When you finally breach the sprawling limits of Phnom Penh, the shape of the country becomes apparent: it’s flat, as far as the eye can see.
To me, it’s a strange and oddly compelling sight, to see unbroken steppe fade to transparency. The absence of obstruction – hills, forests, buildings – is fascinating to me, I suppose because I’m used to rolling landscapes and obscured horizons.
For Swarana, it was reminiscent of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria, and therefore familiar. For me, it screamed of decades of devastating deforestation and an awkward alliance with agriculture.
Beyond the pleasant old towns of French imperialism, this country is poor, and utterly reliant on rice. The landscape in March is merely dotted with trees, the rest is a wasteland of dried, harvested rice paddies awaiting the wet season – practically desolate for half the year.
Sihanoukville itself is only a sexagenarian: it was founded in the 1950s as a trading post when Laos achieved independence form the French. But it had little time to establish itself, being overrun by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
However, the town started to recover in the 90s, though its stunted young life has left it devoid of any meaningful culture. Tourism has boosted the area no end, and the port has become the country’s export hub.
The problem is, it’s easy to exploit a town that doesn’t know what it is, one that flaunts its beauty for finance. And exploited it has become.
Aside from huge swathes of construction – and demarcated land that heralds yet more – the developed beaches have lured tourists of a distinctly racist nature. We overheard conversations on Ocheteul Beach between loud Finns and a slightly more reluctant American about the Obama administration:
Finn 1: “Very bad in your country now.”
Yank: “Yup, sure is. I sure don’t know how it got that way.”
Finn 2: “You have Obama.”
Yank: “Yup… afraid so.”
Finn 1: “In Finland, we have no problems.”
Yank: “Is that right?”
Finn 2: “…and no negroes! Ha ha ha.”
One of the Finns had a Cambodian woman sitting on his knee, trying to get them to agree to a massage. Later, the fat, wrinkly Finns propositioned a teenager trying to sell mangos. So, racist paedos. They’re probably the worst kind of paedo.
We didn’t stay long in Ocheteul, as you can imagine. We’d landed on our feet in a place called Otres Village, a short walk away from the largely empty beach of the same name. Our accommodation was an excellently made bungalow at Legacy, where we could take bikes for free and explore the area.
Oasis of cool
Otres Village is a line of ramshackle shops, bars and restaurants, amid homes offering laundry services or scooter hire. We ate in the busiest kitchen on the stretch, Khmer Restaurant, which served excellent food for a pittance and sold everything you might need in the adjoining shop.
Cans of Klang for 50 cents were a particular favourite. Klang is a 6% lager that tastes like Żubr or Tyskie from the Polish shops back home in North London. Magic.
We hired a scooter from one of the villagers, on the advice of a local drunk Australian bar owner called Les. Although the next day he couldn’t remember who we were, his tip was invaluable. He said “Roight, you wanna keep a bladdy dollar in yer top pocket mate, case the cops pull ye over. They like their hands greasing, roight?”
Good tip, thanks Les. We got pulled over within an hour of hiring the scooter – ostensibly because I came off a roundabout on the wrong side of the road. Apparently the policeman was doing me a favour, by not putting me in jail, and so asked for a little compensation.
Swarana was still sat on the back of the scooter, but the policeman sternly asked her to dismount, so that he could open the seat revealing a neat place to make an obfuscated cash exchange. I dropped the dollar in. He protested, quietly. I said, “Come on mate, give me a break.” He accepted begrudgingly.
That’s how you bribe cops in Cambodia. Give them a dollar and say, “Come on mate, give me a break.” Works every time. (Once.)
Du pain, du vin, du fromage
Back in Otres Village, we discovered the blessed influence of French imperialism – affordable red wine, olives and the long-lost taste of blue cheese. Fantastic. We stocked up for a picnic and strolled down to the empty beach.
We had been told that Sihanoukville was home to bioluminescent algae, something I was desperate to see, so I was hoping for a colourful midnight swim.
We watched the sun set, sipping merlot, eating Saint Agur on crispy baguette, popping black olives and listening to Bill Withers on some portable speakers. Then, when the sun brushed only the clouds in auburn hues, we thought a dip in the water would be nice.
The Gulf of Thailand here is exceptionally warm. It’s like a bath, for heaven’s sake. So we swam until the moon rose over the pine trees behind us and the water shimmered with what we hoped might be shining plankton, but was just moonlight flickering over ripples in the water.
It was then that I deemed the moment perfect. I’d been looking for a chance for months, and finally I’d found a beautiful setting to ask Swarana to marry me, all the while keeping quiet as crabs nibbled at my toes.
Thankfully her answer was “Yes” (actually it was “Are you kidding?!” several times over).
Otres Beach will always be a special place to us now, so when it was time to leave, it was with a little reluctance. Thankfully, our next destinations of Kampot and Kep continued to keep us on a high.
Time for my close-up
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