Thursday, 13 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 19. KOH KONG & SIHANOUKVILLE



The tragedy of Cambodia's infamous past is that it was a result of outside forces, compounded by weak leadership, which permitted the atrocities of the 1970s to occur. In a case of paranoid whimsy, Prime Minister Sihanouk committed his country to its nebulous take on communism because he thought the USA planned to assassinate him. His 'Peoples Socialist Communist Party' was no such thing, yet its name was implication enough for the North Vietnamese to assume sanctuary on Cambodian soil, and, coupled with the CIA threat from across the border, Sihanouk casually acquiesced. 
This was not enough: Sensing indifference to his political responsibilities and becoming increasingly aware of the military's desire to align itself with the American cause, there occurred a rural based insurgency forcing Sihanouk to back sanctions against a strain of Left wing thinking of which he must have assumed placated. It was too little too late.  Alarmed by the Vietnamese incursions, and fearful of losing the money America had been providing in aid, General Lol Nom took the Prime Minister’s vacation in France as an opportunity to depose the leadership and seize power for himself. 
Sentenced to death in absentia, Sihanouk's response can be seen as the defining moment in Cambodian history. In exile, he set up the Khmer Rouge, a beast that would be used to commit genocide on an unfathomable scale. What then followed was an example of geopolitics gone mad. Out of need rather than desire, the Khmer Rouge formed an alliance with the North Vietnamese in a bid to overthrow Lol Nom's United Sates sanctioned regime. American funds had found their way into the wrong pockets, resulting in corruption and scandal, driving all neutrals towards the leftist Khmer Rouge. So in effect, both America and Vietnam had created an environment where the Red Khmer's could flourish, and with Sihanouk in exile it was left to Pol Pot to assume leadership and implement his particular brand of communism.
After forcing out Lol Nom’s regime, the Khmer Rouge turned their attention to expelling the Vietnamese and set Cambodia on course to its bloodiest period in history. Ironically, it was Vietnam who was finally forced to end it all in 1978 and, after the death of some 2 million people through war and famine, the whole thing is a tragedy of epic proportion.


10/02/03: Get boat to Trat and then a minibus to the border; truck to Koh Kong and find a guesthouse; go for a meal; watch Parents at guesthouse with my colleague, Welsh L & K, G and F.


The fishing vessel that dropped us off on Koh Chang doesn’t do the early rounds – I think that the ferry service is almost an afternoon side-line – so we’ll need to get a songthaew to Tha Dan Kao and a ferry from there. Welsh L & K, G and F are ready and waiting and we join forces by default. Something is said about how Welsh L & K weren’t sure whether we wanted to travel with them, but it is both vague and unconvincing. That aside, they seem sincerely open to accompanying us to Cambodia and the first stage of our day-long journey appears perfectly relaxed. The drive to Tha Dan Kao is negligible and the ferry back to the mainland takes about 45 minutes. Next, we make the short journey into Trat by public bus, whereupon we transfer onto a minibus that will take us to the border-town of Hat Lek, which takes about an hour. So far, so good.
On our arrival we pause for food and drink. There’s no rush because there’s no queue to get through, and we’ve been up since 09.00, haven’t had breakfast and it’s now approaching 13.00. The food is remedial (stir-fried rice and mushrooms with some green stuff thrown in) but it fills a hole and readies us for the transition into Cambodia.
From Thailand most people cross into Cambodia via Poipet, entering into the North Eastern sector of the country conveniently near to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. In contrast, the border crossing into Koh Kong looks like it sees very little action. Will this be a good thing or bad?
Stage 1 is simple enough: Thai Immigration Control stamps our passports and bids us farewell. Cambodian bureaucracy – representative of Stage 2 – is a little less efficient. Everyone but G has a passport sized photograph of themselves, essential for gaining access into Cambodia. Prepared for an eventuality such as G’s, the guys in immigration have a camera, although they charge about 200 baht, on top of the 600 baht it costs for the visa, to use it. These photographs are supposed to be attached to the immigration form one has to fill out, and then filed…  I don’t where they’re filed. As it turns out, nobody sees the photograph that has supposedly been taken of G and we’re led to conclude that the 200 baht ended up in somebody’s pocket. It’s a hectic process all round with barely a word spoken between us and our inquisitors. It’s like an unrulier version of the entrance we made into Laos, but we do get nice big, green visas adhered to our passports, with our middle names mistakenly masquerading as our first.
Bureaucratic boxes ticked, we’re then flung out onto the street for the assembled throng of taxi drivers to fight over us. Take your pick – go on. We select the guy who seems to be the least pushy, provoking a virtual riot. The money we pay up front is then cut with some of the other drivers, who it seems might actually have some sort of system in place. We climb on board the back of our driver’s pickup truck, wait for our entourage to put their finances in order, only to be then set upon by men selling cartons of cigarettes. A pack of 200 Marlboro Lights is going for 200 baht, whereas they’re asking for more than double that for a carton Marlboro Red. The discrepancy makes no obvious sense but F and G are prepared to gamble on the Marlboro Lights, whereas Welsh L buys his regular Marlboro Reds for the not unreasonable sum of 500 baht (they’d cost about 700 baht if you bought the equivalent in number over the counter in Thailand). The nature of the disparity is very quickly revealed once we’ve got going and F lights one of his newly acquired cigarettes only to find it completely unsmokable. The driver’s accomplice, well aware of everything that has gone on, pokes his head through the back of the cabin and explains that the cheaper cigarettes are made from dried cow dung. Without my crew here as support I’d be living on the edge of my nerves.
It’s not too far to Koh Kong proper and so there’s enough time to book into our guesthouse and organise the next leg of our journey, for there is much to see in Cambodia but not a lot to see or do in Koh Kong.

It’s a little hard to judge how reasonably priced things are in Cambodia, given in that you can deal in one of three currencies. Like in Laos, Baht seems to go down pretty well. Less favoured is the local currency, the Reel. Preferred above all else is the Dollar, with many things costing exactly that – one dollar. Generally speaking, it’s probably best to keep hold of your dollars for as long as you can; use baht for the slightly more expensive things in life, like meals or bus journeys; and accumulate reel in small change along the way. Rent can be paid in either baht of dollars – you can’t use reel for anything of great value – and smaller things, like beer or coffee, can be purchased in either dollars or reel. Reel really comes into its own when buying things that you know damn well aren’t worth a dollar, but will cost a dollar in the absence of any reel, because dollars cannot be broken down into cents. This methodology can also apply to baht, with the smaller denominations generally absent from circulation, and it is baht we must use until we can get to a bank and cash in some more of our traveller’s cheques. It’s all a bit of a headache.
Koh Kong is a strange place. It is a small town but busy with it. What are all those people doing over there, crowded around that tiny shop? I think they must be watching something on television. Or maybe they’re betting on fighting animals or something? This place feels very remote, maybe because I’ve not noticed anyone who isn’t evidently local. The Cambodians seem helpful enough, even if I am a little on my guard after that clamour back at the border.  Real wild frontier stuff, this.
At the restaurant, and I feel slightly exposed. We total six and we are the only people dining here, and we’re ordering cans of Angkor Beer by the round. The staff seem to find us rather entertaining, as do the children playing outside, and we shamefully comply by building a tower out of our empty cans of Angkor. I didn’t figure on getting drunk, although to be fair Angkor Beer comes in small 330ml stubby cans similar in strength to Singha, as opposed to the stronger Chang. We stock up on a few more on the way home, mild intoxication appearing to me to be a rational reaction to our new environment.


11/02/03: Mini-bus to Sihanoukville; book into Brosoer Guesthouse; lunch somewhere; walk along beach; dinner at Sunset Restaurant; drinks and games of cards with colleague, G and F.


The journey to Sihanoukville takes about four hours, cutting through the gentle slopes that fringe Boutum Sakor National Park to the south. It is an uncomfortable journey. Our roads are mostly wide, flattened dirt-tracks, the foundations for a major arterial as yet un-built, and we have to cross many rivers along the way. Whether the authorities ever intend on bridging these tributaries is unclear, but they slow us down considerably. The ever-present red soil finds its way into our mini-bus through the fractured, plastic interior of our vehicle – as does the noise – but the river crossings offer us temporary respite from our hot and dusty cocoon.
            On reaching our destination we’re introduced to one of the more unsavoury aspects of travel in Cambodia. We have told our driver(s) the name of the guesthouse in which we intend to stay during our tenure in Sihanoukville, but he does not take us there. Instead, he drives us to Brosoer Guesthouse a few blocks down. Assuming that there must have been some mistake, we explain to him where it is we wanted to be dropped off, he feigns ignorance and we direct him there using the map in our guidebook. On arrival, he asks us to remain in the vehicle while he checks for vacancies, re-materialising less than a minute later with the unwelcome news that the guesthouse in question has not enough rooms to accommodate us all. He then argues that we may as well return to Brosoer Guesthouse as it is a good guesthouse and the nearest one to us. And we may as well as it’s a nice enough place – and it’s closer to the beach.
A very obvious precedent has been set: that the drivers are in cahoots with the hoteliers and will receive commission for taking you to pre-determined establishments of their choosing (maybe they all pay commission but some more than others – I don’t know). You also get the feeling that they can’t quite understand what you think the problem exactly is. One guesthouse isn’t so different to the other, and it’s not like the accommodation they’re offering is much more expensive, if at all. They have a point, but what they don’t understand is that we’re supposed to be TRAVELLING, and that we need that separation between transport and accommodation for us to feel like we’re really flying by the seat of our pants – even if we’re really not.
They’ve got this sort of racket going on in Thailand too (see Trang), but it can be circumnavigated by ensuring that one rides public transport (or the big VIP buses, which carry too many people to make this sort of thing practical). But there doesn’t appear to be any alternative to the minibus in Cambodia – or if there is we haven’t seen it – and so they’ve got you right where they want you. For this reason I am very happy to have somebody like Welsh L around, who will take all this on board and do his utmost to avoid its recurrence.






The typically early start has ensured that we have still much of the day to spare, allowing us time to break from each other’s company for a while, confirm the presence of banks – now closed for the day – grab a bite to eat, and reconvene later on Serendipity Beach for a stroll and a few beverages. It is a nice beach, without many of the cafes and bars that such a vista might normally sustain.
I’d heard that Sihanoukville attracts a more dubious model of foreigner: the European male with an interest in under-aged children. There are no obvious signs that this could be true, and the proprietor of the café where we have purchased our beers is more than happy for us to interact with her infant. The mere suggestion that it might happen, though, instantly colours my opinion of the place, and maybe it is for this reason that nobody seems that keen on exploring any of the bars that there must assuredly be in a town of this location and size. Instead, we take dinner at Sunset Restaurant next door, and then retreat to our guesthouse for a couple of beers in the garden/front yard.


12/02/03: Go to town to change up money; get motos to Ream National Park and a boat to a deserted island covered in mangroves; stop of at temple on the way back; dinner at Sunset Restaurant; cards and drinks in Welsh L & K’s room with all.


Welsh L has brokered a deal with the guys at Brosoer to take us to some diminutive island just off the coast – part of an area that’s what’s collectively referred to as Ream National Park – and I’m fine with that. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable here in Cambodia, let alone Sihanoukville, and my trip into town to cash traveller’s cheques and find somewhere to take breakfast does nothing to mollify this agitation. The acquisition of dollars proves straightforward enough, but my colleague and I struggle to find a café in which we feel comfortable. But find a café we do (I order an omelette) and then we hurry back to join in with Welsh L’s chartered expedition.
From here on in, mopeds and scooters – that motorised staple of Southeast Asian life – will be referred to as “motos”, for that is what they call them in Cambodia.
Riding two per pillion, we set off for Ream National Park at ponderous miles per hour, the steady inclines and the weight of three bodies per bike slowing us down. Spare a thought for the guy with a huge sow strapped to the back of his moto coming the other way (and maybe for the swine, too) a common sight on Cambodia’s roads. The journey is a short one – it can’t be more than 10 miles – and the pace of life at our destination is agreeably slow. Refreshments in hand, we sit around in the shade, Welsh L putting in an admirable effort to make allies of our pilots.
It is a humble fishing vessel we board, long in form and very much like the long-tail boats they use in Thailand, for that is what they are. Our destination is a deserted mangrove-infested island with an un-swimmable lagoon as its centrepiece. Within half an hour of landing we are ready to leave, the views from the boat being the primary objective of this exercise.
            On the return leg of our journey the engine conks out, setting us adrift for a good 40 minutes, a period of stasis that I don’t very much appreciate. Nobody else seems bothered, but the current isn’t carrying us in a favourable direction, and I know it will start to get dark within an hour or so. Our pilots have nothing to offer in the way of reassurance, other than their own insouciance. Mobile phones have yet to conquer the world, so there’s no calling for help either. Maybe we can make gestures towards the shore and someone can come out and tow us back.
After a series of impromptu repairs, we finally get going again, and there’s just enough time on the way home to stop off at a temple to watch the sun set and to laugh at the semi-domesticated monkeys and puppies at play. We return for dinner to Sunset Restaurant and then play cards back in Welsh L & K’s room. Tomorrow we will be on the move again, having agreed to continue our travels as one – for the moment at least – and I hope that our next port of call will be more rewarding.


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