Saturday, December 22, 2007

Day 8: South to Sihanoukville

Leaving Phnom Penh

We checked out of the Pavilion after breakfast, having arranged for two of our bags to be kept in the store room. Maraka had arrived with his friend, a much older man in his 50s or 60s, whom we shall also call "Uncle". Although we hadn't had the best of experiences with Maraka, I was in fact glad to see him. I had left my brand-new though by now much loved Keen sandals in his car, under the driver's seat, and he kindly brought them back. He wasn't about to be swayed though by my request to detour to the coastal towns of Kep and Kampot. The roads, he said, were bad. I decided to keep quiet for the moment. I had done my homework and checked with Matt, the manager of our Sihanoukville hotel, who assured me that the roads were in decent condition. We waved goodbye to Maraka and made our way out of town.

the dusty roads of outer Phnom Penh

I waited till we stopped at a gas station to top up the tank before broaching the subject with Uncle. He scratched his head but did not say "no". I paid for the gas and we got back into the car. Suddenly, he whipped out his handphone to make a call. Oh no, I thought. True enough, he had called Maraka. The two of them jabbered away in Khmer for a while, then Uncle passed me the phone and indicated that Maraka wanted to speak to me. Finally, the moment had arrived - they wanted more money for a detour. I asked how much more. Maraka said US$90 in total, US$40 more than the US$50 for the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville run. I protested - it was but a small detour, two hours more than expected. Maraka countered by saying that by the time we reached Sihanoukville and Uncle had rested, it would be late in the day and the drive back would be tiring. Should we bypass Kep and Kampot just to save US$40 when that was but a small sum for us? After all, we had come all this way to experience what Cambodia had to offer. Moreover, Uncle seemed like a much more reasonable man. I sensed that he himself was not too concerned about the money. Whatever his arrangement with Maraka was, he seemed to feel Maraka had to have a say. If Maraka was taking a cut, the less we paid, the less Uncle would get too, I reasoned. In the end, I succumbed.

From Phnom Penh to Kep

Compared to Maraka, Uncle drove at a much more measured pace. At least the scenery wasn't a complete blur this time.

a different type of traffic jam

the countryside

As we wound our way south, I kept track of our progress with my map. Uncle's standard of English didn't seem to go beyond "toilet" and the names of the towns we were passing through, but it was sufficient. Four hours into the drive, we finally reached the coast.

the sea!

Lunch in Kep

Kep was once Cambodia's Riviera, the resort town for the moneyed classes. Since the outbreak of war and hostilities, its seaside villas have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. We cruised around for a bit, Uncle driving by the old buildings for us to have a look. The place was a ghost town. Kep's current draw was its seafood, in particular, crab, and that was what we were there for.

take your pick of seafood joints

We parked the car and headed for the first restaurant with an English Language signboard.

our choice

The place looked reasonably clean. To our delight, the place was full of local customers, a plus point in our eyes. This was, in my eyes, our very first local meal.

local patrons - alright!

Having placed our orders, we sat back to enjoy the view.

an agrarian utopia - the Cambodian Dream it seems

you can't get seafood fresher than this

our lunch being harvested?

we could have bought some crabs to go too

The highlight of our meal was the area's signature dish - Kep crab stirfried with Kampot's famous pepper. It was unbelievably fragrant, and well worth the aggravation of dealing with Maraka, the extra transport cost and the extra time spent driving, in my humble opinion.

fried crabs with green peppercorns

fried morning glory

fried noodles with prawns

fried rice with prawns

The bill for lunch came up to US$12.50, inclusive of three cans of Coke, one for each of us. While Uncle had a cigarette before hitting the road, we entertained ourselves by drooling over the grilled fish being sold just outside the restaurant.

fish onnastick - tempting...

On to Kampot and Sihanoukville

on the road again

The next part of the ride was uneventful. The roads were excellent. The only noteworthy moment was driving through Kampot which reminded me of Malaysia in the 1960s or 70s. Other than that, the drive was punctuated by short naps.

are we there yet?

Reef Resort in Sihanoukville

We finally arrived in Sihanoukville at 3.00 p.m. Uncle managed to find Reef Resort with no trouble at all. After helping us unload our bags, he left with US$80 in his pocket. The balance owing was US$72 (I had already paid US$18 for the gas) but I thought a tip of US$8 not unwarranted.

Check in at Reef Resort was quick and easy. Matt, the manager who had been so helpful online, was not around; he was away in Phnom Penh, of all places.

the pool as viewed from our porch

We were pleased to find Reef Resort extremely clean and comfortable, if not luxurious. It reminded us of Tegal Sari, our favourite little hotel in Ubud, Bali, in that great pains had been taken to ensure that everything was just so.

someone had taken the trouble to make the place look nice

lots of storage space and a safe

hey toothbrushes and toothpaste!

Somewhat worn out by the long drive and the glare, we were glad to be able to get into the shower and spend the rest of the afternoon in the cool of the room.

Ochheuteal Beach

As dusk fell, we hopped out for a quick trot around. Reef Resort's main drawback, for some, might be its location. It was five minutes from the beach, rather than on the beach itself, and getting to the beach required walking down a rocky path.

our first look at Ochheuteal Beach

In the fading light, the beach itself was not spectacular, spoilt as we have been by the beaches of Thailand and Australia, but we could see why it would be popular with the backpackers and expatriates keen to party hardy on a shoestring budget. The place was crowded with bars, barbecue joints and guesthouses, and could boast of a mean sunset.

the highlight of Occheauteal Beach

Dinner at Mick's and Craig's

On the other side of Reef Resort was the Golden Lion roundabout, a landmark in Sihanoukville. The most noteworthy building on that side was a casino. We were increasingly unimpressed by Sihanoukville.

Reef Resort's neighbour

We chanced upon Mick and Craig's Guesthouse, a couple of doors down from Reef Resort. The signboard outside proudly advertised its Sunday roasts. Ever suckers for Brit nosh, for its novelty value if nothing else, we wandered in and ordered exactly that.

Sunday Roast Part I

Sunday Roast Part II

For US$12.50 in total, we had a choice of roast chicken or roast pork, to go with our cauliflower cheese, peas, onion hash, mashed potatoes, beetroot, carrots, potato wedges, deepfried sweet potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and brown sauce, plus soft drinks. As we tucked in, we must have looked like we were enjoying our food. The people at the next table decided to order the same thing. Unfortunately, they were French so it was unlikely that they derived as much pleasure from the meal as we did.

And with that, our first day in Sihanoukville came to an end.

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