2 Feb 2008
Sihanoukville, Cambodia
10°36'20.39"N 103°31'25.33"E
31°

 

We've just done quite possibly the worst journey in our lives. We decided that we didn't want to get up at 4.30am for the early bus, so we would cross the border at a more reasonable time, overnight in Koh Kong on the Cambodian side of the border and get the bus to Sihanoukville the following morning. There is only one ferry and one bus per day, both leaving Koh Kong at 8am. There is no reason for the early start. There isn't enough time for a quick turn around and return journey. The only possible reason for the early start is that most people don't want to get up at 4.30, so they overnight in Koh Kong. Bringing money into the local economy. Clever, eh? It's such a grubby seedy place that this is probably the only way they can get people to stay there. We hooked up with Don for the evening. A bit younger than us, Don's a landscape gardener from the USA, who we met on a minibus in Thailand, ended up staying with at the same guesthouse in Koh Kong and rode most of the way to Sihanoukville with - he got off at the 4th river crossing and to change to the bus going to to Phnom Pehn. He was a great conversationalist and we all kept each other occupied for a few hours. We also swapped some invaluable tips.

We decided to go by road, even though we'd heard some pretty horrible tales about the road trip. The ferry is a river boat, and it's open sea all the way. So maybe they do stick close to the coast. It still isn't a sea-going boat. And when we later met up with some people we'd been on the minibus with who had taken the ferry rather than the bus, they told us someone had fallen off the top (they fished him out before any serious harm was done). The road trip only takes about an hour longer than the ferry now - the roads are sealed all the way but the bridges aren't quite finished, so for the 4 river crossings you have to get yourself and your bags off the bus, get either a raft or canoe to the other side of the river where a new bus is waiting for you for the next leg of the journey.

The first two bridges looked totally finished to me, but what do I know? The police cars, soldiers' trucks as well as cement mixers and steam rollers going over it were probably using it for a good reason. Maybe they're amusing themselves by watching dumb westerners gingerly pick their way down rotting gangplanks onto very unsafe rafts or boats. Maybe it's the the live local version of Big Brother. The third bridge was so almost finished that we were allowed to walk across it. At the end of the bridge was a big gate, and nobody knew where the key was.

Everyone had to play the game of passing bags then climbing through. Several motorbikes were using the bridge, and they were being lifted over the top - about 4 foot high, maybe a bit more. Why do we never have the camera on hand when something like that is going on?

When the bridges finally open, it should knock at least an hour, possibly two from the journey. As it was, it took 5 hours, but at least the buses were fairly comfortable. Every time we got off though we were covered in dust. Red dust, a bit like central Australia. We were filthy, as were our bags, clothes and the insides of our noses when we blew them.

Arriving in Sihanoukville was a bit of a relief - until we got off the bus. There were dozens of taxi and motorbike taxi drivers. They were literally blocking the doorway making it really hard to get off the bus.

All of them were shouting, following everyone around to the luggage compartment and shouting more. We got away from them as quickly as we could. I don't think they realise just how overwhelming it is to have all of the jostling and shouting when you're trying to make sure you've got everything you should have and somebody is trying to pull a bag off your shoulder in their eagerness to get you into their vehicle. We'd already decided that we'd spend our first night in town, somewhere near the bus station and check out the places on the beach either later or the next day. We managed to fight off the taxi drivers and made our escape, checked out 3 hotels/guesthouses near the station and settled on The Marlin, which was the first one we'd called in on.

Peters' eye is getting better by the day - I'm cleaning it every morning, but there was hardly anything to be cleaned, and we've decided to take the dressing off and give it a bit of fresh air (with a thick layer of antiseptic ream sitting on top. Did a good job, even if I do say so myself.

He's going to miss the dressing when it comes off - it's a great conversation starter whenever he walks into a bar.

We ended up staying 2 nights at the Marlin, as we left our run a bit too late to get down to the beach on the first day. Gary in the Marlin (from Fitzroy) recommended somewhere really good but they were booked out. We checked out a few places on the way, but they weren't up to much and were neither downtown or on the beach, so inconvenient to both. On the beach itself we checked out everywhere. At the Tranquility Guesthouse, an English girl called Lucy was working there and showed us the room. Peter picked the accent straight away and asked where she was from. The Boro. Yeah, I'm from Billingham. No way, I am too - Low Grange. Spooky, our first house was in Low Grange - Neasham Avenue. We're just two streets away.

I'm listening to this and thinking it's surreal. I asked if she had an older brother - she did, he was 26. OK, so we're middle aged - every now and again that hits in, and it's painful and always a bit of a shock. There's no way we're going to know her brother. I asked her what her dad was called. Chris Plant. Oh, says Peter. I used to play ice hockey with a lad called Chris Plant - gotta be the same one. Billingham isn't such a big place. Yeah, dad used to play. I said I didn't know the name, but her face didn't half look familiar. Who knows, maybe I knew her mum. Lots of let him know you've seen us type things and on our way we went.

Tranquility was the last one we looked at and we started heading back to town. Peter was unusually quiet, and kept on muttering 'I know someone else called Plant'. After a while I started to ignore him, more amused with some of the things people were actually managing to get onto the back of motorbikes. After 30 minutes or so he stopped dead.

Deb.
Eh?
Plant.
Eh?
Deb Plant.
Deb Plant?
Deb Plant - as in Deb
Steve's Deb?
Yeah. Deb. She's Chris Plants' brother.

At his stage I got a cold shiver down my back that wouldn't stop. Plant is what Deb used to be called before she married Steve. Steve is Peters' step brother. So here we are, in a country most people couldn't point to on a map, in a tiny seaside town that hardly anyone has ever heard of and we came across an almost relative. Probably not legally - stepbrother's niece, but close enough to be very, very spooky.

When we went back to tell her the next day, her face was a picture. And she really looks like Debs mother, which is why I found her face familiar.

Then, to end it all, walking along the beach last night on a food hunt, we ran into Don again. He hadn't thought much of Phnom Pehn and headed for the beach. As a single bloke he was constantly barraged by 'You want girl? Young girl?' and I don't think he was so comfortable with that. Phnom Penn sounds to be pretty much the same as when we were there about 5 years ago.

We all treat ourselves to a Happy Pizza from the Good Mood Food cafe. Wasn't so happy, but we both got a good nights' sleep. Ran into him again this morning - we had lunch, but didn't catch up with him again tonight - Middlesborough were live on TV which takes priority over everything. At least they didn't lose. This time.

It will be really strange if we bump into Don again in Ho Chi Minh City.

So, ready to go. Another day, another country. Peter is beside himself - he's been wanting to go to Vietnam for years, and most importantly, we're going to be there for Chinese New Year. Perfect timing.