Vice and Slate writer Nathan Thompson visits Sihanoukville and has a dire time of it
I expected Sihanoukville to be a Sodom of sexpats. But it wasn’t all that bad. “Just go to Otres”, my expat friends had told me. I would have followed their advice if I hadn’t been traveling with a Khmerican girl and 10 of her Cambodian relatives. When traveling in groups of that size simply getting a tuktuk 15 minutes to Otres can become a Byzantine process more trouble than it’s worth.
It began on Friday at Sorya bus station. It was me, the Khmerican girl, her two sisters, brother, cousin, mother and four elderly relatives collectively referred to as “the Oms” (“Om” being the Khmer pronoun for “elder”). Hungry, I joined the Oms in eating a white doughy pork bun that tasted like grease and death. The bus station announcement was made in Khmer. “Is that us?” I asked the Khmerican girl – it was.
We arrived in Sihanoukville in the cool night. Crammed into tuktuks dragged by protesting motorbikes, we set off to find a hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by the establishment we ended up in. Sure, there was no lift and we were on the third floor but the rooms were clean, the beds firm and the cabal channels ample. We took three rooms between the 11 of us and I, being English and used to a certain amount of “personal space”, was allowed my own bed. The family fussed, the old men smoked and I basked in the comforting sound of BBC News.
“Let’s go for a walk and find a restaurant on the way”,
“But I’m hungry now”,
“I have to find food for the Oms”,
“This place looks good”,
“I want Khmer food”,
“If I eat any more rice I swear I’ll vomit”,
Negotiations continued in a similar vein until, exhausted by discussion, we settled on a restaurant immediately next door to our hotel which turned out to be the worst ever. The spring rolls disintegrated into a pool of grease, my fish was as chewy as doublemint and my fries were of the type banned in the UK since 1983. We returned to the hotel to sleep off our indigestion.
I can’t remember the name of the nearby beach. It was accessed via a filthy street lined with shacks promoting debauchery and diving. A sewer of sweet stinking beer and cigarette butts ran down its centre and into the white sands of the beach. We stepped out onto the soft sand in the morning sun rapt by the fishing boat bobbing sea.
Having recently been criticised on the forum for being “judgmental”, I hesitate to use the term “eurotrash” to describe our fellow beach enthusiasts, but only for a second – the place was full of eurotrash and drunk Australians. The Oms stared agape at old wobble-bellies in bikinis, ratty sexpats and backpackers stumbling in the alcohol sick morning.
“Let’s go to Otres”,
“Let’s get a boat”,
“I want beer”,
The negotiations began again. The Khmerican girl floated the idea of hiring a boat which was met with approval from everyone except the Oms. One Om squinted the green islands in the blue distance and said, “last night I had a bad dream and it will be bad luck to get on a boat”. She huddled with the other Oms under an umbrella. They muttered darkly about omens.
The Khmerican girl gave the Oms some lunch money and we left them on the beach as loud techno began pumping from a nearby bar. “I need to get my drink on,” said the Khmerican girl in her southern accent. At the pier bar cocktails were downed and more ordered. We jumped onto boat with foaming beers whooping as the wind began to run through our hair.
Halfway to Bamboo Island we stopped for a swim: diving into the cool blue ocean, swimming, climbing back aboard, nasal passage lined with saline, leaping back into the water again. We arrived on the island and walked with sand-dashed feed past empty beaches. The waves sounded like the breath of the Earth. Through dry jungle to the other side. It was another beach where we drank coconut milkshakes and ate Lok Lak. The Khmerican girl woke me up from my post-lunch snooze, her hair matted by salt water, her head cocked to one side. It was time to go. The boat returned with us sleeping on the deck.
That evening we crammed again into two tuktuks and drove to a restaurant that had been recommended as “good for Khmers”.
“I don’t like soup”,
“But the Oms have never had it before”,
“Can we get a pitcher?”
“So they have squid?”
The discussion was protracted. The Khmerican girl wanted to get one of those vats of do-it-yourself soup. I was against the idea. I still don’t understand the appeal of cooking your own soup by adding medallions of meat and bunches of vegetables to boiling water – why would you go to a restaurant just to cook yourself? It’s not even as if you have a variety of ingredients to choose from just exactly what the kitchen would have put in.
We decided to get dishes – fish, squid, pork and so on. After taking our order the waitress returned to cheerfully announce the restaurant had run out of food… at 8pm on a Saturday. Behind her, another waitress changed her baby’s nappy on a spare table. We left.
After a dinner of fish and rice at an upmarket hostess bar, we returned the Oms to the hotel to sit on the floor and consume tobacco. We ventured out to a Karaoke bar. Drunk, we tumbled through the heavy doors into an interior like a cinema. Short-skirted hostesses led us to a private room. A Khmer song was playing and a cousin picked up the mic and made a noise like a dental drill while I scrabbled for the English song menu. It was lacking. As some forum members have correctly inferred I have a poncy music taste and found none of my standbys there (“Gouge Away” by the Pixies anyone?). So I contented myself with a dewy-eyed rendition of “The Way We Were” by Barbara Streisand.
By the time we left the Karaoke had stripped us of good humour. The cousin, being fully Khmer, had murdered song after song and I found myself jaded and confused by the weird videos that accompanied each song often featuring bikini-clad wobbling around swimming pools onThnom stilettos. We stumbled into the Sihanoukville night. “I knew we should have gone to Otres” I said.