57. The Sea was the Least of our Concerns

“Apparently the sea is pretty rough, but y’know, the boats are still going, so…”

Overheard on the bus to the ferry port of Sihanoukville. It was an Australian. Up there with us Brits for massive understatements, so I suspected we were in trouble.

We’d had a couple of days in Kampot, visiting a pepper plantation, getting stranded there by the transport, and (when we eventually got back to town), hanging out by the durian roundabout and trying the street snacks. It was a lovely little town, nice and chilled, with a nice selection of eccentrics – both local and international!

Now, however, it was time to head to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem for what I hoped was going to be some chill time.

The background to this trip was a recommendation from a Cambodian guy we’d met in Vietnam. ‘Divine relaxation’ were his words, and his stunning photos certainly backed that up. Although this was also the guy who had said that taking Hugo to the Killing Fields and the S21 Khmer Rouge prison would be absolutely fine. We’d ‘taken a view’ on that advice, but – remembering the photos – decided to try out the islands…

We were picked up from the hotel in Kampot at 07:45, and we waved farewell to the one-legged guy in the foyer finishing his second vodka and soda of the morning…

Having left on time, and with only …..km of highway ahead of us, we were hopeful for a fairly swift journey to Sihanoukville (the jumping off point for the speed-cats to the islands). Totally misplaced hope, as it turned out. The majority of roads in Cambodia are rough, really rough; a combination of no civil infrastructure construction and bad civil infrastructure construction. Highways can look like anything from highways, to rough farm tracks, and are constructed from everything you might expect, as well as broken crockery, bottles filled with water, nato pallets, broken chairs, bits of tuktuk (normally the roof), and any other old smashed up stuff.

The pleasurable side of any bus trip is that Cambodia is a breathtakingly attractive country – you are rarely short of stunning scenery, beautiful architecture, or vibrant fresh markets to entertain you on the journey. As we approached Sihanoukville, however, things took a drastic turn for the worse.

I did an instagram post about Sihanoukville, and again I want to stress that this is not my normal ‘thing’; I don’t write negatively about the places we visit. Firstly, I don’t like to – it’s only my opinion and I adhere to the “if you can’t say anything nice…” adage, and secondly, I always try and find something good about everywhere we go, even if it doesn’t particularly tick our boxes. The situation in Sihanoukville needs a bit of exposure though and, for that, I am making an exception.

The roads got worse and worse as we approached town, we had to change buses as the bus we were on ‘wouldn’t make it’. The signs changed from Khmer only to Chinese with some Khmer. The construction traffic was constant and oppressive. Building sites were everywhere; not even every block, but two, three, four per block. Every block. Casinos and massive high rises. The ones that were complete were left empty. The ones that were in construction were of staggeringly dangerous quality (and I have seen a site or two in my time). Construction rubbish was everywhere, general rubbish was everywhere. Plastic, man-made materials, decaying food waste, aggregate and rebar from where parts of new buildings had collapsed and they’d just moved the broken bits to the side and tried again… There was no end to it. Bin bags piled higher than most people stand, literally no break in the roadside rubbish for block after block.

This is where we saw a woman bathing her infant girl. In this water.

This was constant. Entire streets lined with rubbish.

It wasn’t always like this. Speaking to a few people who live here, or used to live here, it used to be beautiful. A small fishing town with long beaches of golden sand. Lonely Planet from as recently as 2012 was advocating it is as a relaxed and undeveloped beach destination. Even in the last 18 months things have become noticeably worse. The civil infrastructure and sanitation has broken down, Cambodians no longer want to live there, ill-health is rife. Certainly, every Cambodian we met in other parts of the country advised us against staying any longer than it took for us to get off the bus and on to the ferry. Resentment of the Chinese development that the Government has allowed is rife and open. A guy in Phnom Penh said to us ‘You know, we have 25 Provinces including Phnom Penh in Cambodia, but only 24 are Cambodian now’.

Yes, it was horrible, but overridingly, it was sad. Desperately so. Everywhere we have been in Cambodia had been fantastic, but we had only just arrived here and were dying to leave.

The bus journey had been just over five hours in the end. Amazingly, this was on time for the 13:30 ferry. If it had been running.

“Wait here till 3pm” we were told. Ok… 3pm came… and went…

“Ok. The bus is here now!” the lady told us. Wait. A bus? Yes. Ok then… We couldn’t see it, but of course this was because it couldn’t make it down the almost-road to the pier and had had to stop at the top of the hill… So, up the hill we hiked, and on to the bus for another look at the fetid streets of the city as we drove for nearly an hour to secondary port (actually the industrial harbour) from which our catamaran to the islands would leave. If we thought it was bad coming in to the city, it was worse driving through it. We lost count of the number of men we saw urinating on the street in the city centre, we saw a woman defecating in the middle of a central roundabout. The stench of sewerage and decaying waste was all-pervading across the entire city. Each block had its own smell of human excrement, animal excrement, decaying food, or something undefinable. It’s the only place I’d ever considered wearing a face mask. We saw kids playing in the refuse piles where dogs and cats relieved themselves, we saw babies being bathed in puddles and the waste that swirled in the industrial port. It was horrifying. I consider it to be one of the worst places I have ever been – and I’ve been to some pretty awful places.

The only nice thing we saw in Sihanoukville

Trying to make it look half ok…

However we were nearly on our journey. Looking out to sea from the port, it looked messy – and I like to think I can spot a messy sea when I see one. The Australian guy had been right (always annoying….). I scanned the people in the queue to board, sussing out the ones most likely to chunder at the first swell. Then I remembered that I was one of those sailors who had never quite got over seasickness, and I was travelling with a toddler. We sat, tactically, at the back of the boat, open to the sea and downwind of everyone. Just in case.

Well-placed for a tactical chunder. Thankfully it was not necessary

Lovely thought with the animals and all… then someone decided that putting symbols of card suites on there was also appropriate…

In the end, I needn’t have worried. Three Spanish girls were the first, swiftly followed by a Cambodian woman, and a young boy (not mine). Our bus snacks (we hadn’t risked eating anything from the street stalls during our wait in Sihanoukville) stayed where we’d put them; in our bellies.

The main islands are Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samleon, the latter being smaller and slightly less-developed (apparently). We had opted for one of the quieter bays (M’Pai Bay) on KRS in the hope of it being a bit more remote and ‘natural’…

Remote it was – just a collection of 20 or so beach properties and a small road of about 20m running inland to a further 10 or so houses. I’m not sure how well it does on the ‘natural’ stakes though. There was still an alarming amount of rubbish discarded on the beach. I asked three different people working at the beach bars/restaurants what they did with their waste and not one of them could tell me. The closest I got to an answer was one of the bar staff saying ‘I’m not sure actually. I guess it goes to landfill. Maybe on the mainland’ (which I mentally translated to ‘dumped on the streets of Sihanoukville’).

There was a bit of construction going on (both islands are slated for big developments, but they’ve been slow to get going), and the waste from this was evident everywhere. Plastic packaging from cement, sharp sand, packaging bands etc was just left lying around. We chatted to another couple from the UK, Sophie and Joe, who were equally shocked. It was hard to find a bit of beach where you couldn’t see any plastic waste. They told us they’d been speaking to some people from an NGO who had done a beach clean up and collected over 20kg of plastic and barely moved from where they’d started.

The thought that the island already has a problem with waste – and worse, that nobody seems particularly bothered about it – is really worrying if they are going to ramp up development here.

Aside from this, the bay was ok. Just ok. It wasn’t overly friendly – there was a definite ‘too cool for school’ attitude from the foreigners living and working there, which was hilarious and irritating in equal measure – and the guy who seemed to be running the dive centre was downright rude. We visited off-season, in the rainy season, so we had expected it to be a bit deserted, which was fine – and actually what we were after, but a lot of the places along the beach front looked like they’d had a massive ‘last night party’ and just hadn’t bothered clearing up before leaving.

On the plus side, we had a morning on the beach (after a biblical rainstorm), we did a little hike through the forest (in a biblical rainstorm), we met some lovely cats and dogs (while sheltering from biblical rainstorms), and our accommodation was really rather nice with a lovely balcony (from which to watch biblical rainstorms). We also played a lot of Connect 4 (aka make pretty patterns, towers, or anything else with the pieces…), so all was not lost…

After our two nights we took the ferry back to the mainland (and on to Phnom Penh) with Sophie and Joe. We all felt disappointed. We had heard great things – though I wouldn’t try and put anyone else off from going (to somewhere other than M’Pai Bay….) – but the effort to get there and away hadn’t been worth it. However, we made some good new friends, and we live and learn!!

I know that this hasn’t been the usual (hopefully) positive/fun post, but I really felt like I needed to share the situation in Sihanoukville. If you go to the islands, I would urge you not to think ‘Oh, let’s spend a night or two in the city beforehand’. Get there, and get away. And spread the word about the environmental state too. This is what we’re doing. Us humans. We’re killing everything.

Ok. Soapbox session over. Back to food and travel laughs in the next post, I promise…

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