing incredulity. Half of the people going to Sihanoukville were taking all of their luggage, the rest of us had our backpacks. And these two vans are just sitting there. I have to wonder if this is how bands feel when they go on their first tristate tour with all their gear and luggage. It seems to defy physics that all of this stuff is going to fit in these vans. I’m not above holding my bag, I did it when we went to Siem Reap, but we’re still looking about 10+ full size suitcases plus carry-ons and backpacks.
But they start taking luggage out and telling people to load up. They Tetrised the everloving shit out of that luggage. I was half-surprised the bottom layer of suitcases and backpacks didn’t blink out in a shower of stars as they packed them in there. It was something to behold. And by the gods, they crammed all of us in those vans, too.
Annnd we were off! Still pretty tired and the sky was still grey, but we were on our way to the beach! Trees and sand and the sound of waves and no diesel fumes! We just had to get out of Phnom Penh first.
Newest gritty reboot: Escape from Phnom Penh—will you survive the roundabout?
Again, I loved looking out the window. There are so many different facets to this city. Going even half an hour in any direction will introduce you to a new side of this city and these people. Phnom Penh is one of those places you can spend years exploring and still be surprised. On one hand you have almost gridlocked traffic and a police officer risking life and limb standing in the middle of the mess directing traffic and then a little further up the street you have the road down to a lane and a half because the morning market crowd has spilled over the confines of the shoulder and people are just slowing down and pulling over wherever they can. It looks like a biker rally with motos and scooters instead of Harleys and Indians. And even a little further down the road and suddenly these green fields open up and cows are grazing. Then there’s another little city cluster with buildings staked almost on top of each other and people selling fruits from small stands on the sidewalk and motos zipping back and forth and TukTuks.
It was a really fun ride and when we stopped to for bathroom breaks and water I got even more of an adventure.
Fact: If anyone tells you they went to SE Asia and didn’t use a squat toilet they are lying through their lying face.
So, check that off my SE Asia experience.
Southern Cambodia is very hilly and so lush with greenery and thick foliage it’s not hard to imagine you could go traipsing through that jungle and find a new species of something. It’s so lovely and the farther south we went the more the sun started to peak out. That cast some really dramatic shadows on the hills, the crown would be hit with sunlight but the valley below would still be in shadow. It looked like a fantasy world painting. Maybe the next thing I write will have a griffon or something hiding in the green hills of Cambodia. Or a Naga, that would be more appropriate.
Then, through the trees, glimpses of blue. Palm trees lined the road, not indicative of the beach, there are coconut trees all over the place, but pair that with the water and you could feel how damn close we were.
Through a dust-sand covered section of town that looked like most of the other tiny towns scattered about Cambodia and then the van made a sharp turn down a—shit you not—dirt road that looked more like a wide cow path. But on the horizon was sparkling blue and we were heading right for it. I don’t care if I have to unload and take a donkey the rest of the way, anything to get me there.
And we make another turn and the road dropped out from under us. This tiny, narrow little paved road snaked down the hill at a near vertical angle. Apartments built into the wall of the hill where this road had been carved had a view of trees and when the breeze was bright the sapphire blue of water.
In true Cambodian style, we blew out of that narrow alley with only a cursory honk and straight into the thick of traffic. Bigger than I had assumed it would be, it still can’t match the hustle of Phnom Penh, well, as much hustle as Cambodia gets. This is a beach town in the middle of the jungle and you can feel that everywhere. I really had the feeling that the people there were only just holding the jungle at bay. Like if they let up for even a day the trees would buckle the roads and sidewalks, shrubs would pop up on street corners, the colorful flowers they had planted would overflow their pots and take up residence in the cracks of buildings.
Twisting and turning down the streets we pulled into small courtyard and parked. Set back off the quiet street, our hotel was five minutes from the beach. Ready for water and sun, we couldn’t dump our bags and run straight into the water. Not all of our rooms were ready yet.
But we’re innovative and we want to go to the damn beach. Those who had their rooms ready stored luggage for those who were still waiting and we all changed. After liberal application of sunscreen were off and down that hill like greased lightning. The hill down the beach is lined with tiny cafes that reminded me more of Western Europe like Greece and Italy, also towering hotels that probably cost forty bucks a night and travel centers and small grocery shops selling food and swimsuits in the same display.
Sand! Glorious sand and the sound of water!
The only beaches I’ve been to are the Carolinas and Florida and there the waves come roaring in like freight trains and they body slam the beach every time they come in. Sihanoukville waves are much gentler. There was no roar, it’s more like a harsh whisper. And the sand was warm and the sun peeked out a little to really make the water shine. I’ve never seen turquoise water. In Sihanoukville the water is literally the color of gems and precious stones; lapsis, turquoise, sapphire. I see why people flock to beaches like this.
And the water was warm! Like a warm salt bath. Again, in the Carolinas the water is cold and in Florida unless you catch a warm current, it’s pretty chilly too. Not here. It was so nice. This is why people retire to places like this. I’d love to spend the rest of my life in this crystal blue warm water.
One thing the Carolinas have on Sihanoukville; Waves. I like the massive six and ten foot waves that come rolling in. Those waves that will steam roll you if you’re not paying attention and pummel you into the sand. I love those waves. I like it when the storms out at sea churn up the ocean and those dark waves rise up like the specter of Death and hit the beach with everything they have.
The quiet waves at Sihanoukville were nice though. Easy to float on.
I got lunch with a couple other girls at one of the many, many small restaurants lining the backside of the beach. These little businesses were crammed in right on top of each other but they didn’t overwhelm the beach like you get in US beaches. They were like small huts that blended with the jungle beach scenery. I got swordfish for the first time in my life. It was amazing. Cambodian cuisine doesn’t use a lot of spices so the natural flavors of the food really shine. I got a Yellow Submarine drink and one of the girls got a goddamn incredible strawberry smoothie. No one does smoothies like Cambodia. No one.