Lidia, a friend and founder of Together for Cambodia, an NGO that does some amazing work for at risk children in this country, invited the Journo and I to accompany her on a trip to Sihanoukville and Kep. She was going to catch up with some of her kids, who are studying there and visit for business and recreational reasons.
Don Bosco technical schools
The students are learning the ins and outs of hospitality at Don Bosco — an incredible organisation operating in five regions in Cambodia — Banteay Meanchey, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Sihanoukville and Kep. Don Bosco is a global Catholic organisation belonging to the Salesians of Don Bosco, with a focus on helping vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people. This is largely done through six technical schools throughout Cambodia, providing a range of vocational training. The technical school at Sihanoukville included an extensive hospitality training centre with a hotel and restaurant where students learn everything from housekeeping and waitressing to customer service, cooking, administration and management.
The training centre at Kep, which has a great beach-front perspective, includes electrical and mechanical training as well as radio, film and agriculture, among other things.
Otres — a beach stay
We hadn’t visited this part of the country before so we jumped at the opportunity to accompany Lidia and spend a few days down on the beach. As it turns out, the beach here is wet and sandy, like most beaches we have been to.
We were told the beach in Sihanoukville would be overcrowded, especially as our visit coincided with Chinese New Year, so we decided to stay a little out of town at Otres Beach. Well, actually we stayed at a little village nearby, funnily enough called Otres Village.
Even thought it was a very busy time of year there seemed to be a lot of vacancies, so I suggest trying to get accommodation at either Otres 1 or Otres 2, which are about six or seven kilometres from Sihanoukville. Accommodation seems to start at about $3 for a rustic bungalow and increases depending on the facilities, with some very nice hotels along the beach. But there are reports the government has ordered beachfront businesses to close down within the next month or so, so a bungalow a few metres from the water might not be an option. Best to check in advance.
The beaches at Otres 1 and Otres 2 weren’t crowded so if you’re thinking of sitting on a banana lounge with a cocktail in your hand, while eating dinner and watching the sun go down, this is the place for you.
On the other hand, the place we stayed at, Otres Village, was about 500 metres from the beach, barely had any water pressure to shower with and only had cold water, which was a bit of a shock with the sudden cold snap we experienced. When the Journo had to put towels on the bed to warm up on two very cool nights it convinced us it’s sometimes better to pay a little bit extra.
Although it was a relief to get away from the dust in Siem Reap, this little piece of the country doesn’t feel like Cambodia.
But the word is, anyone wanting to experience beachfront bungalow accommodation better get there in the next two weeks because the government is reportedly planning to bulldoze anything right on the beachfront very soon.
Sihanoukville is a busier, crowded mixture of locals trying to earn a living and tourists trying to get whatever they can for half price.
Sihanoukville is a town supposedly divided into three areas. The first, the industrial area, centred around the port, where most of the country’s container freight enters. The second part seems to accommodate the tourist trade, which seemed to be doing okay, given the amount of people we saw along Serendipity Beach during the Chinese New Year festival, although I think a lot of these people came from Phnom Penh, about a four hour drive away.
Then there is the third area, supposedly the grubby part where the the drug and sex trade thrives. According to some locals a lot of expats live in this area, where the incidents of child sexual abuse are allegedly high, apparently along with prostitution rings, trafficking and other seedy aspects of life.
Sihanoukville is also known for high crime rates and from friends’ reports bag snatching is not uncommon. Never carry all your belongings in a shoulder bag as you could be a target for thieves who ride past you on motorbikes, armed with a knife to cut the strap, grab the bag and ride off before you can do anything.
But it’s got a nice, albeit busy, stretch of beach and the nearby islands are a big drawcard for visitors.
After three nights at Otres we headed off to Kep for a couple of days.
We arrived around two hours after leaving Sihanoukville to find this sleepy little place a hive of activity. It was the last evening of Chinese New Year celebrations and Kep was a popular destination for celebrations. The beach was covered with people and the foreshore was covered in shade tents with vendors selling everything you could think of.
The first thing I noticed was the monkeys sitting on car bonnets and car roofs, eating scraps out of rubbish bins. One in particular seemed to take a liking to a windscreen wiper on a Lexus (it clearly had good taste). We drove around a little to find our accommodation and to help get our bearings, which was pretty easy to do seeing this place is a 20-monkey town.
We settled into the motel, which overlooks the beach, and once the unpacking was done we headed downstairs with sightseeing and food on our minds. Lidia told us she has never seen it so busy.
We wandered around for a while then headed off to the crab and seafood market, a few hundred metres down the road for dinner. The market is on the water’s edge and the crabs here are caught then put into bamboo cages then thrown into the ocean to keep them alive and to enable them to grow bigger to increase the sale price.
Fish, squid, octopus and crabs as well as prawns are just some of the treats you can buy here. It’s all cooked on barbecues and comes straight from the sea. With the water here seemingly clear, even I tried some. The deep fried battered banana is also a very nice treat.
After eating we headed down the road some three hundred metres to sit on the retaining wall where we drank a few ales and wines and watched the sun go down. The perfect way to end the day.
When we got up the next day we found most of the shade tents along the foreshore had been removed and the streets had been swept clean, which is a pleasant surprise in Cambodia. So it was on with the shorts and down to the beach for a nice relaxing swim and some time to chill out.
As the arvo rolled around, the Journo and I decided to grab a tuk tuk to go see how they grow the Kampot pepper, which this are is known for, as well as take a look at the salt flats. Both are very interesting places to visit. I didn’t realise that the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the pepper plantations and only now is the industry starting to fully recover.
Watching the salt being harvested is also quite interesting. It’s all done by hand. As the flats dry out the salt is hand raked into piles then placed into baskets that are then carried on a bamboo stick, two at a time, to the storage shed. The people do this all day for the grand total of about $5 a day. We were there to get some sunset shots during the cool season — and it was hot. I can’t imagine how they work during the warmer months with the heat and the reflection off the salt. I think Australians could learn a lot about how easy they have it when if they could see and experience working conditions like this. In all, it was a very interesting day and we cruised home past the mangroves, along the ocean front and perhaps had a beer or two to watch the sun go down.
Thursday was our last day in Kep so we headed down to the Yacht Club to meet one of Lidia’s friends, David, who lives in Kep and works at the club as activities manager. This guy has to spend all day at the beach showing people hot to use sail cats along with other water activities. Now bare in mind it’s the cold season, not a cloud in the sky and I’m wearing shorts t-shirt and almost breaking into a sweat while sitting under a fan on the clubhouse balcony, which is over the water, while having a beer. As I think you can imagine, I’m a little jealous. Then he tells me he could get me a trip fishing and snorkelling out to one of the islands with the locals. It’s about this stage I break down in tears and need to leave. (Not really, I just added that for dramatic effect). What a job. By this stage it was time to leave, so we bid our farewells, jumped in the car and started the trip back to Phnom Penh.
About half an hour out of town we turned off the main road and headed to a little mountain — part of the Elephant Mountains. We travelled about three kilometres off the main drag and headed towards its base. There are a number of limestone caves in this region and we think this one is known as Dragon Cave. People hid from the Khmer Rouge in this cave back in the 70s. There is a small fee to enter the cave — $1 per person — although sometimes the entry is unmanned. And you will likely be greeted by a heap of kids (who should be in school) and they will try to hire you a torch or offer their services as a guide through the tunnels. The torches are handy, but you don’t need a guide. Children here are quite vulnerable and paying to use them as a guide encourages them to skip school in exchange for earning money.
This place is well worth a look as the inside of the mountain has a huge hollow section, allowing you to look up at the sky while inside. The only thing that didn’t impress me here was the amount of dickheads who needed to leave their names written on the walls.
You could spend a good couple of hours looking around here and more time if you visit other caves in the region. But for us, our time was up and we had a four-hour drive to Phnom Penh followed by an eight-hour drive to Siem Reap ahead of us.
Sihanoukville and Kep are interesting Cambodian destinations. The coastal region is very different from much of Cambodia and the little we saw of Sihanoukville seems more prosperous than many other cities in the country But it was great to get some sea air and to have a break from the dust of Siem Reap.