Monday, 10 May 2010

Message in a Bottle

The old adage that first hand advice from other travellers is better than any guide book is generally true, and often leads to the discovery of places you otherwise wouldn't have found, but obviously not everything you get told ends up being correct or applies to you. Much like the biased droning opinions of the daily tabloids, Ex-pats in particular often seem to develop a strangely bitter and skewed view of the country they've actually chosen to make their home. It's amazing how many times you'll get into a conversation with an ex-pat who's been living abroad for five, ten or twenty years, and after helpfully giving you some tips about places to go or stay, then uses it as an excuse to promptly launch into a half hour tirade/slag-off about how "bloody corrupt this bloody place is" and about how the locals "will smile at you, but stab you in the back at the first chance", which, is what we got a week before we left for Phnom Penh.

Apparently, according to the Wrinkly Western Oracle of Cambodian Knowledge we were lucky enough to receive a lecture from in the bar - Phnom Penh is a "dump", which no one in their right mind would want to go to, and also, loaded with "very dodgy people". "Why the f*ck have you lived there for for seven years then?" was my (not unreasonable) response, which met with a blank stare. This question always seems to perplex angry ex-pats. It's if they can't quite really remember themselves. Maybe it's true that familiarity does breed contempt, or maybe it's just that once someone considers themselves a local, they are entitled to happily bitch about their new country just as much as they did about their old one. Or, maybe, some people are just generally pissed off all the time.

Anyway, our mardy mid day booze hound pest was talking a load of bollocks. There is no doubt that corruption, child labour and poverty are still rife in the country. It's true also there are also there are some exceedingly dark and unpleasant individuals still lurking in Cambodia, but over the course of the four days we spent in Phnom Penh we didn't bump into any of them. In fact, we met some of the nicest, friendliest people one could hope to meet - the sort of people who actively go out of their way to make you feel at home as possible in their country (especially the bar girls funnily enough...).

You kind of know you're in for a good few days when just after arriving and driving round in a rickshaw for half an hour on a Friday night with a driver who has no idea where he's going and trying to find the restaurant you wanted to go to, you end up abandoning ship and walking into a back street BBQ joint full of pissed local office workers downing beer by the gallon, and toasting everything and everyone in sight.

That's basically how our four days and nights in Phnom Penh started. And finished. I may as well make it clear that the stay was somewhat devoid of the conventional cultural excursions that usually make up a city visit, and instead primarily focused on a drinking a lot of Angkor Beer and eating a lot of barbecued meat. This wasn't quite the way it was meant to happen obviously, but there we go. I could blame our new San Franciscan friend Mike, who's tireless thirst for premium strength lager has led me to review my previously held misconceptions about Tofu eating contemporary Californians, but the truth is Angkor beer (which along with BeerLoa is South East Asias best I reckon) is too damn good, and the temptation of chowing down on perfectly cooked plates of barbecued beef fillet every day just too strong.

Also, it just so happened that Phnom Penh was gearing up for Tet, which is local new year. Tet is a much larger affair in Vietnam (the Cambodians have another new year in May), with huge street parties, mass family gatherings, fireworks and other colourful happenings, but as a result Vietnamese prices go up significantly - part of the reason we'd headed off early for Cambodia. We'd been having our own private new years party for two days running now, starting at lunch times and finishing some time the following morning, so were already well practised for the main event by the time the evenings festivities came around. Now, most new years have some sort of linear pattern to them, i.e go to a friends for a drink, the pub, club maybe then afters or home. They don't tend to go like this:

- Go out at lunchtime to street bar, watch nine year old children have a turf war involving full-on punching

- Go to bar where your girlfriend gets propositioned for lesbian sex by a hooker

- Watch a very weird show in a shopping centre where a man in a an illegally shiny suit sings some appalling "pop" and pulls "dance moves" last seen performed by Des O'Connor in the late 60's

- End up ploughing through a crate of of beer and doing Karaoke on the side of a road with a bunch of unbelievably inebriated middle aged men, the most drunk of which turns out to be the local chief of police

How did I know he was the chief of police you ask? Because as we were being force fed our twentieth beer and egged on to sing more Karaoke (I actually sang to Cambodian lyrics, although not sure how this was possible), the guy dancing next to me kept pulling his shirt up to show me the silver pistol he had tucked in his waist band. My face must have given away mild disturbance I was feeling at the time ("Sam that f*cking guy over there keeps showing me his gun and grinning at me..."), as he produced a laminated card which, he explained in broken drunken English, was his ID as security guard to the Chief of Police who was slumped in a plastic garden chair two yards away, surrounded by a mountain of beer cans and fag butts, occasionally cheering and shouting incomprehensibly at the screen. Clearly if the "very dodgy people" of Phnom Penh want to get up to maximum dodgyness, then Tet is the night to do it. The police have far more pressing matters.

After what had been four of the funniest days we'd had while travelling, and having thoroughly enjoyed Phnom Penh, which is in fact a lovely city, we said goodbye to Mike (for now!) and with livers possibly resembling Foi Gras headed West to the coast for some beach time. Sihanhoukville (fittingly re-named Hookyville by a friend...) is Cambodias equavalent of the Costa Del Sol, and named after one of their beloved Royals, King Sihanhouk. The King whose attractive habit of letting the hairs in his facial moles grow to stupid lengths was unfortunately responsible for much copycatting by Cambodian men, who also seem to think this bizarre habit is both sexy and stylish. Sam would visibly wince at seeing these, and I have to say I wasn't too keen either on having chats with blokes who looked like they had spiders trying to escape from their faces. It took a lot of restraint to prevent myself having Tourrettes-like outbursts and shouting "Do you actually realise how weird you look?!"

The main beach in Sihanhoukville is Serendipity Beach, which sounds nicer than it is. Don't get me wrong, we've been on worse, but neither of us could work out what all the fuss was about this place. Bar after bar literally packed onto the beach so close to the tide line that there was about two metres of space to walk down. Unfortunately this was mostly taken up by overweight retired German men who looked like they'd been eating Medicine Balls for lunch. So, we made an executive decision to get off the mainland and out of Hookyville asap, and head for the islands.

The main island that everyone seems to go to is Bamboo Island, about an hour off shore, with ok beaches and lots of little huts, but we took the advice of an old bar owner who told us to give it a miss and head instead for Koh Ta Kiev, which he informed us was far more beautiful, totally deserted except for a few huts and as close as you could get to island paradise. We were sold.

The next morning we were due to catch our long tailboat which would take us about two hours off shore to the island. The only problem was that the morning hadn't exactly started well for two people that were about to spend four days in together on a very small island. We'd had a massive row. The zip on Sam's bag had split from the material and she had asked me to have a go at fixing it the night before. Rising to the challenge I got the superglue out of my travel tool kit and fixed it. Job done. Bed. The only problem was the next morning it transpired I had actually managed to glue the zip solid shut meaning Sam now couldn't shut the bag at all. (I am now offially banned from any form of DIY). Shouting ensued, followed by generalised argument about budget, overspending, etc etc. A deserted island was the last place either of us wanted to be. But, as ever, these things never last too long, and after motoring through the crystal clear turquoise water on a beautiful sunny morning we finally saw our island come into view. We had dropped the entire boat load of other travellers off at Bamboo island, and it was just us two heading for Koh Ta Kiev, which felt kind of special.

It's not often the reality lives up to the hype, but this really was an island paradise. Five beautiful, dark hardwood huts set along a pristine deserted white sand beach. A small wooden lounge bar full of hammocks with a cafe run by two very stoned and very cool French guys. No fridges, no TVs, no phones, no internet, no stress. Just a generator switched on for three hours in the evening, a sheet rigged up for showing films on projector, a small kitchen that cooked simple rice and fish dishes, a box of cold beers on tab, a couple of canoes and fishing rods and about ten other good people to spend the days with. Its places like this that make you realise that Einstein was really right about time being relative.

To say we didn't do much would be an overstatement. We played cards, read books, talked about books and films with the other guys, who were a mix of Swedish, Canadian and American, fished, and lazed about in the warm sea. Some Ray Mears style foraging was done for wood to build fires and in the evenings we sat around on the beach chatting with a few bottles of rum. As if all this wasn't enough, the view of the stars was about as impressive as it could be; zero light pollution - every tiny pinprick of of a star could be seen. The sea also turned out to be phosporescant too, which only added to the magic. Cliched as it all may be, it was genuinely one of those experiences that you'll never forget. So, if you do get to Cambodia, and you want some real island paradise life, then I seriously suggest heading to Koh Ta Kiev. Just don't tell anyone else.

View our pics here:
Phnom Penh

Sihanhoukville and playing castaways on Ko Ta Kiev Island!

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