South East Asia

The country, the coast and the king: Chambok, Sihanoukville and a return to Phnom Penh

After a free morning, we departed Phnom Penh for Chambok. Chambok village is a small community deep in the hilly region of southwest Cambodia. This village, we would find out, was one of the villages that had been abandoned during the Khmer Rouge resistance, after the regime fell, and had lain fallow for a time as it was land mined. After being cleared, an NGO had assisted the village in finding new sources of income, and suggested ecotourism as a source of money, which the villagers had gladly embraced.

We wound down the highway for a time before detouring through a town and out onto a dirt track. despite tropical rainfall, we made good time and arrived at the community just before sunset, and in we were able to check out where we’d be sleeping for the night.

The traditional Cambodian house is essentially a room on stilts, used only for sleeping. The family all sleeps in one room, though a girl undergoing puberty usually gets a partition. There’s no queen beds here- a 2 person mat on the floor and a pillow under a mosquito net are all you’re going to get. Having inspected the digs, we continued to the village proper.

Chambok has set up a common eating area in the centre of the village for visitors, so shortly after arriving we were seated and fed with simple local curries and rice, a little different to the restaurant quality stuff we’d been eating but still pretty nice. After tea we were led over to what during the day is the classroom, but tonight would be the performance space.

Local children in our homestay village performing the #Cambodian coconut dance #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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The local children have been trained in several traditional dances, including the fisherman’s dance, several greeting dances, and what’s apparently the kids’ favourite, the coconut dance. For a bunch of small children, they were very good, and we were thoroughly entertained. The host, another local with excellent English, said that performances like these were used to keep the traditional culture alive, after it had been so thoroughly ravaged under Pol Pot.

After the performance, it was time to head to our sleeping quarters for the night. We had 2 houses, 8 people to a house, and after thoroughly dousing ourselves in mosquito repellent and using the happy loo (I dodged the bullet, but apparently a fairly happy squat toilet) we settled onto our sleeping mats for a night’s rest. I actually slept pretty well, once I’d settled in. It was hard, and I was a little stiff in the morning, but it was OK.

We were woken up in the morning by the assorted farm animals; it’s easy enough to ignore roosters, but cows at close range are a little more difficult to ignore. I went outside and down the stairs in a cloud of DEET to say hello to the family.

Cambodian families are very large and very young, and the family here had at least 4 children under 7 that I spotted. In the early morning they were all up and about- in the absence of mains power the family rises with the sun. After chatting to the kids and families we headed back to the village centre for a morning waterfall trek. Following a local guide and accompanied by the village dogs, we headed up a leafy green path near a stream to the local waterfall, a multi stage jungle fall that eventually waters many of the village’s crops. After taking some pictures and a brief stop for some of us hikers to swim, we headed back to the village for a breakfast of fresh baguettes, omelettes and bananas.

We left Chambok and made our way to Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s major ports, expanded greatly in the 50s with French and American money and used as a staging area for South Vietnamese aligned forces in the Vietnam war. During the Lon Nol regime Sihanoukville was used heavily by the Americans to stage in Vietnam, but that of course all changed during the Khmer Rouge. Following the establishment of the current government, Sihanoukville has resumed its role as a major port.

It’s also a beach town and backpacker haven. While I thought the main beach in the town was crowded and a bit rubbish, there are many, many beaches along the coast and on the surrounding islands. The beach near to our hotel, Occheuteal beach, is lined with bars and restaurants, and at night it’s pretty much a club strip, as I found out that evening.

Cheers from sihanoukville! #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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Ahem.

The next morning we boarded a boat to cruise to a couple of the nearby islands. Our first stop, Preas, was a small rocky island, and we jumped off the boat for a quick dip in the ocean and snorkel if you desired. After a lovely bob in life jackets marred only by a couple of misplaced feet standing on sea urchins, we headed to our next stop, Ta Kiev.

Beach on an island off Sihanoukville. Life's really tough guys. #Cambodia #SandKinSEA #nofilter #travel #beach

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Ta Kiev is a lovely secluded beach about an hour’s cruise from Sihanoukville. It’s been set up with beach shacks, which are apparently super cheap, and the shore is dotted with beach chairs and hammocks that could be rented for 50 cents for the whole day. I rented a hammock and lay there for a while, but the water was too inviting. The shallow beach was lovely and sandy, and the water was a perfect temperature, able to be waded out a fair distance with minimal current or temperature variation. Over the 3-4 hours we spent there I probably spent 3 hours in the water (too long, foolishly sunburnt) because it was that good, and we threw a Frisbee and a volleyball around in the shallows as the sun moved across the sky.

Storm rolling in near Sihanoukville earlier today #Cambodia #SandKinSEA #tropical #storm #nofilter

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Close to our predetermined leaving time, we could hear a rumbling in the distance, and the wind picked up as we left. The night before in town it had bucketed down, torrents of water turning the streets into canals, and we weren’t eager to be in a boat if that repeated itself. Despite a sprinkling of rain, the weather held enough for us to get back to the town, and we walked back to the hotel along the beachfront.

Life’s tough.

The next morning we rose early for the public bus back to Phnom Penh, and we arrived back in the city around 1:30 pm. After a brief (as Ly calls it) Nana nap and a leisurely lunch we decided to walk the short distance to the Cambodian royal palace.

The current King of Cambodia is King Norodom Sihamoni, who succeeded his father, Sihanouk, in 2004. A ballet and classical dance teacher (who according to his father “loves women as his sisters,” whatever that means) Sihamoni has been a strong advocate of Cambodian culture and generally a reasonable head of state, though most of the power lies with Hun Sen and his corrupt cronies (I’m typing this in Vietnam so I won’t have my door kicked in for saying so). Some sources say Sihamoni is a near prisoner, performing his official duties under close surveillance by Hun Sen loyalists, and his existence is apparently fairly solitary and controlled, which is quite sad for someone most people identify as a gentle soul.

One of the temples in the Cambodian royal palace complex #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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The royal palace was built in the 1860s, and has been the centre of royal life since then. It’s very opulent and grand, and inside the throne room it’s covered in gold and crystal, with elaborate chandeliers and a throne that is only used on coronation day. The palace complex contains a number of treasures, especially on display within the temple of the emerald Buddha. The temple contains many jewelled statues and crowns, including one giant Buddha with over 2000 diamonds worked into the Buddha’s robe.

Not bad for a religious figure known for giving up his worldly possessions.

Kayla and I had this discussion- for a country so poverty stricken (and it is even visible within a block of the palace) what value does a golden statue have? Apparently Sihamoni is reasonably modest, but you wonder if some of the resources used to support the royalty could be better spent. On the other hand, we and the hundreds of other tourists who entered the royal palace all paid in our foreign dollars for the privilege, so maybe like the crown jewels (or, to go back to my last trip, the silver altars and paintings in the Cusco cathedral that sat in an area of subsistence farming) the real value of them is in their tourist value. Like the ecotourism of Chambok or the bars on the beachfront, foreign tourist dollars are perhaps the best direct way to alleviate some of the poverty in this country.

Stray observations

-Ly is a pro. On our way out of Phnom Penh, our original bus’ air conditioner had died, which, in tropical heat on rural roads would have been hellish. Within a quarter hour of realising this, Ly had rustled up a replacement bus and driver to not only drive us to Chambok but to sleep there overnight and get us all the way to Sihanoukville. We tipped the driver handsomely.

– Our bus driver at one river crossing on the way to Chambok got out of the bus and checked the stability of the bridge. A pessimist would worry about driving across such a bridge. An optimist would say at least the driver checked first.

– the house we slept in in Chambok wasn’t a guest house- we actually turfed a couple of families out for the night. Seems unfair, but apparently it is a roster system amongst 300+ families so the load is spread out. Still had all sorts of posters and things that were a personal touch.

– Power: the family had a generator, but most of the stuff we saw was running from car batteries, including the lighting and the fan in the house. I asked Ly if solar power was used, and he said not for powering the entire house, but that small panels were starting to appear to charge the batteries. 10-15 years and I imagine the story will be very different

-Chambok is a collective, governed by a local organising committee, and all of the profits are sunk into community projects including education, infrastructure and environmental management. Great model.

– Chambok villagers take their environmental responsibility very seriously, and I had a chat with Leng, the local guide, about their sustainable forestry and the challenges of climate change on both his and my countries.

-Kayla didn’t come on the waterfall walk. She said she had a lovely conversation, albeit in limited English, with a Buddhist monk who lived in a local monastery.

– One of our Canadian tour members is deathly afraid of spiders. He has managed to find spiders in every location we’ve visited, but he thought he was safe in the ocean. Of course, when we stopped at Preas, he turns over a floating coconut, and SEA SPIDER! The fact that it was later revealed to be a crab was a mere detail

-If you want to see Ta Kiev in its current state, be quick: apparently Chinese developers are planning a 5 star resort for the beach front.

– all this bus travel has given me a great chance to catch up on my reading. I’ve read most of The Dresden Files series on assorted buses as we’ve gone along

– A Ly-ism (and there are several): if something is not going to take long, he says it’ll take him one minute and twenty four seconds to do

Next: we farewell Cambodia and enter Vietnam

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