Packing up for Pnomh Penh

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

I did opt for the Pnomh Penh bus, and booked it for 12:30. I had a few things to do around town before I headed off for the capital. First up was to walk to the Rainbow Foundation’s bookshop opposite Monkey Republic. This is one wing of a children’s charity and the small shop sells and part-exchanges second hand books amongst other things. It’s also “guarded” by one of the softest dogs I’ve ever met.

Catcher in the Rye and King of Torts gave way to Around the World in Eighty Days and a random crime novel. It’s a dollar to exchange a book, so I handed over 10,000 riel ($2.50). 50c makes no odds to me, but every little helps the charities around here – of which there are a substantial number.

Down nearer the beach I met up with Claire again for breakfast. We returned to the Sea View where I’d had a delicious – if tiny – crumble on our first night. This time I opted for the $3 muesli with fruit and yoghurt which was delicious and filling. The muesli was more like broken up cereal bars – very sticky in its own right. Definitely a good way to start the day.

Claire checked out their rooms for her sister arriving and wished she could book them as they were among the best we’d seen. However, it’s the only place in the area we know of that takes pre-bookings by internet so it’s pretty much filled up for a week in advance.

Next, and last errand, was a quick visit to the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project ( First of all I dropped off all our empty plastic bottles. The charity, I assume, takes them for recycling which is a source of income.

The aim of this little place is simple – to get children off the beach selling things and instead sat down and learning, devloping useful skills. In this case their artistic talents. The resulting paintings are put up for sale at $4 each. When sold, half of the money goes to the child’s family and the other half to the charity.

I picked two paintings – one of the Cambodian flag and the other a beautiful little piece of a sunset by an obviously talented 14 year old. These will be in the post homeward-bound in the morning.

We both finished packing and checked out of Thida’s. My tuk-tuk was waiting, as was a French chap going the same way I was. I said my goodbyes to Claire. It was a real pleasure to spend time with her – and saved us both some cash to boot! I hope her sister and her fiancé enjoy Sihanoukville, and have better luck sorting accommodation!

The bus trip was fairly uneventful. Four hours almost on the nose and dropped off in Phnom Penh somewhere along the Russian Confederation Boulevard. Some walking and a lot of ignoring of tuk-tuk and moto drivers later I finally made it to the Okay Guest House.

Which was full.

Well, it was when I got there and two Dutch (I think) girls stepped out of a tuk-tuk. The guy on the desk offered to let us share a room with 4 beds between us for $5 each which was fine with me but, understandably perhaps, the girls weren’t too keen. Once they walked off I asked if there was anywhere else to stay nearby and was told “no”.

I was all ready to hoik my stuff all the way to the lakeside area when he then asked if a dorm was OK. A dorm was what I had been looking for in the first place. He sent someone with me to show me up and I took it. It’s very basic, but at $2 a night I don’t mind. I can last 3-4 nights in that if I have to.

Douglas Adams strikes again

Douglas Adams strikes again

The bed’s passably comfortable but doesn’t have any covers, just a slip and a pillow. There’s a stand-up fan at the foot which works, but no lights over the bed – I have my headlamp, though. Both power points work, so I can power the fan and my other stuff. My only quibble about the room itself is the lack of secure storage. I’ll just bury my laptop in the corner under my bed or carry it around all day.

Most inconvenient, though, is the location of the toilet. Downstairs, outside, round the back through a corridor where the staff sleep, into a courtyard and along to the end. Definitely not convenient at 3am when you’ve had a few beers too many. Which means I’ll save some dosh by not drinking too much. It’s also home to the cold shower and is shared by quite a few people which could get awkward.

I dropped my stuff and set off to find the Myanmar embassy so I’d know what time it opened in the morning. For those looking for it, it’s on Norodom Boulevard, but far to the south. It’s locaton is roughly correct in the 14th edition Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – but on the other side of the road from that indicated. You need to look at the full city map, not the central area one.

Annoyinglyu it is at number 181 as I’d discovered online. However, the numbers down the Boulevard are not sequential! On the way down I passed numbers 269, 161 and 189 – in that order – before reaching 181. It’s also set back about 10m from the roadside so at night you can’t read the small sign to know what it is.

Either way, it opens at 8am Monday to Friday so I’ll aim to get there early in the morning and see how quickly they can turn a visa around in.

Dinner. Astoundingly despite this being my third visit to Cambodia it’s the first time I’ve seen a KFC! So – according to tradition – I strolled right in and picked a meal from the menu. This must rate as the cheapest KFC I’ve yet found at $3 for a burger meal (no large size available). I opted for the Special Meal – a lump of chicken, one of the bite-size burgers, chips and a drink – for $2.30. Chickeny bargain.

For those with a hankering, it’s also on Norodom Boulevard, somewhere near the junction with Ph 214. It’s built onto a “Pencil” supermarket which I visited. Groceries are also very cheap in Phnom Penh…

Back to the hostel for an internet check. I was going to have a beer in the bar but it was jammed with people watching The Killing Fields. Instead, I walked to a nearby sports bar and had a quick beer and a read of my book. Then back to my dorm to type this lot up on the balcony while beginning to feel very homocidal towards flying ants. I’ve not seen to many since I was in Laos. Stupid creatures.

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Diving off Koh Koun

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

We didn’t get a chance to grab breakfast as Simon was already waiting for us when we rose at 8:00. We hopped onto the awaiting tuk-tuk and sped off towards the dock on the far side of town.

Well, when I say “sped” I mean “crawled”. Simon reckoned he’d got the only slow driver in all of Sihanoukville. The 15-minute journey took us close to 25, but we munched oranges and waved at schoolchildren as we ambled past them. Or they ambled past us.

The dock’s in a much poorer part of town than where we’re staying. All of the houses are wooden, the streets dirty, the people… smiling, happy and busy with life. The streets here pretty much sum up what I love about areas like this in Asia. People are happier with what they have than many westerners who have consumer goods flowing out of their ears.

At the dock, we hopped on board the Aqua Age and set off on the two-hour journey to Koh Rung Samleom where Simon now lives. The journey wasn’t too bad as the sea was calm and the boat not too fast. We had some breakfast (more fresh fruit, a cuppa and – for Claire – some fresh boiled eggs) then settled down on the roof to catch up on sleep. I don’t think I slept as such, just dozed on and off as I was too tired to read. The sun wasn’t too strong so I don’t think I managed to add to my existing sunburn.

I'm outta here...

I'm outta here...

The only real thing of note we passed on the way was a small island crowded with what looked like Thai buildings. It (and two other as yet undeveloped islands nearby) have been bought by Russians and are used as “holiday homes”. At $800 per night. At the cheap up. The top rooms are $3000. Bear in mind there are no beaches or anything on these islands and you have to wonder why anyone would pay those sums to stay in a country known for being cheap. Can anyone say “money laundering“?

We pulled into the crystal clear waters of the jetty at the other end of our journey. The rickety wooden walkway took us onto the beach where children were being washed by a water pump. A short walk away was the House That Simon (and Martin) Built. One of the locals (imaginatively christened “One-Hand” by Simon – I’ll let you guess why) gave us a hand… erm… helped us with the stuff we had to carry. At the house we were introduced to “Cook” who… look, you can guess.

It’s an impressive building. The open forecourt is destined to be a restaurant but currently just houses a few hammocks and a basic chair/table setup. There’s a bar built, but which doesn’t have any beer at it as yet. Instead, the air compressor is situated there until they find a better home for it. The dive kit is stored in the outdoor loo as it’s the only lockable structure they currently have! Nice loo, though. Western style but with a manual flush (i.e. you throw a pan of water down it).

We were also introduced to the two kittens – Tiger and TigerTwo. Neither had realised that Tiger was a boy cat… they thought they’d inherited two sisters. Both are cute as buttons, though, and really well behaved.

Blue and yellow

Blue and yellow

Martin was to be my guide for the day. He’s from Holland, but has been here for several weeks on his second visit. He’s helped Simon build the bungalows they rent out and the restaurant we were stood in. I’d not be able to help. As they have no working freezer or fridge, they can’t keep food fresh for long so they have to eat what’s local – which means fish five nights out of seven. Ick.

Talking of fish, time to go and see some. As ever, excuse my naff descriptions as I still need to learn how to identify more species. Both dives were to be off the coast of the nearby Koh Koun island. Much smaller than the main one and completely uninhabited. We swam out, fully kitted, to the boat and climbed aboard then set out for the first dive site. This was to be a drift dive – as it happened with a nice slow current.

There were plenty of fish on this dive, including a large group of oversized zebra-patterned angel fish. Very thin, but about the size of your head and not at all shy. We encountered around a dozen of them shortly after entering the water and despite traveling some distance in the hour we were under, still had one hovering near us until the point when we surfaced.

Martin pointed out many nudibranches and interesting coral formations as we drifted along. After an hour, we surfaced as we had to fit in lunch and a second dive before heading back to the mainland before dark. I’d taken my new underwater housing down with me (sans camera) and I’m glad to say it didn’t leak at all.

A view of the island

A view of the island

Lunch was a healthy pork and stir-fried veg (and fish for those who wanted it). The cats happily accepted anything they were offered, including rice. Claire staggered up to the house overjoyed at having dived for the first time. She didn’t think she’d be able to manage it, but it seems that Simon can be rather persuasive. She only went down to about 3m, but was more than happy with this achievement.

We left them to go on to our second dive, this one at a shallower depth within a bay to look at smaller things. Again, a short ride out and into the water. The visibility here wasn’t so good, but this wasn’t an issue as we were looking for small things fairly close up. With Martin’s help, I managed to spot a few more nudibranches (nothing to top the beautiful near-white one we’d seen in the morning though – a shame I didn’t have the camera then), some sea-horses, a crab, some huge starfish and the best of the lot… a small octopus hiding inside a discarded shell.

It took all the strength in Martin’s hands to prise the shell open so I could take some photos of the octopus. Eventually, it gave up, released the shell and jetted off leaving three “clouds” of ink in its wake. I was expecting the ink to be… well… inky. The image you get when someone describes it is of pen ink forming a cloud. It’s not. It’s stringy and clumpy. Regardless, I was very lucky to be pressing the shutter just as the octopus began its run for freedom and caught it just as it “inflated” its head. The picture should be around here somewhere.

I hasten to add that we didn’t damage anything down there. We found some beautiful smooth shells – which were placed back where we found them. Anything we lifted so we could see around or under it was replaced. And the octopus will find another shell, I’m sure.

After the hour mark, we again surfaced and our captain picked us up. Enough time for a quick kit wash at the house, and back on the boat for our journey home. Martin accompanied us – his first trip to the mainland for over a week. He had to run back to get shoes as he forgot he’d need them!

Look at those colours

Look at those colours

I got some cracking shots of the sunset and we tuk-tuk’d back to the guest house for shortly before 19:00. I ran round to Scuba Nation to cancel my dives for tomorrow (and lost my deposit – hey-ho), had a shower and then we tootled off for dinner. Diving does give me an appetite and we decided to go for Monkey Republic again. After their promising show with the excellent breakfast, we reckoned their dinners would be OK. We weren’t wrong.

I had to finish Claire’s enormous chicken burger on top of my chicken strips and chips. And banana and chocolate shake. We each spent a paltry $5 including drinks on some ace grub. Two meals each, two full stomachs and two sets of taste buds saying “go to Monkey Republic if you’re in Sihanoukville and want superb food at a fantastic price”.

After some internet checkage, we went back to Thida’s where I checked on bus times. Think I’ll go direct to Phnom Penh tomorrow. If I’m really lucky I might make it there in time to get my Burmese visa application in early. Sooner the better. I’ve done Phnom Penh twice before so there’s not a lot there for me to see and do.

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Just chillin’

(Un)lucky 13

(Un)lucky 13

We were woken at around 11:00 by the maid knocking on our door. Thing is, we stayed out quite late. And got quite drunk. Most of the beach bars are charging around $1 for a beer (as low as 50c during the various happy hours) and it was too good to pass up. Mixed with a lack of sleep over the previous couple of nights, we had a good time chatting and boozing away with a ton of other people. I nabbed a $2 hot dog on the walk home which turned out to be surprisingly tasty. The beach area’s not bad. It reminds me a lot of Palolem in Goa, India although a lot smaller.

The maid told us which (cheaper) room to move to and we shifted downstairs. Our new abode still has a TV/DVD, but is much smaller and has no attached bathroom. It’s also fan rather than air-con. And $12 a night cheaper.

We opted to walk up the hill towards the nearby main road for food, just to see what the places were like up there. At random, we chose Monkey Republic and opted for their large Heartstopper English breakfast. Two sausages, two eggs, two hash browns (or chips), mushroom, tomato, toast, beans and a pot of tea… for $5.50. And no arguments with the quality, either. A great feed and highly recommended. Their accommodation also looked OK, although one girl there did say it was loud until around 2am as the bar plays music until 1am and it takes people a while to stagger off. If you’re staying there and intend to get to bed before then, get earplugs or try to nab a shack at the back away from the bar.

As with most places around here, though, getting a room means being there at the right time. Very few places have a booking system – you turn up when you turn up and your room is yours until you leave.

Mmm.... food

Mmm.... food

We also had a quick look at Utopia over the road. It looks OK, with a new pool being built and a large bar area. One of their resident dogs just had thirteen pups! Fortunately, there is another dog (bitch, technically) who’s pregnant so she’s helping nurse them. The accomodation, on the other hand, is what you’d expect for $2 (or free, if you spend your day encouraging people to go to the bar in the evening): mattresses on the floor in a dorm. There are lockers for your valuables, but even if I did want cheap crash space… they’re full.

Back toward the hotel and I popped into Scuba Nation who I’d chatted to last year with a view to doing my Dive Master with them. That’s wet season here, and therefore isn’t too busy hence why I ended up doing the course in Bali instead. They’d been really helpful, though, so I thought it only fair to pop by and see if I could do a dive or two with them.

The price of $85 for two dives, all inclusive, seemed pretty good so I signed up. My booking was based on two people going on the dive and there was one other person signed up for Tuesday, the next day they’re going out. However, he hadn’t yet confirmed as he himself had booked in the hope someone else would join him. I left a deposit and my number, and they agreed to SMS me once he rang.

Bye bye, Kermit

Bye bye, Kermit

By 6pm, I’d not had a message from them. However, we had located a nice bar on the beach front where we sat and read for a while and Claire had a passable massage from a roaming local. The weather wasn’t as nice as it had been recently – overcast and windy – but still warm and pleasant to sit in. Certainly better than the arctic conditions which I hear are hitting the UK right now.

Also in the bar was a chap from the Midlands (West Brom supporter) called Simon. He’s part of a group that does conservation work in the area (Diving4Conservation)and he offered to take me out tomorrow for $65 – two or three dives, depending on the conditions and everything included again. That would suit me better as it would mean I could dive then leave on Tuesday as I’d originally planned. This would save me having to find more cheap accommodation on Tuesday night, which would be exceptionally difficult after returning from a dive late on that evening. I told him I’d check with Scuba Nation and get back to him… which I did.

As it stands at the moment, I’m heading out with him tomorrow and will check in with Scuba Nation in the evening to likely pick up my deposit. I really do need to head off on Tuesday if I can and they were fine with me leaving it a day and deciding then. If the Burmese visa thing doesn’t work out, I can always head back this direction!

Not so warm

Not so warm

Dinner was back up in the same area as lunch. We had a great Sunday roast (mix of pork and chicken, Yorkshire puds and an entire extra plate laden with veg) for $6 at Mick & Craig’s. Dessert was a very heavy apple crumble and custard – I had to eat half of Claire’s as she simply couldn’t finish it. The service was superb with very friendly, professional staff who really put the effort in. I watched the first half of the mackem game on the TV there then hopped over the road to the Beach Street bar for the second half.

I’m going off Sihanoukville as it seems to be full of people from the Dark Place Down The Road. I suppose they need to go somewhere that’s cheap and has wonders they’re not used to at home. Like taps, electricity, a cinema and motor transport. There were four of them watching the game in the bar, though none were wearing a football top. I guess they’d not been able to steal one from anywhere.

After dinner, back to Thida’s where I “fixed” the television by jamming the loose, plugless aerial cable into the back. The History Channel is certainly an interesting thing to have on when you’re writing up a blog!

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Heading to the beach

Well, I ploughed through four espisode of The Shield last night before forcing myself to stop and get to bed. Another chapter of The Catcher in the Rye and finally I nodded off, only to be woken up at 6:55 by someone knocking on my door. Most annoying as my alarm was set for 7:00.

I was packed in about five minutes and met up with everyone downstairs. Claire loaned me another baht so I could run over the road and pay off my water from the night before. We skipped breakfast as we were supposed to get some on the bus and were picked up by a feeder coach at 7:45.

The coach park was full of the usual people selling snacks and drinks for the journey. We hopped aboard to find someone already sat in my seat. We checked tickets and he was, indeed, sat in the “correct” one. It turned out there were a few double-bookings, mostly involving people from our guest house. Thankfully the bus wasn’t completely booked – there was one spare seat – so everyone did get a place. Including English Guy who made a re-appearance. At 6’6″ or thereabouts he wasn’t in for a very comfortable journey.

Roughly three hours into the journey we stopped for a leg-stretch and picked up some fruit for breakfast. We’d been provided with something on the bus… a mint and a bottle of water. Hum. Not exactly the same as the two pastries Leah and I had been given on the way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

We finally arrived in Sihanoukville at around 1pm. Claire and I set off at a march (well, a stroll), fending off the inevitable and persistent tuk-tuk drivers. Our first target was an ATM which it took us around 20 minutes to find. Finally loaded up with useable currency, we walked for a while longer then gave up and allowed a tuk-tuk to take use to one of the guest houses listed in Lonely Planet.

Thing is it just didn’t look right. More of a hotel than a house, so we marched onto the beach in search of the cottages. Which we didn’t find. We walked for around half an hour in 3/4 of a circle and then asked another tuk-tuk to take us to another address.

We ended up right back where the first guy had dropped us off. Argh. Along the way we did pass a place called “Union”, but we’d been warned about it. $2 per night, but some lads had moved out after two robberies in as many evenings. Not worth the risk.

On the beach, we checked out the cottages but they were all a minimum of $15 per person, up to $60. Ouch. They looked lovely though. By now we’d been wandering for almost two hours so stopped for some food in a bar called Coasters, run by an American. As such it was no surprise that the $5 burger was rather tasty indeed. The surprise was that it came with proper chips. I bought an hour’s wi-fi from the internet shack next door for a buck, as well. The hi-tech system of timing your connection out was achieved by the chap walking into the restaurant and telling me my time had expired! Being honest, I shut my laptop down and we paid up and left.

Back onto the strip leading up from the beach (Serendipity Beach Road), we tried around half a dozen places – all nice – before getting a really good deal at Thida’s Inn. They only had an air-con room left, normally going for $35 or so. We were offered it for $20 and haggled them to $18. Hot shower, two big beds, air-con, TV, DVD… not bad at all. The deal was for one night, and to shift into a fan room at a lower price of $13 the next day once someone else moved out.

So I’m typing this up with BBC World on the telly, having just had a shower and starting to get peckish again. There’s somewhere with free wi-fi a couple of doors down so I may be forced to buy a beer or two so that I can use it. Shame. Oh, and also hopefully book some diving for the morning.

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