February 17, 2010

Chinese New Year Holiday in Sihanoukville

It occurred to me on the bus ride home from Sihanoukville as I opened the curtain just enough to peek out. Perhaps this is a country best viewed from here, from the safety of this tiny viewhole—where I can see the magnificent jungle hills, Khmer houses and dusty roads. Where the people are nameless and inconsequential, just like watching National Geographic. But the lives of those outside the Mekong Express bus are part of my experience. I get to deal with them in the market, I get to feel sorry for them as they struggle to make enough money for food, I get to be on the bus rolling by--I get to keep going. I take the bus to escape reality for a while, but for these people, there is no escape. What we see is part of their lives. The fatally-flawed Cambodian education system offers no hope of advancement; therefore, alternate sources of income are a necessity. Cue the convoy of standing-room-only truckloads of garment factory workers.

I happily report that this trip to Sihanoukville was 3000 times better than the one I took by myself. I went with Fiona, Phavy (a Khmer-American friend), and an ex-pat couple who work in Phnom Penh. It was a sophisticated group of intelligent people among the usual suspects in “Snooky Ville”—yes, backpackers and creepy Western men. Welcome to the Jungle, and indeed, at 6 AM Guns and Roses was was still blaring out of the beach bar speakers as the last of the partiers wondered off or passed out in the sand. Between that and the oft-used helipad in the backyard of our hotel, we didn't need alarm clocks. We explored the nicer beaches of Sihanoukville, stopping once at Otres and twice at Sokha (This Sokha guy owns so much of Cambodia I think they are considering a name change). Anyway, Otres was pleasant as usual, but Sokha, on the other hand, was reminiscent of 1950's Southern United States. The beach is divided into two sections: the Khmer side and the foreigner side. Guards police and enforce this invisible border with whistles for the Khmers who dare enter the white side. Judging by the not one, but two jellyfish stings endured by our small group near the demarcation zone, I also hypothesize that the border is patrolled even in the surf. Hired jellies to keep things separate. Sokha resort is the finest in Sihanoukville, and you had better be ready to drop close to $200 a night for a room there (to compare: my room was $5/night). Indeed, the hefty pricetag rules out most Khmers, but the elite of the country do have bucks to spend here, and they are allowed access to whichever side of the beach they prefer.

Fascinating and overwhelming for the sociologist in me, Sihanoukville is a case study in social inequality and the stomach-turning effects of tourism on a developing nation. The prostitution, tourist rip-offs, counterfeit bills, and general seediness of the place leave me with a bad taste. Perhaps I'm still recovering from my $3 haircut that really looks like a $3 haircut, but Sihanoukville is still not one of my must-see places in Cambodia.

Just for the record, the lattes at the New Sea View Villa might be the one thing worth trying in Sihanoukville. Best I've had since Barista's. My advice, skip the more expensive bus (it's the same awful, long drive whether you pay $6 return or $14) and splurge on lots of coffee and dessert.