Some children stand outside a house on the road to Sihanoukville.
June 1-7Cambodia, Part I
From Koh Chang, we took another ferry south to Koh Kong, at the Cambodian border. after my experiences at the Vietnamese border, I was expecting the worst. But the Cambodian border guards here were almost endearingly friendly and spoke excellent English. Still, after running out of full visa pages in my passport, it did take some time and convincing to get the right official to place the Cambodian visa on one of my supplemental pages instead.
Koh Kong itself seemed to be nothing more than a border crossing, except for a large hotel just inside the border in the middle of nowhere. The hotel had grand plans to become even larger. Just beyond a large “no weapons” sign and the hotel lobby, there was a Karaoke setup, a casino, and a duty-free store. Upstairs in the casino, Chinese tourists played baccarat and poker. Downstairs there were a host of one-armed bandit addicts. Both were a little too much excitement for me, so I went back to my room to read.
The next day we drove to the dusty beach resort town of Sihanoukville. There were two main streets in town, a monastery, and an Angkor beer brewery. Other than that, the railway station was overgrown with weeds, and there were a slew of dusty dirt roads full of holes. Everywhere you looked, people were living in little huts and shanties. In “chicken village” the shanties were built right over the water, with filth and sewage everywhere.
The abandoned Independance (sic) Hotel rises into the blue Cambodian sky.
Definitely one of the spookiest features of the town was the Independance (yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the sign) Hotel, long since deserted and definitely haunted-looking. At the end of a rocky overgrown road, the hotel was perched at the top of a large hill in deep brush. Even in the middle of the day, under the afternoon sun, you definitely got chills approaching the hotel as the worn logo and facade broke through the trees.
On the first floor, next to what could have been a grand ballroom, several squatters had claimed the place as their own. Two girls played cards as their infants clung to them. One man was sleeping under a newspaper; another was starting a small fire in the overgrown courtyard. In the ballroom, the ceiling was hanging, the windows were shattered, and there was debris everywhere. Leading up to several floors of rooms was the price to stay for the night, under the auspices of new “management” – a few cents.
Upstairs the rooms were stripped and littered with debris. Few windows still had glass in them; some of the rooms were missing doors, or had gaping holes in the concrete walls. Graffiti was everywhere – etched or scrawled in the stairwells, the hallways, the rooms.
Creepy as the place was during the day, it was easy to imagine how scary the place could be at night. Who knew what happened here, under cover of darkness. Some of the English graffiti on the stairwells warned fellow travelers to leave by nightfall. During the day, however, and despite the current inhabitants, there was an eerie silence as the breeze blew in off the coast.
Part of Sihanoukville’s “chicken village” has been built over a coastal marsh.
Though the town was not large, the monastery, the brewery, the Independence Hotel, and everything else lay pretty far apart. The only way to really see things was to drive, so for about $3 I rented a motorbike for the day.
Of course, renting a motorbike would have its own consequences. It wasn’t my first time on a bike, but I hadn’t been on one in years, since the first time I had been in the Greek islands several years ago. Although I made out quite well on most of the roads, it was in chicken village that I should have been more careful. Most roads in Cambodia could hardly be called good; even some parts of the national highway were more like back-country dirt roads. So the half-paved, half-dirt road that ran through the little shanty village – bordered by huts, shanties, and a multitude of small convenience stands (offering water, sodas, snacks, and petrol in old soda bottles) – had more than its fair share of craters filled with the last rain.
As the bike was an automatic, I figured I could video as I rode. So I drove, video camera in my left hand and my right hand on the throttle, as I looked around and filmed the village.
I had gone a few miles through the village, when a huge crater in the road suddenly came up in front of me. I barely had enough time to see it and brake a bit, before I went head-first right into the ditch – bike, camera, and all.
A new addition to Paul’s collection of travel injuries and maladies.
Thankfully I had been able to brake a bit before I went in. I still got a pretty good gash in my knee and quite a few scrapes, but miraculously I was okay. I hadn’t hit my head, I was able to roll out of my fall, and my video camera was still working! I bought some water from a little convenience hut and tried to wash out the wound. The road was filthy, and I was afraid of what I could get from the wrong bacteria washing into my wounds. I poured a little ammonia (which I carried for mosquito bites) over the wound to kill anything that had been in that ditch. Needless to say it was quite painful, but better than a lot of things I could think of.
Of course, when things are bad, they get worse. After getting back on my bike and driving another few miles down the road outside of the village, my bike ran out of gas. I had thought the tank had sounded pretty empty, but the fellow I had rented the bike from assured me that it was more than enough to get around for a day or two.
The sun was going down, and after seeing some of the characters I had passed around the red light area of the village, it probably wasn’t a good idea to be out after dark, especially out by chicken village. Thankfully, a few minutes later a car passed and offered to drive back to get me some gas from one of the roadside convenience huts. How glad was I that they existed, as the nearest petrol station was probably more than a dozen miles away.
Riding back to the hotel, I felt more than a little dumb. I imagined how funny the sight would have been, to see myself ditching my bike into that hole. I also began to think what my injury could mean for the next few days. I had been hoping to be all over the ground at Angkor, and I hoped that my knee wouldn’t freeze up and prevent me from covering the temples adequately. I limped around for the next week. And bled for the next 5 days. But thankfully the wound did not become badly infected, and in a few weeks I had a nice scab that was beginning to heal – really, the wonders of the human body. Of course, the fall made me a little more careful, but it was only the next day in Phnom Penh that I was already back on my bike, video camera in hand, albeit being much more careful to watch the road!
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