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Published: March 23rd 2015
The ride from the town of Sihanoukville to Otres II beach is the right kind of ride for musing on a first time visit to the beach in Cambodia. Growing up listening to the Dead Kennedy's it seems a little strange - quite strange really -, a literal Holiday in Cambodia. The town of Sihanoukville is unremarkable really, a random smattering of buildings with a traffic circle and some gold lions in the middle, it only lasts for a minute or two until you are back among rice fields with solitary palms, a few abandoned lots and some small homes or corner stands with assorted ten-cent snacks, dried fish and sugary drinks. Much of the land along the beach was deserted even, and by the time we got to Castaways on Otres II there was little more than a dirt road beneath our tuk tuk. Mr. Ox greeted us on the edge of his property and welcomed us to the guesthouse - entering through the open-air restaurant we saw a pool table and a few chairs, his wife, daughter some kids, a baby (not sure whose), a Cambodian Senator and an Australian guy who was traveling with a German girl. There
was also a middle aged-American teacher who I met later - he had left his job in Korea and holed himself up in a bungalow with a gravity bong he had fashioned out of a five-gallon water bottle and the computer where he conducted interviews. He'd been there for a few months by the sound of things, and soon we were greeted by a fantastic sunset, I grabbed my camera to get a little video of the beautiful scenery and perhaps that was the first moment I realized our rather total isolation, we had the Aussie and the German girl, Tara myself Ox and his wife and the Senator who happened to also be a part time bar tender and tuk tuk driver at Ox's place - and apart from us and two silhouettes off in the distance there wasn't a person in sight. Hell I didn't even see any dogs, though that would change come the rain and there were a few kittens too but they did little to disturb the peace. We also learned that Mr. Ox's wife and daughter were fine cooks - no one had mentioned it to me before we came but Cambodian cuisine, at
least what they make for tourists which is probably more like festival food for many, is quite delicious - I ate several rich savory stews that were some of the better dishes I'd tasted in South East Asia. I have a hard time describing them - thick brown Muslim curries with stewed beef more reminiscent of an American beef-stew than A Thai curry, or rich and savory fish amok, not as spicy or sweet as similar dishes you would find in neighboring countries - decent bread too from the colonial times and several E-San type dishes - this being in addition of course to dried fish, insects and plenty of white rice.
Nights around the restaurant were quiet and refreshing. Ox spoke a good bit of English and had a natural charisma that made you want to be around him. We would throw some cards around and drink frosty glasses of Angkor Beer at about a half-dollar a glass and the American guy even started coming out a little bit, he was an interesting fellow, the kind of guy who has the presence and talks about kids in a way that makes you know he's a good
teacher and cares about education - I'm sure he was well received wherever he ended up. Tara and I rented a motorbike from Ox with the warning that it was illegal and we might have to pass the police a few dollars if we got caught. In town we found the $2 spaghetti restaurant - easy to find as per the '$2 Spaghetti' sign on the main road. Just up around the corner was the little shop, a real classic old-school Italian fellow who had come to South Thailand and taken a Thai wife, converted to Islam and in accordance with his new beliefs took a couple more wives, one of whom happened to live in Sihanoukville. By sheer coincidence it turned out that his other wife is part of a vendor community in Ao Nang, Krabi that Tara and I frequented for Nam Prik and green curry fried rice. He was from the Bolognese region of Italy, and so he recommended the ragu alla bolognese and we went all out for the $4 meal which included the $2 spaghetti plus a salad and half loaf of garlic bread and of course there was cheap wine that came from a
jug. He explained to me how he sauteed minced carrots with the onions, garlic and beef to give the sauce just a hint of sweetness - it ended up the first of several visits, though soon the rain would catch up to us and pin us down in Castaways. That day however the weather was just fine and so we took a ride to one of the casinos out of town - quite luxurious as a matter of fact and loaded with Chinese tourists literally by the super-bus full. It was large enough to spread them out though and with a large slot-machine floor and also a table room with nothing but a popular East Asian table game where the cards are bent by the player (I can't recall the name). Luckily there was one lonely table in the back with black jack and an interesting array of foreigners. I ordered a complementary beverage and soon they came up behind us with a portable metal table with several drinks and a steak dinner, complementary, the beneficiary informed me, so long as you're playing. I felt a tinge of regret having parted with my four dollars for spaghetti when there were
free steak dinners to be had.
By the time we got back Ox and the Aussie and American teacher had really gotten after it. They were roaring pretty good though the Senator didn't seem too concerned. Ox's son 'Stronger John' - I imagine he was about 2 years old, and he was indeed a strong resourceful fellow for his age. I do have a real fondness to my core for the art of parenting in much of this part of the world, with parents who let the kids go off and fend for themselves around the property, it seems to toughen them up and they sure do grow-up a lot faster than the kids with the hyper-sensitive hand-sanitizer Moms in America - though at times it lends itself to bad behavior and general shenanigans. On this night Stronger John walked over and picked up a chair - more like a tall stool really, we were pretty damned impressed that the kid could move the thing on his own. He put it right next to the pool table and climbed up before dropping his pants and proceeding to drop a deuce in the vicinity of the corner pocket. I will
The Ox Family
Plus a few friends, the senator to the right, Ox and wife with the children
commend the family on the job they did cleaning up - the pool table was back open for business the next morning. The Aussie and our teacher friend were excited about spaghetti and casinos so they decided to rent out a couple motorbikes and head into town. As the Aussie tells it the night started with a trip to the 'Happy Pizza' shop where he asked the grandfather for some happy pizza 'without the pizza.' He pointed them to the back where his granddaughter opened a drawer and pulled out a bag of Ganja 'Ten Dollars Please!' and then a wild ride to the casino where the teacher may or may not have parted with the last of his money. It sounded like he had borrowed several hundred from the Aussie but by the time I left some days later I don't think the debt had been cleared so I hope he was able to square up with Ox. On the way home, rip roaring with a belly full of spaghetti and free casino drinks they had been stopped by the police for a helmet violation. Forgetting the bag of green in his bike, the Aussie handed over about US
Like part of the family
$20 which must have more than satisfied the boys in brown and they were on their way before anyone had a chance to check the inside of the bike anyhow. Tara and I were sitting at the bar when they returned and they were pretty well gone. They disappeared into the American's bathroom for a few minutes before they came to the conclusion it was time to head back to the casinos. Word around Castaway's the next morning was that the debt had increased but I didn't ask after it.
One of the last days before the rains came I took a walk up the beach. There was a big abandoned lot just north before another big bar/ restaurant with their trademark sign 'Joints $1.50' I'm sure if you've been around there you know the place I mean. They have a nice pool table which I imagine was a bit cleaner than the one at Castaways and so we shot around for awhile one afternoon. I got talking to one of the girls who worked there. She had come to Thailand and then to Cambodia as a wide-eyed backpacker, blown through her savings and after several bailouts from her
parents the cash eventually stopped coming. She was living basically hand to mouth for free board at the restaurant, making half-dollar commission for joints and $1 commissions on space cookies as well as a little extra change making hand crafted jewelry out of knick knacks and other junk she found strewn about. It sounds like the kind of story you might spin into a sort of romantic, simple existence 'beautiful people' type of tale but really she just seemed kind of bored, sad and confused without any prospects of exactly when or how her trip would end. Looking out at the crystal blue waters I thought she could have done worse.
Another day I woke up at noon. The rains had started the day previous, a mother dog and her puppies had taken shelter beneath our bungalow, which had floor-board gaps thick enough that we could look down and check up on them. It started to get wet under there and we tried to move them up on chairs in front of our shack, covered by the overhang. The plan worked great except she kept knocking them off the chair, and every time she did they would cry which
Just to be clear...
He is allowed to have this, we did not serve nor encourage this
kills the ambiance of the cool sea breeze and pitter-patter of the tropical rains. It hadn't been the best night for sleep but since we were on vacation no reason why I shouldn't sleep till noon. By the time I wandered out to the restaurant the Aussie and our teacher friend had already gone for the tail of the dog and I took a seat with them. Stronger John was there too, sitting at the big-boy table in a chair twice his height with a mug the size of his head and a few ounce splash of beer 'to make him strong' Ox told us, and he even knew how to cheers which made the Aussie happy. He was a tough little fellow. Rumor had it that the place next door on the other side served absinthe made the traditional way with worm-wood by a Texan who lived on 'that island out there' the teacher explained, pointing to the closest island off the coast. We sat down at the open air bar with sand beneath our feet and had a bottle or so the way I imagine it's supposed to be drank - fresh and locally made, straight with a
small spoon and a sugar cube. Before I knew it and I looked up from the floor and was sitting around a circular table with a prim and proper 70 year old couple putting back straight Cambodian whisky, the Aussie and the teacher, a couple Cambodian girls and a few random Brits - puzzled I made my way back to the room for a 3 o'clock nap and it was an odd day to be sure.
By the time we left Sihanoukville we had had a couple days of sun followed by nearly non-stop rain as it was of course the rainy season. It did well to keep the peace around the place, but the general dampness of everything was starting to get to us - everything in the creaky bungalow, towels and sheets, floors and sinks had a moist element and sand clung everywhere. Stronger John was hauling kittens up to the second floor and dropping them into the sandy mud pits below to test their durability and our teacher friend hadn't left his room for a few days. A foreign couple who were starting a little horse riding business invited Tara and an English guest to come
A Real Treat
Getting the hair ripped out of your legs by two strings, or "threading"
test their horses free of charge. The horses didn't take so kindly and Tara took a good toss off one of them which had left her in considerable pain. An eye infection from the dusty air - in spite of the cleansing showers - forced us to seek out an eye doctor for Tara in town and our bike caught a flat on the way back. Almost immediately a local girl who spoke English popped up and took us to a little wood shack with an air pump where the husband fixed our tire in the front of his shop. About 20 feet deep in total, the little shop had some tools scattered about on a dirt floor with an elevated wood and straw platform where the husband wife and three children ate, slept and entertained themselves throughout the day. We turned in the bike and inquired with Ox about moving on. He informed us that the beer serving, tuk tuk driving Senator - elected under the nation's local representation scheme - was on his way to serve his obligatory two-month stint in Phnom Penh and apparently going 5 hours out of his way for an extra 20$ was worth the expense. To be fair Tara and I got a great view of the countryside moving 40 kilometers / hour and stopping every 15 minutes to fill the engine with water from the ditch. Ox called us to check in every hour or so, and I wished with my whole heart that I had ordered one more thick savory curry for the road but all that was in the past now. The memories of Sihanoukville can be gauged as much by the unique crowds that make the pilgrimage to it's beaches as by any discussion of the actual beach or facilities. It's beautiful, quiet with just the right balance of civilization and destitution. It attracts a unique crowd, especially in regards to the people who make their way to the fringe of the farthest beach in the low and rainy seasons. Either way, you can always count on a friendly greeting from Ox, Stronger John and the Senator and the rest of the family and in that regard how could you go wrong?
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