The road to Sihanoukville…

So just a quick update I think.

I’m writing this in the smoke-filled lobby of the Golden Sands Hotel at Sihanoukville.  We are staying at an incredibly grand looking place, with painted gold pillars and a huge central staircase that curves round a central lobby area with giant-sized chairs and marble floors. The photos will no doubt make it look very smart indeed, what with the chandelier light-fittings, multitude of staff and extraordinary assortment of animals made out of sort of origami-style towel folding.  No, I don’t know why, I especially don’t know why the polar bear, but credit where credit is due, it is impressive.  I am hoping that once I get to my room the towels there will be similarly sculpted so I can have a new friend for a bit.  Still regretting eating that alligator a few days back….

We arrived a little earlier than expected from Kampot, so our rooms aren’t ready.  This is not a catastrophe, but is somewhat frustrating as I’m hot and sticky.  There is a pool linked to the hotel outside, but it was too hot to sit there.  Plus it is in a sort of traffic island, so whilst it looks great, it isn’t restful sitting pool side with a coach engine idling behind you.  Hence I have taken to the hotel lobby which has both air conditioning and wi-fi (yay) but also smoke.  It is the same entrance for a large casino, where presumably smoking is allowed.  It makes me remember what a rarity it is to have smoking inside anymore.  To be fair, it is also the first time I have really encountered smoking in Cambodia.  I don’t know if it is Buddhist culture, or if it is because smoking is expensive, but I’ve seen very few locals smoking.  I caught sight of our guide having a sneaky furtive fag at one location but pretended not to notice.  He is clearly trying to avoid being seen.  Somewhat hypocritical of me therefore to mention it in my blog.  Oh well, he remains nameless!

So, this morning, breakfast was marginally less stressful, because we were the only group in the hotel and we had a slightly later departure time.  I did set my alarm for yoga on the beach at 6.15 a.m. and was therefore woken from a really deep sleep only to find it was raining outside anyway.  Didn’t fancy yoga in wet sand, and would have appreciated more sleep.  Oh well, maybe I’ll catch up on sleep at the next destination, or when I’m dead.  Whichever comes first.

Checking out was interrupted by loud screams emanating from the room below.  The Australian queen-to be, had discovered a HUGE centipede hitching a ride in her luggage.  She is not a squeamish individual and it caught her unawares.  I leaned over my balcony and asked if she needed help.  ‘Yes!’ she said, I contemplated what to do, but others were rallying round so I just disappeared from her line of view and went to get my camera.  I may not be able to assist, but I can document!

It was probably about 20 cm long, and some mean looking pincers.  It wont kill you we learn, but can give a nasty bit, bad enough that you’d need to go to hospital.  Most of us enjoyed the diversion, though later on it occurred to me that she may be the lucky one.  She has already found the centipede lurking in her luggage, the rest of us may yet find stowaways on arrival at Sihanoukville.  Oh well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to  it.  At least the hospital will no how to treat me as I have a photo of the wee beastie in question.  I hope it survived its ejection from the case.  I thought it looked a bit stunned and a bit too still, curled up on the pebble stones outside the room.  Hopefully it was just trying to make itself looking inconspicuous, with a view to making an escape later.  It is hard to make yourself inconspicuous when you are that big and have that many legs though.  No wonder it was seeking somewhere to hide.  Our guide missed the whole thing.  When we told him later he didn’t look nearly concerned or impressed enough, though he did concede a bite would have necessitated a hospital trip.  We explained to him about the need to do a bit more of a pantomime performance of horror should this happen again on any subsequent tour trip!

It was expected to be about 3 1/2 hours on the bus to Sihoukville, not a prospect any of us relished.  I understand with the distances there is little choice, but the bus is grim for extended periods.  Having said that, sometimes it is fun watching the scenes unfold before you, and we are only 9 on a bus for 16, so we can spread out a little more than is often the case.  En route our guide warned us to be wary of children on the beach.  It is a harsh reality that they are there mostly to scam the tourists.  ‘Dont be nice to them’ he said.  ‘Don’t take pictures with them, or be friendly‘.  I think the scam is one distracts you and another picks your pocket.  Take nothing to the beach is the advice. It hasn’t happened to him, but a group traveling with Gecko got drunk and ended up spending the night on the beach and woke up with a lot of stuff gone, and no idea where they were. Does sound like they were particularly irresponsible though.  It is sad to think that we have to be cynical about smiling children here.  I’m glad we were warned, but it made me a bit hesitant about what we would find.

As it was a long bus journey, inevitably there came a point when one amongst us needed a bathroom break.  It was a good 30 minutes to the next stop, so the option was to wait or ‘water a tree‘.  Two went for the ‘water a tree’ option.  Our driver then obliged by pulling up on the edge of a busy main road next to the most petite tree imaginable.  The two intrepid pee people picked their way through the grass, one clapping noisily to scare any critters away – still a bit spooked by the earlier centipede encounter.   They then tried to find a discrete spot, much to everyone else’s amusement as there wasn’t really any option available.  Our guide laughed at their efforts.  ‘Don’t they know, if you close your eyes no one can see you!’  he giggled.  When they reappeared we all applauded loudly in appreciation of their efforts.  Sometimes on a long bus ride you have to make your own entertainment!

The next diverting cause of excitement was the sighting of a random elephant in one of the towns we passed through.  It had created quite a stir, lots of local people were gathered round, offering it fruit which it gently picked up with its trunk.  It wasn’t a tourist elephant.  Our guide said it was someone who traveled from town to town selling things.  I didn’t really get that.  It’s the first we’ve seen that appears to be working in this way, I’m not sure if it is a genuinely ‘working elephant’ or whether it is used to drum up sales from Cambodians just as much as elephants are an attraction for tourists at certain tourist venues.  It was quite a sight though, even if it did make me sad to see such a majestic creature surrounded by hordes of people pointing and exclaiming as we did too, albeit from behind the windows of our bus, which slowed as we passed.

The official pee-stop, was at what appeared to be a completely derelict waste-land, but actually had some finely maintained squat toilets round the back. There was a great safety sign and a man working behind it accompanied by a small boy. The guy tried to persuade the little boy to come and say hello, but he hid behind a sigh shyly, so we waved and went on our way.

Other sights included that of a poor chicken, strung upside down on the back of a minibus with bailing twine, nearly obscuring a tail light.  The poor creature was still alive I think, I know being held upside down makes chickens go really still, but I hope it was blacked out, poor thing.  There are different welfare standards here. Some things are more humane – pigs in stys at the back of individual homesteads must be infinitely preferable to factory farms in the UK, but the casual animal cruelty – sick cats and dogs, and upended chickens is a bit grim to observe.

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We made it to Sihoukville early.  Our ‘lunch’ stop was at the Starfish project.  This is a community enterprise NGO which aims to support Cambodians with loans, emergency medical assistance and employment, for those with disabilities for example.  The name is rather quaintly taken from a Buddhist tale.  A monk was walking along a beach when he came across a whole load of starfish which had been washed up by the sea and would die marooned in the sun.  He picked up one to return to the water.  The trainee with him asked why he bothered to do this, when there were so many that would die it would make no difference, to this the monk replied ‘but it will make a difference to this one starfish‘ and that is true.  And helpful.  A nice story.

The bakery itself was  lovely little courtyard off a side street.  With a garden and fountains it really was a little oasis of calm, strong wi-fi too apparently, though that didn’t help me as the only non smart phone owner in the group.  We had  a $5 budget included.  Enough for a brownie and a latte.  They use rice flour for the baking, it was all delicious – though I am yet to have a decent coffee in Cambodia.  The portion sizes were huge and the ambience really lovely.  Definitely would recommend, and were I staying here for a while I could imagine it being a regular haunt. There are also free khmer classes there on a Saturday morning, and handicrafts for sale too, things made of recycled rice bags that kind of thing, but reasonably priced and for a good cause too.

And from there, to our hotel, where we were turned away as too early.  We could use the pool area but as already established I took to the foyer instead.

By 1.30 my room was ready, and I took the elevator to the second floor.  After a false start when I tried to get into the wrong room (oops, luckily I was unsuccessful) I found my room. It is enormous, but rather faded grandeur.  Weirdly I can only find one power point so will have to be selective in charging up of electronic devices – correction, there are two plug sockets in the bathroom, which is really a wet room, so that’s a great option for all my electrical stuff.  It is the noisiest place I’ve been so far, and the stench of cigarette smokes permeates everything too  It sounds like they are doing drilling and building directly outside my room.  I overlook the pool and car park.  Might try to do more photos later, but right now I need a shower, and to find somewhere to do my laundry…  busy busy busy eh, busy busy busy!

Oh, I got around to doing more photos, so if you care about what the room likes like and the hotel exterior, go giddy and browse these  – includes a view of the pool within the car park as seen from my bedroom window:

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