Thursday, 22 October 2009

Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville is almost as far south as you can get on the coast of Cambodia, facing the Gulf of Thailand and just inside the hook of land that belongs to Vietnam. The town was named for King Sihanouk, an astute politician who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge and was invited back afterwards to become a constitutional monarch in an attempt to unite the country. During a filmed interview he said that he always regretted sending the brilliant young Pol Pot to europe to be educated. Like most Cambodians, he never anticipated what was to happen. The scars of it are still apparent and not just in the missing generation of people. Samnang is a popular male name for young people around 20 - it means 'lucky'. A lot of women of a similar age are simply called 'Srei', which means 'female'.

We've been staying in a small 'unit' built in the back garden of one of the more affluent Khmer families. We have one room with a bed and a wardrobe, an alcove with a sink and a small toilet with cold shower hose. A door opens onto a space at the back big enough to put a clay cooking pot. There are large earthenware jars to catch rainwater from the roof to use for cooking and flushing the toilet. The room was previously occupied by an entire Khmer family.



Up and down the road you can see the evidence of Cambodia's 'disappeared'. Elaborate wrought iron gates and fences guard plots of land swallowed by jungle. These were once the homes of the wealthy middle classes purged by Pol Pot. Only some of the plots have been re-occupied - our landlord Ba Om was one of the lucky ones. Some of the vacant plots are being re-developed for blocks of flats.

The city's rich now live on the hillside overlooking the bay. Their houses are painted and gilded like temples and guarded by electronic gates and men in security uniforms. They drive around in SUV's with tinted glass windows and without number plates because they're rich enough to pay for anonymity.
Sihanoukville is a mixture of squalor and five star hotels with immaculate palm fringed beaches. There are no pavements and the streets are lined with stalls selling banana fritters, squid on skewers, cigarettes, cold drinks and eggs 'with chick still in' - a local delicacy! You go everywhere on a moto; if there are more than two, you take a tuk-tuk.

Sihanoukville in the rain!!







Electricity goes on and off here - it fried my lap top on the second day and Neil's notebook is looking rather sick and has probably caught something contagious from the internet. This is Virusville.


The market is one of Sihanoukville's experiences. I really liked the fish section - apart from the smell. There are vats of crabs, cat-fish swimming in tanks, bowls of silver fish on ice.



The market is crowded with beggars - mostly with missing limbs. This isn't just due to landmines, but to accidents with tools - pangas or mattocks. Even the smallest wound invites infection in this climate and without antibiotics people regularly lose feet and hands to gangrene. There are several charities here helping the disabled to earn a living with more dignity. There is a 'Massage by the Blind' parlour and you can go to performances by the 'Limbless Orchestra'. It all seems very odd to someone from a country obsessed with politically correct language.
There are lots of Khmer places to eat - breakfast at the 'pork and rice' is a must - but you are also invited to sample 'Grumpy Dave's Sausages', or eat in the many Pizza houses springing up alongside the French, Italian and English restaurants beginning to cater for the growing number of european tourists. No visit to Sihanoukville is complete without a visit to the Snake House Restaurant, with a snake under every table and a crocodile on a lead in the middle. The menu is in English, Khmer and Russian, which gives you a clue to the ownership.
There's a seedy side, inevitably - all day bars with very young Cambodian girls being plied with drink by elderly european men. I didn't see any bars for elderly european women, but I suspect even that could be arranged at a price.

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