For the journey to Sihanoukville we use the Bun Thou Express Travel
Co. Ltd. bus and are assured that there is no toilet on board. We assume
there would be two advantages to this; first there would be no smell from
the aforementioned item and, second, the bus would probably make an extra
couple of short stops. Anybody who travels on buses in developing countries
soon realizes that the joy is not in the travelling, it’s in the stopping!
culinary experience from a very cute girl - hard-boiled duck eggs, no baby
ducks inside, guaranteed!
We pay $6 per ticket, so are not expecting much of a journey: “The bus will
pick you up at your hotel.” Could this be true? In fact, the bus doesn’t
pick us up at our hotel - instead, a rather smart air conditioned van
arrives, driven by an even smarter young Cambodian. He stops short of
saluting but does haul out our packs to the van, stowing them carefully. We
pick up a few other people and drive to the bus station.
The usual bus station scene greets us - chaos. However, our man unloads our
packs and takes us to the correct bus; after supervising the loading of the
bags onto the bus, he reaches out and shakes hands. At this time, intending
to search for some food for the journey, I have a handful of riel in my left
hand - after shaking hands I go onto auto pilot and give him a 1000 riel
note. He hadn’t expected a tip, I don’t think he really knows what a tip is
- as soon as I’ve done it I regret it.
With the bus engine running and just minutes before the scheduled departure
time, can we risk a foraging trip for food? Then we spot it. Just 20 meters
away. A very clean looking baguette stand. You can just make out the crispy
baguettes, pate, tomatoes, cucumber slices and mixed salad. The little
Cambodian girl in the seat alongside also spots it and dashes over to buy
some. We are hungry, not having had time for breakfast, and her baguette is
oozing ingredients and smelling of warm bread and pate. We have to do it. We
have to get baguettes.
After a machine gun conversation I manage to persuade my companion to take
the risk. I agree to do my best to hold the bus and she is off and back in
minutes with two huge fat warm French style baguettes, and with a couple of
minutes to spare.
The countryside outside of Phnom Phen is disappointing: Scrub and more
scrub. Dust and more dust. Low hills of red dusty earth covered in sparse
dusty stunted trees. There are no mature trees. It looks as though, a few
years back, hoards of hungry people had cut down and burnt or eaten
everything in sight. Maybe this is what did happen.
In Amit Gilboa’s book “Off the rails in Phnom Penh”, set in 1996, he talks
about “the shabbier scenery, long stretches of barren or haphazardly sown
paddy”, and that, “seen from an airplane you can see the border between
Thailand and Cambodia. On the Thai side the fields are green, while on the
Cambodian side, you see huge stretches of brown.” His companion, a well
educated Khmer woman in her late 30’s then says, “Everything is dead from
Pol Pot” - including 10 of her 12 siblings.
After about 3 hours we pull into a “truck stop.” The road has been okay but
the tarmac has long low waves in it (maybe it was hand laid - not with a
machine). Before the bus comes to a halt we are up and clawing to get out of
the door. We have maybe 20 or 30 minutes of freedom. What’s more we are in
the middle of nowhere, in Cambodia with the prospect of a Cambodian lunch
and dotty conversations with the locals.
The bus is greeted (actually deluged) by a swarm of kids selling all sorts
of delights from baskets. One has stone cold, greasy, deep fried dough balls
with a light covering of red dust. Another offering is fried chicken that
looked a little dried up - as if ours is just one of several days’ worth of
busses that have pulled up alongside. Then there are the fertilized, boiled
eggs with half formed fetuses inside. This, I’m sure, is a delicious
delicacy that I should try - but for the effects of 3 hours of rolling bus
travel. And, lastly, there is a young lady with a basket of very white, hard
boiled duck eggs.
These children speak very reasonable English and after 5 minutes of hard
sell lapse into jokes and questions like “where are we from?”, “why we are
going to Sihanoukville?” etc. etc. We check out the Khmer food under the
covered stalls. It’s all cold in aluminium pots. The rice is cold and all
stuck together. Out of a sense of duty I buy a plate of what one of the
children tells me is pork and vegetables, “It’s Cambodia food.” It’s wet and
slimy with absolutely no taste except sugar and salt. The minute quantities
of pork are stringy and dried up.
Then comes the danger point. Our guard is down. “Why don’t you just buy a
bag of duck eggs, you get free salt and pepper” “Are you sure there are no
baby ducks in them” “No! No! no baby ducks inside-guaranteed.” So I buy a
bag of hard-boiled duck eggs. Thinking quickly (or so I mistakenly believe),
I hide them in my backpack, intending to throw them out of the window later.
But my companion has spotted the transaction and demands to know why I have
bought hard boiled duck eggs and what I intend to do with them!
We arrive in Sihanoukville late and decided to go to Ochheuteal Beach. This,
according to my guide book (and the numerous out of date tourist leaflet
junk I was acquiring) is the centre of things, where you find all the
restaurants and nightlife.
We have two places lined up. The first is awful and the second is at
Ochheuteal beach - beach bungalows which comprise sets of 4 wooden huts on
stilts with shared veranda. The big problem with the huts is that if anyone
walks, or even tip-toes across the veranda, the whole building starts to
oscillate. Another problem is that there is no fridge. We are charged $15 a
night, which is at the top end of our budget allowance. One look at
Ochheuteal beach is enough to confirm this will be a single night stay. Very
crowded, with sun beds with (I swear!) about 6 inches between them. Rubbish
everywhere, and 4 hawkers to each tourist.
Unpacking that night I come across the duck eggs. We don’t have a fridge,
I’ll throw them out of the window-my companion can’t have remembered them.
“By the way, David, what are you going to do with those duck eggs, you know
we don’t have a fridge, so why don’t you just throw them away?” she remarks…
Very early the next morning, we agreed that my companion would take a tuk
tuk and check out the beaches and hotels. We never do this ‘searching for
hotels’ thing together, as my standards are unacceptably low and my choice
of hotel usually wrong. I try the restaurant downstairs for a breakfast of
fried eggs, toast, butter, jam - not bad at all. I’m beginning to notice
that if you want good food in Cambodia you had better order Western fare.
It’s here that I meet another interesting and very funny Cambodian character
- the waitress. She’s just like a Cambodian Bubbles (BBC, Absolutely
Fabulous, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley?) “Wow! So you came on the bus
yesterday, nooo that’s verrrry interrrrestin.” Nutty as a fruit cake!
My companion comes back two and a half hours later, having checked just
about all the hotels and guest houses in town, close to a beach and under
$25 a night. They are all rubbish. In no country in the world have we come
across such bad value for money. The problems range from no windows (who
wants to relax by the sea in a hotel room without a window?), no fans, No
air-con, filthy dirty, disgusting beds, hotels at the top of steep dusty
tracks surrounded by packs of barking, slavering dogs. There seems to be
absolutely no conception of what is required.
We have travelled in India many times and have always managed to find a
hotel worth staying in. So what is going on here? We have one option left,
our friends Jenny and Pete stayed in a Sihanoukville hotel for a month. They
said it was opposite a deserted beach with hardly any restaurants nearby.
The hotel was clean and well run, the food in the hotel was good and
apparently they had a huge room with air-con and fan. We pack (including the
hard boiled duck eggs…) and take a tuk-tuk to see for ourselves… (To be
continued next week).