I suddenly decided to get out of Kampot and headed towards the seaside to check out the much talked-about Otres Beach. It was off season and I found overcast skies, rough seas, empty beaches that housed perennial hippies in a fabricated tourist hub. I took some time to myself to work on pending projects and then headed back to Vietnam where a prior engagement awaited me.
A Noisy Transit
I had gone to sleep thinking of spending the next day chilling on the other side of the river, but somehow I had woken up with the idea of leaving towards the coast. I quickly packed my bags and checked the availability for a transport to Sihanoukville. There was a van available in half and hour and I booked a seat in it. I sat waiting in another building of Captain Chim’s Guesthouse near the old market, one that I had not known about till that moment. This seemed better built and much better taken care of than the one I had been staying in for the past few days. I waited for a little longer than the mentioned time but the van finally came around with just one seat to spare that I occupied.
The journey was a horror. The van was full of people from the Monkey Republic hostel and three of them, who were sitting right behind me, were chattering continuously about the most absurd and irritating topics. I would perhaps have minded less had they been teenagers but they were apparently well into their twenties. From what I could gather, there was a Welsh guy who was the most talkative of the lot and made the English accent go from exotic to insufferable for me. He was travelling with a female friend who was chattering just as much and had a high pitched nasal voice to top it off. They were exchanging stories of wild South East Asian adventures with a Canadian female who talked in lower decibel but just as incessantly. I was forced to hear stories of how the guy had been attacked by a monkey and how a friend of his had rammed her face in a truck in Vietnam while riding a motorbike. I had formed mental images of these three people while contemplating whether I should ask them to shut up. Suddenly the guy remarked how the smell of cow dung reminded him of his village and I turned around to see that he was of Indian origin!
It took immense control not to burst out during the ride to Sihanoukville but I managed to do so over the short journey. The van dropped most of the passengers at the Monkey Republic in the town. Hostel chain hopping is apparently the new way to backpack. The Welsh people went to the jetty to catch a boat to Koh Rong Samloem and the Canadian girl, her friend and I took the van till Otres Beach. It was a short journey and we chatted a bit and then I got off at Otres I while the Canadians went ahead to Otres II. The van driver had tried to rip them off and I had ended up bargaining for them. They had just laughed at the matter of saving a couple of dollars. I walked along the beach road on Otres I and inquired in some guest houses. Most of them were closed for the off season and a few had rooms available for a price that overshot my budget. I finally found a dorm in an interestingly named hostel, Wish You Were Here. It was fairly basic but suited me fine. I had to spend a couple of days here anyway so I was happy enough as long as I had a bed to sleep in and clean toilets.
A serene hostel
I went for a walk along the beach later in search of some food. The weather was not the best one for a beach. The skies were perpetually covered with dark clouds.
Otres I was a short stretch of the beach and there was no semblance of a village or an area where the local people might be living. This one seemed to be a beach specifically made for the tourists, a very typical firang place. There were just the hotels and restaurants, clustered sporadically all along the beach. As a result, it was slightly expensive and I was unable to find options for local food. Low season also meant a lot of idle tuk-tuk drivers hanging about without much to do. They always offered to take you somewhere or the other when you crossed paths with them. I wonder where one could go to begin with. They did play volleyball towards the evening and played it quite well. Cambodia seemed big on that sport.
The one good thing about this place was the lack for some definite thing to do. There were no tourist attractions to check out. I was going to use my few days out here to relax, write and work on the app I was making. I also kept away from socializing because of the same reason. I wanted to work for some time and this was a good opportunity for it. The hostel had all kinds of people, from the expats who had made a steady circle of friends out here, to the solitary cigarette smoking loner, to the hippie helping hand who was always shirtless and smoking up, to the brawny loud-voiced American. I added myself to the ranks as the unsocial geeky one.
I woke up the next morning and changed into my running outfit. I had decided to go for a jog and, despite all my laziness I made good on that promise. I started the run on the strip of beach right outside my hostel and went in the direction that seemed to stretch the longest, in the direction of Otres II. Otres I ended abruptly and then there was a beautiful expanse of the beach with the sea on one side and infrequent trees on the other. The sky was overcast and this was to be so throughout my time out here. The unpopulated beach lasted for a while and then the buildings started again, as abruptly as they had ended the last time. This was, by my guess, Otres II. A few tourists were making their way to the boat for a tour to some island or the other. I ran past them to the end of the beach which was marked by scattered garbage and a stream flowing into the sea. Here I made a u-turn and jogged back.
I was finding this run more tiring than my usual ones. Maybe it was the uneven and sandy surface, or maybe it was my depleting stamina. The run was also interrupted by a few kids who wanted to take a few pictures with me. It is always difficult to gain momentum after a break and I ended up stopping at the 30 minute mark, a little after crossing the starting point of my run in the other direction. While I walked back towards the hostel, a dog barked me down and I had to jump into the water to keep him away. Cambodia’s dogs definitely had a thing against me! I had to stand in the water for a few minutes, getting my shoes soaked, waiting for the dog to calm down and allow me to move. When it did let me, I went to the spot on the beach right in front of the hostel and took a refreshing dip in the water. The sea was a little rough and I stayed in the shallower region because I did not want to test the currents. I was eventually forced back into the hostel because of the rains, where I took a bath, washed my clothes and got some overpriced breakfast. Then I hung around in the common area reading a book and interrupted the activity by taking a nap towards the afternoon in bench I had been sitting in.
I decided to do something more active when I got up. I don’t think I am well suited to laziness. I picked up my bag and started walking in the direction of the Otres Village. The primary agenda was to find some place with cheap and local food. Plus, I wanted to find the actual local population of this region instead of the tourists. I walked out to the road and in the direction of the village. There were new guest houses under construction on the road leading inland; many plot advertised themselves on sale. Otres was no longer a small secluded beach away from the touristy Sihanoukville, as I had been told it was. It was clearly on the radar and was being devoured by tourism. I reached the “village” within 20 minutes but there was still no sign of an actual village. There were guest houses and restaurants lining the road on either side. I consulted Google Maps and it told me that Otres Market was in a certain direction and I took the lane in that direction thinking that since the market is usually central to the living area, that might be where the locals lived.
There were more guest houses all along this lane as well. Low season meant that there was ongoing maintenance activity in most. I saw a firang trying to cut the overgrown grass outside one of the places with a shovel. There was another that was being constructed and I recognised some of the expats from the common room of Wish You Were Here giving directions to the construction workers. It seemed like an unusual proportion of businesses out here were owned and run by foreigners. I wondered if it was just the hippie aura that drew people to this part of the country. This did look like a hippie haven but unfortunately I was somewhat over that phase of my life.
Otres Market turned out to be yet another guest house that was closed for the season. I gave up on finding the village and turned back. I returned to the main road and asked a couple of shops if they would serve me food. It was past lunch time and I got a few refusals before one of them agreed to feed me. I got a chicken amok done in a soupy way with lots of vegetables. I liked the variation. The food here was slightly cheaper than where I was staying but it was hardly worth the time and effort. I walked back to the beach and to the hostel.
I sat in the veranda for the rest of the evening doing my things : reading, working and charging one gadget after another in the one free socket that I was able to find. I went out once to dine and then came back to reestablish myself in the chair I had taken. There was live music in the bar downstairs in celebration of a successful proposal but I chose to enjoy the music from a level up instead. The musician was pretty good, singing his renditions of the latest hits and playing them on his guitar. I really liked it. I worked well into the night and had finished a considerable amount of work before I called it a night.
Once again I had woken up with the intention of getting out of the place while having had no such thought before going to bed. I formed a vague plan to spend the day in Sihanoukville and stay there overnight before catching a train to Phnom Penh the following morning. I quickly acted on the plan, packed up and checked out. I sat in the cafe cum bar drinking a mug of coffee and hoping to find someone heading to Sihanoukville who would share a tuk-tuk with me. After waiting for a considerable amount of time without any success, I headed out to brave the tuk-tuk drivers by my own. I finally managed to get a motodop in 3 USD till the railway station. I sat on the back of the motorbike and the rider rode in an easy style towards the town.
I had booked a hostel, Backpacker Heaven, while the motodop was making it’s way. I took a drop a little before the station and walked from there to the hostel. This place was just 2 kms from the station and I figured that I could walk the distance the next morning if there would be no available motodop that early in the day. The hostel turned out to be quite a nice one, with a small pool and a nice restaurant-cafe. I dropped my luggage at the reception and went to the cafe to eat some chicken and rice and gulp down a glass of orange juice. I took the time to complete most of the pending reviews on tripadvisor and agoda.
Once it was check-in time, I got my bags from the reception and dumped them in the room. The room was pretty spacious and I think this hostel was pretty good value for money. Then I picked up my stuff and went for a walk in the direction of the railway station, trying to time how long it took. The motodop and tuk-tuk drivers did not understand my urgency and I had to shrug them off time and again. There was one particular motodop rider who pestered me to no end and kept putting his bike in the direction I wanted to walk in. I tried answering his questions politely at first and refused his offers to take me to the railway station that was less than 100 meters away at that time. Then he tried to tell me that the railway station was closed and that I should trust him to know. I started ignoring him and he kept calling after me to ask when I wanted to go to Phnom Penh. At times it seems like a waste of time and energy to even be polite to these guys.
Buying the ticket was a process as straight forward as the last time. The rates were displayed loud and clear and one of the clerks spoke good English which made it all the more easier. The ticket cost me a mere 7 USD wile I was expecting it to be in the vicinity of 10 USD for some reason. These guys even had a very reasonable fare for vehicle transport - (2 USD for bicycle, 5 USD for motorbike and 14 USD for car) and once again I was surprised at how ill publicised the service was despite all it’s pros.
I decided to take a circular route back to the hostel. This way led me across the Sihanoukville port and there was an understandable traffic of container trucks here. I crossed path with a bamboo basket seller a few times. He was riding a moto which was heaped with the baskets and stopped time and again at shops to make sales. We happened to make eye contact a few times and exchange smiles. One time, when he was crossing me he blew his horn to make sure that I take note of him and smile again. 😃 I like such happy people.
I crossed the port and went to the “beach” straight ahead. It was a small patch of rocks. I stood taking photots when I realised that there was a wall of rain approaching. I scuttled looking for a shelter and ducked under the umbrella of a hotel’s security guard just in time on the onset of the showers. The guard smiled and offered me his chair and himself went to the building behind. I followed him soon because the rains got harder and the umbrella was made of porous material. The guard and two boys were sitting on a makeshift gym bench and I joined them and waited for the rains to pass us by. We did not talk any but the boys broke into some impromptu singing which sounded nice with the rain pattering in the background. The guard picked up an umbrella and went to attend to his duty when a car rolled into the driveway of the hotel. The rain slowed down after a while and eventually stopped. I walked back to the hostel which was not too far away.
I put my gadgets on charge and took a nap. I woke up with an aching neck because of the weird angle I had slept in. Once I had enough juice in my camera and phone, I set out to see the sunset from one of the beaches nearby. The closest one, Victory Beach, did not have much of a beach. It was just a sandy spot with some people hanging about. I decided to walk to the next one marked as Hawaii Beach. This beach was again a small one but relatively more substantial than the last one. I tried to test the time-lapse feature of the camera which I had recently discovered and set it up for a shot of the setting sun. I came to realise that time-lapse is a great feature but it requires a tripod and patience. I had neither so I stopped it prematurely and started walking back to the hostel. The sky darkened completely just a couple of minutes after I had given up. 😑
I walked around a bit before returning to the hostel. There was a certain Victory Hill Road right behind my hostel that seemed to be the hub of nightlife in this area. Sihanoukville’s nightlife seemed to be similar to Phnom Penh’s. Girlie bars with sleazy names lined this short lane and provocatively dressed girls invited you from within. I walked till the other end of the road and found a food stall that was selling some good and cheap food. I got a take away package of rice and pork and ate it in the hostel. Then I sat writing for a bit, packed up, set an alarm for 5:30 in the morning and went to sleep.
Return to Vietnam
I was up since 2:30 AM for some reason. I finally left the bed when the alarm rang at 5:30 and picked up my luggage to check out. The guy at the reception was acting slow for some reason and he took his time to check that I had already paid for my room and finally nodded his assent to let me leave. There was a motodop standing right outside the hostel but I decided to walk. I had ample time on my hands.
I took the slightly longer but less undulating road via the port side. There was a big jam of trucks right outside the port but apart from that, the walk was uneventful enough considering the early hour. I had to wait a while for the boarding to start and I took to observing the people sharing the platform with me. There were a lot of old foreigners there, probably expats. I wondered what kind of life they lead, away from their homeland, forced or by choice; did they have families back there? One was drinking beer at 6 AM, another had a young Cambodian companion, maybe his wife. It all seemed very strange to me somehow, they all seemed somewhat lost, like unmoored ships floating aimlessly.
There was a big family getting on board the train. They formed the majority of the coach’s population and spread out as per their fancy. They did not seem to be too mindful of public travelling etiquettes. I had seen this happen in India many a times to be surprised. But by some perverse stroke of luck, I was seated right behind one of the sets of women shouting to talk to the ones on the other end of the coach. This was going to be another noisy transit. I took inspiration from the kids who were sleeping spread out on the seats nearby and dozed off in a slightly uncomfortable spread out position. I woke up a couple of hours later to find the train standing still at a “fouling point”, a parallel track where a train can stop to let an incoming train use the main track. We were waiting for a carrier train to pass by and I walked up to the open gate to witness a beautiful countryside bathed in bright sunshine.
Kampot came soon after the train resumed it’s movement and I got down to get a guava for breakfast. Back in the train, a man struck up a conversation with me. He was offering me one of the eggs he had bought on the station to show his kindness. I thanked him and told him that I was good with my guava. This was Bao from Sihanoukville and the big family wreaking havoc in the coach was his. He was studying English Literature and aspired to become a tour guide. They were travelling to their village near the Vietnam border and when I told him my plans to go to Vietnam, he very kindly offered to take me with him to his village, saying I could cross over to Vietnam from there. I had to decline though, not sure whether I could do a legal crossing from there and in general apprehensive of taking on a random offer. Bao was super excited about everything he saw from the train. This was probably his first train journey. He showed me rice fields and told me about the planting and harvesting seasons. 70% of Cambodians were farmers, as per him. He also showed me some paintings on his Samsung phone and told me the ongoing rates of second hand phones in the market. He kept calling me “Bollywood” and said that his mother had thought I was an actor! It was nice to have a proper conversation with a Cambodian, despite it being a trivial and pointless one.
Bao and his family got off at Takeo. I would have said a proper goodbye had I known this. The expats had gotten off at Kampot itself and the train carriage was now sparsely populated. The remaining passengers journeyed towards Phnom Penh. There was a marked increase in the amount of garbage as we entered the city. A brief spell of rains came down and children could be seen making the best of the messy and wet garbage strewn rail yards. Cambodia really has a long distance to cover. The train slowed down as it entered the city. There were many unmanned crossings and cars recklessly kept crossing till the very last moment! The train even hit a moto that was parked too close to the track. Fortunately there was no one on the moto but we waited till the owner showed up from the farms around and the staff rebuked him before continuing to the Phnom Penh station at last. Train journeys in Cambodia are rather eventful!
Cambodia Tip #5
Take the train whenever you can in Cambodia. The journeys are full of novel experiences that are amusing and entertaining.
The sun was shining bright in the sky that had been cleared by the recent rains. I walked up to the Phuong Heng office and found that a bus was due to leave in 30 minutes. I booked a ticket and then went across the road to grab a bowl of somewhat expensive noodle soup. I sat in the bus when it was time to leave and for a while it looked like I was going to be the only passenger in the bus. A girl hopped in at the last minute and the bus started with just the two of us on board. I slowly drifted off to sleep as the bus rolled out of town.
I woke up a couple of hours later to find that we were well on the way to Bavet with another man added to the list of passengers. An entire bus was moving just for three people! I hope the economics worked somehow over the two way trip. We stopped at the usual stops and I tried to use up my remaining Cambodian riel. I spent a little more but was left with just 2800 KHR, an acceptable loss of approximately 50 INR.
We dropped the third guy a little further, some distance before Bavet. Darkness had set in and a thunderstorm raged around us. People had fled the road. I peered out of the window into the darkenss. Flashes of lightning showed a countryside that was devoured by darkness immediately again. Our bus with it’s four passengers raced in the onslaught of the rains, unmindful of the ravages it was causing all around us. A motorbike crossed by in my window, the man on it getting soaked in the rain and holding a torch to compensate for the missing headlight. What could be his urgency that made him brave circumstances so harsh?
At Bavet, the border crossing was only slightly more stringent than the one that I had faced on the way into Cambodia. Vietnamese officials were at least interested in taking a look at the contents of our bags and we were made to scan them. The bus was checked by a few officials as well. I talked to my co-passenger a bit. She was Vietnamese, from Saigon and worked in Cambodia. They did not need visas for the ASEAN countries. I also peeped into the passport of a man who was getting it checked at the door to find neatly arranged arrays of stamps of both the countries. I guess it is a regular thing for people to cross this border, even if just for the casinos on the Cambodian side.
Back in Vietnam I could re-evaluate the country in light of my recent visit to Cambodia. Vietnam seems to have done well. Socialism might be a farce like elsewhere but it seems to have worked to a certain degree. The country is cleaner and the infrastructure is better. It seems much more developed than Cambodia, developed as a general standard. People enjoyed their lives; they worked; they partied; they wore helmets on two wheelers; they seemed better off as per standards of living; there was less poverty; there were barely any homeless people; the roads were better; the streets were lit up. Yes, Vietnam seems to have done much better than it’s neighbour.
We reached HCMC before the promised time of 10:30 PM; we were braving the traffic of District One around 9:30 itself. I got down and booked a hotel on agoda which was right next to the bus station. The hostel I had taken on the last occasion was not available and I was too tired from the day long journey to look up more extensively. I walked up to the hostel and checked in. I thought of taking a bath but the sewage erupted even while I was washing my face and the bathroom flooded with foul smelling water. This place seemed to be in shambles. I dropped the idea of a bath and went out to get a bowl of Pho instead. There were few options, it being 11 in the night. I found one decent looking place around the corner of the backpacker street and a bowl of Pho cost 65 kVND there! There were tourists coming in and going gaga over how cheap this place was while I sat shocked as to how everything was so expensive here. District One kills your budget. I went back to the hostel and got in touch with Mandy about getting to the English teaching center. She told me she would be out the next day, it being a Sunday, so I decided to spend the day in Saigon and go to the center the day after.
Bugged and Confused
I woke up around 2 AM with an itchy feeling. My mind kept pushing the obvious thought but it was confirmed after a while. Bed bugs, my nemesis! This happens to me on the very night I need sleep the most after a long journey. I should have known better by now; hotels near bus stands; black spots on the bed sheet. But no, I am dumb enough to fall for it over and over again! I killed two bugs immediately and then woke up to kill two more fat ones when I felt them biting me. I finally decided to take out the liner I had been carrying with me and tried to wrap myself in it. It did not help much though; the bugs were able to bite me through it and a few had stayed inside, feasting on my blood through the night. I killed some more during the course of the night and finally drifted off to sleep around 4:00 - 4:40 AM. I slept till 10 in the morning. There had been some activity in the night as well. A guy had come in drunk and had managed to wake everyone up while getting into his bed. Then a woman had come in with her child. The little one had a bad case of cough but it had kept reasonably quiet through the night and its mother had sat up looking after her child.
I got up and freshened up; then I ran through my liner, killing a big fat bug that had been sitting inside all night. I found another one in my shorts that had been on the bed all night. I could not find anything in the bag. I packed everything up and checked out. I did not say a word to the staff. I chose to write a bad review instead. It is impossible that these guys do not know about such a bad case of infestation. I booked a room in Thinh Vuong, the hostel I had stayed in during my last visit to HCMC and walked up to the hostel and checked in. I was shown to the same dorm room and the same bed. Wonderful! I knew for sure that there were no bugs here.
Pro Tip #14
It is of utmost importance that you do not show impatience in case of bed bugs. Go through your clothes and luggage systematically and with care. The only way bed bugs are harmful is when they can sneak into your luggage and you carry you with them throughout the journey. You definitely do not want that.
I took a bath and drowned my clothes from the night before into hot water to purge them. Then I sat in the bed to write the daily post. Tomas came in and recognised me. He and a few others were something of permanent dwellers in this hostel. There were more talks about Microsoft’s greatness and he tried to sell me Office 365. I politely nodded and tried to cut the topic short whenever I could. I asked him for a cheap place to eat, figuring he would know something since he must have found a place for his daily eat. It was then that he told me that everything in District One was expensive, this being the city center. It made little sense because there are always places for locals to eat at but his words did correspond to my experience. Tomas did offer to take me to the place he ate in but I declined since he had already had food and was going just to accompany me. I found it too imposing so I headed out by myself.
I headed north east from where I was, towards the Opera House. I landed in a very French part of the city with beautiful buildings flashing big brands and fine dine restaurants. I was sure that I would not find anything cheap out here. I walked around to the Notre Dam Cathedral and the Reunification Palace next. I saw all these places from the outside and they looked nice and beautiful. I was not in the mood to do anything touristy since the bug incident had sapped me of energy and all these buildings seemed to have a zillion tourists buzzing about. I walked back to Ben Thanh Market and got a bun thit nuong for 50 kVND. I was hungry and had had enough of searching around without result. The food was average at best.
Buildings of Saigon
I returned to the hostel and dozed off till late in the evening. I got up at 7:30 PM and said hello to my fellow dorm mates, two German girls and a Japanese guy. The interaction was short lived and I set out of the room once again. I decided to go in a different direction this time, south east of where I was. There was a small canal or stream that marked the end of District One and I crossed it to the other side. I tried finding my way to the Saigon river, thinking that I would walk along it but that was not to be so. This was a port area and there was a checkpoint beyond which I was not allowed. There were some pretty looking boat restaurants and a big convention hall which was hosting some event. I went in to check it out and saw lots of stalls of clothes, probably cheap designer brands given the number of young people in there. I took a few pictures and came back out.
Walking into a random event
A little further I ran into a night market which had taken over the road with it’s stalls of cheap clothes, shoes, fruits, flowers and vegetables. I walked around and witnessed a Buddhist ceremony of some sort. Then I turned into one of the bylanes at random and entered a residential are with narrow roads. There were a few food options here and I went into a Com Tam joint that looked nice. As I stood waiting for the busy staff to pay attention to me, a girl who seemed to be another customer asked me if she could help me out. I said I would appreciate it very much! She spoke good English and helped me place the order and left with the food that she had ordered to take away. I sat down to eat and gobbled down the food. Priced at 25 kVND, I had finally found a cheap place to eat near District One but I was not going to stay here long enough to reap the benefit of my discovery. Maybe another time.
I came back to the hostel and was asked to produce the passport again. There was some confusion around the visa dates and the staff who had checked me in had probably seen the old expired visa instead of the new one. I appreciated how alert these guys were with regards to expired visas. Anyway, once that was sorted, I headed back to the dorm and slept soon after.
Breaking the Journey
I packed up the next morning and went to the bus stand. I made use of the amazing bus network of Saigon to reach the shuttle bus point that Mandy had told me about. There I showed them the address of the center and waited for the next bus headed in that direction. I sat in a bus full of Vietnamese who looked at me curiously and I was suddenly aware of the dearth of English speakers around me. There was a little girl, maybe a year old or so, who was extremely playful and naughty. She was playing in her father’s lap and had my attention most of the time, and I managed to grab hers sometimes. The driver said something en route that made everyone turn and look at me with indecipherable emotion. It was a weird feeling to have all eyeballs on you without having a clue as to why!
The bus kept going. It was a longer journey than I had supposed. It took me slightly more than an hour to reach Bau Ca, the city where the center was. Another passenger who was getting off there told me to look for a big red building a little way back from where I had been dropped. The red building was obvious to spot and I went there and called up Mandy. She was still not back but a man came to let me in and told me in broken English that he was the security guard. I was shown to a room and he asked me to rest. Mandy came back after an hour or so and we discussed how the arrangement was to proceed. I had to take a demo class that evening and if things went well, I would stay on for at least a month to teach at their center.
I did take the demo class that evening and things did go well. This meant that my journey was to break for a new set of experiences which I have insufficiently tried to sum up in another post. I had mixed emotions about starting down a path I had no idea about.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Otres & Sihanoukville leg of the trip.