Fanta for breakfast was a new low in fruit juice options for breakfast. I really dislike this hotel, it’s downright nasty. I thought nothing could be worse than the overwhelming stench of stale cigarette smoke that permeates everything. I was wrong. Worse is that the building work they are doing down the corridor from me is not only noisy and dusty, but also involves some sort of very toxic solvent. Fumes seeped into my room and I feel like I’m on a perpetual glue sniffer’s high, only it’s a low. Downright nasty indeed. I have no idea why Intrepid use this one, it seems to have no redeeming features, there are plenty of other options about. Nowhere is far away from anywhere, so it can’t be due to location. As for price, well it seems to be pretty cheap $35 but I’m sure that’s actually expensive for the area. The hotel seems to cater largely for Chinese guests, so signs are in English and Chinese, it’s rather bizarre. Doesn’t feel remotely Cambodian. Bad choice Intrepid! What have you done, what were you thinking? Honestly, avoid this hotel, it’s safe and moderately clean if you don’t mind builders plaster dust on everything, but not a holiday hotel at all. No atmosphere. Just horrible.
Perhaps as a consequence of this I was a bit grumpy today. It wasn’t the expected highlight of the trip at all. I’d imagined our island hopping finale would be all pristine beaches and quiet isolation, but really not so. I’m still glad we did it, because you can’t come to Cambodia in general and Sihanoukville in particular and not take a boat out to see them, but honestly, what a let down. The high points were all due to high jinks on the water and the low points were pollution, crowds and floating debris everywhere. Very depressing if they are taking you out to what they consider to be the best spots.
Ah well, so chronology off the day was meet in the lobby at 8.45 a.m. to be met by tuk tuks which took us to the ferry pier point. It was actually an incredibly short distance away and a bit ridiculous that we didn’t walk there! It was a bit uphill going, then the tuk tuk free-wheeled down to the pier, we wondered briefly if it had stalled, and it was going to be a long walk to the boat, but no, all was fine and dandy and tickety-boo.
I wonder if I’ll get bored of tuk tuk shots? Probably not to be fair.
The ferry area was really busy with tourist boats, and Cambodian speed ferries, and seemed to be something of a transport hub as well as a tourist boat setting off point. It was a bit of a crush, but OK. It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be having our own private boat, we’d be joining a much bigger one. This was a shame as the boat was constructed with fixed seating in the middle so it was tricky to move around. There were several other groups, including some older men with a solitary asian young woman. One of the men smoked a lot, always positioning himself in a way to maximise smoke pollution along the boat. I was definitely Ms Grumpy pants.
Once on the boat, and corraled into a section that we claimed as the Intrepid Patch, we were all given life-jackets in a rather perfunctory way. I was a bit worried that mine lacked the obligatory whistle to attract attention. As anyone who has ever flown on a plane can tell you, this is essential for correct operation of this particular safety device. The air stewards always explain about blowing the whistle after your plane has crashed into the sea, in order that overhead search helicopters and passing cruise ships know where to locate you in the dark. FACT. It was OK, I got one with after our guide surrendered his own at great personal sacrifice. I put it on at first, but no-one else was, and it was hot and awkward to wear on the fixed seats, so I abandoned that plan after about 30 seconds.
It felt sort of weirdly claustrophobic on the lower deck, so I climbed up the steps onto the roof where you could get a good view of the islands where we were heading. I didn’t think much of the local guide, he didn’t really explain what we’d be doing, or make any effort to engage with us beyond the odd smile. He wore a ‘volunteer safety tourist guide’ shirt, so maybe he wasn’t being paid anyway.
All a bit bizarre. Nice views up top, but uncomfy on the arse. I was also a bit fretful about what to do with my stuff. With so many on the boat I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea to leave things unattended, but up top, the improvised railing barricade made using fruit sacks, didn’t quite make contact with the upper deck, I was worried my mini backpack would slide right through. More angst, not relaxing at all. Views were nice though. I need to practise my mindfulness and focus on the good bits, not fret about the petty irritations.
Those of us on the top deck ended up talking about white sharks, and pooling our knowledge about them, which was pretty minimal. A high point for me though, was when one of our number said ‘I think that sharks only eat people because they confuse them with seals in wetsuits.‘ I said ‘I didn’t know seals wore wetsuits‘ and she said, in all seriousness ‘no, that isn’t what I meant.’ I do like to laugh at my own jokes sometimes.
After a bit, we pulled up near an island with a golden deer and pier jetting out across the water. Here we could snorkel. I didn’t want to miss out, but was dubious, it really didn’t look all that promising, and there were already lots of other boats and people snorkeling. The gear was mostly broken and quite squalid looking in a huge tub. Mask and snorkels being held together by elastic bands and no flippers. I extracted one from the tangled mass, and gave it as much of a clean as I could with some bottled water and tissues. It had congealed gunk on it, quite gross. There was no instruction beyond, if you let go and they sink you’ll be charged $20 which was an outrage as they were in rancid condition. I climbed gingerly over the boar, and tentatively peered through my goggles. It was not promising, the water was cloudy in any case, and such coral as I could see looked in poor condition, there were one or two stripey fish, but nothing remarkable, and I was too distracted by fear of what was in my mouth and a sensation of swallowing water. I’m just not a strong enough swimmer to be flipperless in the sea. There was slightly clearer water nearer the shoreline, but I was worried about swimming that far out, and feeling panicky retreated back to the boat, negotiating one of the weird older guys who was hanging off the boats ladder doing an unpleasantly prolonged amount of nasal clearing and spitting. Utterly disgusting. I really hope it wasn’t his phlegm I had to swim through on my way back.
Others in our group were more confident, and I gave one my camera so she could record what she saw. The evidence suggests it wasn’t really worth the extra swim. I didn’t feel I’d missed out. I’m probably being unfair, because my only real point of comparison is swimming off the Great Barrier Reef and that was mind-blowing with the colours, density of fish and crystal clear waters. Also, decent equipment. I didn’t feel all that safe, though I daresay they were keeping an eye, and I did notice a smaller boat come out from the main one, so maybe that would have intervened in case of need. Not a great experience though, hardly what I would call snorkeling and it was so crowded. I’d imagined tranquil private spots, and serenity, not a queue of boats bouncing through abandoned plastic bags and floating water bottles to get to the one moderately acceptable snorkeling point. Still, some of the group clearly had a lot of fun without me! I like to think the relationship is based on correlation not causation though, and would prefer not to be persuaded otherwise.
We had 45 minutes or so for this stop. The coral being less than spectacular, most people came back before. Some of the more adventurous in our party, being intrepid and all that, took to somersaulting off the higher deck of the boat. It was pretty impressive, and basically turned into a photo-shoot, at which I failed, but some who had better photo features on their mobile phones (so could do a sequence of freeze frames) did rather better. At least one of the shots I took was downright pornographic. I deleted it, I’m not even including it for comedic value. Here are some of the more acceptable snaps, though they don’t do justice to the bravery of our tumbling diver friends!
It was good fun as a spectator sport, and way preferable to snorkeling badly
So after the time had elapse, off again to the next stopping point, an island where we would be deposited for lunch. We chugged over, and again, we could see a lovely looking beach with shading trees. Our boat went right onto the sandbank that projected from the island and sort of beached itself so we could alight with minimum getting wet.
We were then told it would be 3000 reil (75c) for use of a deck chair, and another 1000 reil if you needed to use the beach loo – no-one did, I strongly suspect the sea became one vast pee point… It wasn’t that it was expensive, it was that we hadn’t been forewarned. I made my way to an area where a load were laid out, but it turned out these were all reserved. The attendant did manage to rustle up some more, and we attempted to drag them to another shady spot. It was really grim though I thought. We were packed in like sardines in a row of deck chairs. Nothing private. The location is stunning, but it belies the detail which is floating debris in the water everywhere you look. So depressing. I am not a sun bunny. But this was just being crammed in quite a tight space with a load of other tourists on a polluted beach. It was lovely if you looked up, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about the pollution. Also, we are spoilt in the UK I suppose, I could have Bamburgh beach all to myself in the early morning or a 5 mile stretch at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey, here we were all squashed up together. Then there was the bloody annoying smoking chap, it wasn’t just tobacco, really thick putrid cigars. Killed the atmosphere for me. Plus, we didn’t know with so many people on the beach if we had to watch our stuff or not. To be honest, it had all the disadvantages of Sihanoukville main beach (crowds, pollution etc) but not the advantages (access to shade, comfy chair and a mango lasse on demand).
I continued being inwardly grumpy, but tried really hard not to communicate this. I suppose it was about expectations, but this was earmarked on the trip notes as ‘seek out paradise today when you take a boat out to one of the nearby islands… blah de blah‘ I don’t think in paradise you pick your way over so much litter, and worry about turtles eating plastic bags mistaking them for jelly fish. The thing is, it was possible to pose as if it was indeed an island paradise, but I think that is dishonest, it just wasn’t like that, not pristine at all.
I hadn’t understood we’d be marooned on an island for a couple of hours, and regretted not having brought a book. I did swim for a bit, though I kept my shirt on because I’m so scared of sunburn. I also had a bit of a wander around, not that there was anywhere much to go, but I got a few shots of boats.
I also was quite pleased to get a shot of one of the intrepid group photographing our tour guide. The moment when they meet for her to hand him back his camera smacks of a romantic meeting. It wasn’t but I like the deceit of the camera shot at that moment in time.
Included in the trip was lunch. Apparently this was very good for meat eaters, they had both chicken and fish, freshly prepared. The vegetarian offering was, well, acceptable. They’d made an effort but it wasn’t nice. Initially it was just what the meat eaters had but without the meat. Later a skewer of barbecued tofu was brought to each of us. It was vile. It was like eating cigarette smoke. I felt like the day was not improving. Top marks for quantity though. But I was suffering. Too hot, too salty, too much sand. I was also hungry and bored. I hated being in a throng of people, and the sea, though lovely when you were in, really didn’t appeal with all that litter bobbing about within it.
I concede, the photo makes it look nie, but it was actually pretty rank. Having eaten, I went walk about. Took a few more snaps. Also, there was a comedic moment when one of the annoying older guys moved his deck chair to directly in our line of view. Where we should have been gazing across a sparkling sea, we had a vision of a different idea of paradise, his rather than ours I’m guessing. I wouldn’t normally post a picture of this type, it is unfair to catch people at their most unflattering light, but really, he was asking for it. Who does that, sticks their crotch between people and a sea view? His deckchair was just feet away from ours. How could I not take a shot?
More walking around and photo ops. Saw some quite pretty fish. Had a moment with a crab that was missing two legs, I returned it to a sheltered bit of sea, but don’t know for sure if that was where it wanted to be. Got a good snap of our guide snoozing on a hammock, at least I think it was him. Hope I didn’t just zoom in on some random bystander who may now feel stalked!
Entertainment options were limited, so I took to the sea for one last time. This was a good move, we actually had a laugh, working out a way that we could take turns to support one another and spin each other round, which is a lot more fun and less pervy than it sounds. Good bonding, much shrieking.
Our boat then started up and we returned to it, hot and dehydrated. One of the annoying guys lost his flip flop boarding, I retrieved it for him wading into the water to do so. I don’t think he was appreciative enough to be honest. Wouldn’t bother again. They were so unpleasant. On a nicer note, our swiss traveling companion again bumped into a former room mate she had back in Switzerland. It’s the third time on our travels they’ve done this. What are the chances of that I wonder?
I thought we were going back to Sihanoukville, but in fact there was one final snorkel stop. Here apparently the coral was better and the water clearer. That’s probably true, but I was so put off by the previous experience I decided just to sit it out on the boat and outsource the snorkeling to others who could go and then report back.
From my vantage point on the boat I could see floating plastic bags, they really do look like jelly fish. Then we started to see jelly fish too. They looked nearly dead, but could still give you a nasty stink apparently. I was glad not to be in the water with them. Apparently, we are getting towards the end of the season when you can swim safely. In a couple of weeks hundreds of smaller young ones will be passing through, and you can no longer snorkel at this point.
Finally, we departed and quick chug back to port. Passed a nice couple of boats on the way back.
We disembarked, and then walked back to the hotel, it was no distance at all. I did a detour to collect my laundry. It wasn’t ready, but a mime routine said basically wait here and they’ll bring it, so I did and they did, it coming round in a plastic pack delivered by a guy on a motorbike. $4 I think, maybe less, I have no idea, maybe it was 6000 reil rather than $6 on reflection, that seems more likely. It was quite OK sat in the heat, watching a kid kick a ball around on the forecourt. I was glad though to get back to hotel and shower off the salt. Had to send a cockroach on it’s way as I reached my door though, it was probably trying to escape the solvent fumes as well, I know they are reputed to be able to survive almost anything, but there must be limits.
Today was honestly underwhelming. I know the photos will make it look gorgeous, but the reality was not so, much as the hotel looks grand but stinks of solvent and is thick with cigarette smoke, so too this island paradise has been spoiled before it has even been discovered. Such a shame. Maybe there are more private and remote island trips to be done from Sihanoukville, but I wouldn’t bother going out again from here. I’m sure there must be better less crowded and better maintained places. I hope there are at least.
In the evening we rendezvoused at 7.00 and made short walk to the lion statues where we posed for group photos with much hilarity. Getting a passer by to take one of the whole group, and then making him take another one because the lions weren’t sufficiently in view. We did some roaring poses, which we found hilarious, but you probably had to be part of the group to appreciate it fully.
Our final destination was an excellent restaurant, another in the chain of community training projects. This one was sandan and I had the most awesome meal. Melt in y our mouth tofu with sweet potato fries and pudding of a chocolate brownie with hazelnut icecream AND we shared a bottle of prosecco. It really made up for what was otherwise a low point in the tour for me. I asked our guide why we are staying at such a nasty hotel, and basically it seems they are tied into a contract with this hotel, which has a new Chinese owner and the casino was added just a month or so ago. Wow that went up first. They wont be continuing with it after December. Good. Walking back through town, we were struck by the number of Chinese signed hotels and casinos. I strongly suspect this place is destined to become essentially a China town with casinos. It doesnt feel like Cambodia at all – signage is in Chinese and casino lights and huge tower block builds are in progress everywhere. Glad I’ve been here, done that, but not a destination I’d hurry back to. Food tonight though, wow, I’d stay in a lot worse hotel for a night if it guaranteed access to food of that quality.
The social training project is in fact a chain, and they have two restaurants in Phnom Penh, one we have already been to, the other I fully intend to seek out!