Christmas in Cambodia was a fairly low-key affair, but I guess that’s to be expected from a country where the majority of the population don’t actually celebrate Christmas. There was definitely more of a festive atmosphere than when we’d left Thailand, and plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants had Christmas decorations and lights set up. Our tuk-tuk driver from Battambang said that this was solely for the benefit of tourists and expats, but we did notice a couple of very sweet local Christmas time traditions – like the fact that Cambodians say “happy merry Christmas” instead of just “merry Christmas”, and the kids get dressed up in little Santa Claus and Mrs Claus outfits on the few nights before and after Christmas and hoon around on their scooters in the local parks. Overall though, the 25th of December is just another day – all of the shops are open and it’s business as usual.
We spent our Christmas morning Skyping family and lounging by the pool, and then set off for a traditional lunch/early dinner at the local Aussie pub. The lunch was incredible, but the quantity of food was bordering on embarrassing in a country where so many people have so little. Our waitress was absolutely stoked when we told her to take our helping of Christmas pudding home to have with her family. She even came by our table to show it to us all packed up in a takeaway box, and said that she was going to let her son have it for breakfast (he’d be asleep by the time she got home that night). Lunch left us unable to do much but waddle home (stopping for a few more drinks en route) and pass out in a turkey/pork/stuffing/spud coma. It was a fun day, but it’s true that there really is no place like home when it comes to Christmas and we were both a tad homesick throughout the day.
On Boxing Day we did the same thing as loads of people back home, and hit the beach. There is not a hint of sarcasm when I say that the bus ride to Sihanoukville was luxurious – there were only 4 of us onboard, we got given fresh baked croissants as we set off and then listened to epic old school pop tunes the entire time (Ja Rule, and pre-meltdown Britney, anyone?). The rest stop was at a great cafe with western toilets and, wait for it, toilet paper!! The whole experience was heavenly. On arrival in Sihanouville we were straight in a tuk tuk headed for Otres Beach. Sihanoukville has a bit of a patchy reputation – it is divided into a handful of different beaches; some are idyllic little white sand retreats, and others are tacky party pits known for attracting sex pests (that’s not a joke, there’s a real problem with that here), young backpackers and people with an aversion to deodorant.
For us, Otres was the perfect in-between – there was a great atmosphere with beach bars and restaurants, prices that appealed to backpackers/flashpackers, but also enough family groups and couples to keep things from getting too scuzzy in the evenings. There’s also some really cool local initiatives going on, like the Otres Market. The Market sets up on random nights (you just have to keep your eye out for one of the fliers on the beach) and features local and international bands, a dozen food stalls (Mexican, Khmer, Portuguese etc etc), cheap booze and local arts and crafts. The night we went there were 2 great bands playing and we spent an easy few hours listening to them, sucking back G&Ts and Cuba Libres and feeling very pleased with ourselves. Days were spent lounging on the beach, and that’s about it.
It’s just as well there was so much to keep us “busy”, because we’d had an absolute blow-out on the accommodation front and we didn’t want to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary. While we’d been wandering around oblivious to what the month, date, or day was, all the other eager beavers had been scooping up all of the Cambodian beach accommodation for the Christmas/New Year period. When we finally came to taking a look, our first search came back with 2 options – a private island for $3k a night (nice, but not in the budget), or a tent on the beach (not nice). Panic rapidly set in, but after a lot of sleuthing and a lot of stressing we finally found somewhere to stay – another bloody eco resort. This one really took the cake though. When the manager showed us to our “bungalow” and opened the door Campbell’s face transformed from tentative optimism (he’d made the booking), to that of a small child that’d just discovered a turd in its school lunchbox. The place was a dive, and it was absolutely full of critters. I tried to stay upbeat, but when we woke up the next morning to a giant lizard on the bathroom wall and frogs on the toilet seat and the mirror, I joined the pity party as well.
We’ve grown quite accustomed to Henry head-butting his way into the bathroom when we’re sitting on the crapper, but this was a whole other audience and I wanted them gone. Lizzy (the big lizard) was kind enough to just slink back to wherever he’d come from once he realised we were there to stay, but those frogs just wouldn’t budge. We tried to smoke them out with one of those insect repellent coils, but they came back when the smell had worn off. So it was out of pure desperation that I said to Campbell, “I wonder what would happen if you gave them a little squirt with the shower?”. No need to die wondering, I can tell you exactly what happens when you squirt a frog with the shower – the frog will get really really pissed off and leap at your face with all of its little fingers and toes ready to suction onto your face and kill you (at least that’s what it felt like at the time). You’ll then be so terrified that you fall backwards out of the bathroom, smash your arm on the wardrobe and fall arse-first through the mosquito net over the bed and rip it from the ceiling. The frog will then go back to sitting in the bathroom watching you on the loo. Wildlife – 1; Wilsilands- 0.
Despite loving Otres Beach, we literally bounced out of our bungalow this morning headed for our next accommodation on Serendipity Beach. Cambodia is really giving us the treatment though, and we arrived at our hotel only to be told that they’d double-booked our room and had no rooms available. We already knew that there was no accommodation left pretty much anywhere in Sihanoukville (except the private island), so tried to work with the hotel for a solution. A lot of phone calls were made and people were running all over the show with walkie talkies, when the manager said that they had managed to “find” us a room. We set off to check it out (up about 50 flights of stairs) and I knew it was bad when, from around the corner, I could hear that Campbell had been taken with a bout of verbal tourettes and was seriously unhappy with whatever room they’d rustled up for us (“No! I am very angry! No!”). I didn’t even need to see the room – the words “dorm” and “shared bathroom” meant it was a big ‘no deal’ from me too.
After many more telephone calls, a few choice words with the owner and a panicked call to Expedia, the hotel managed to “find” us another room (I’ve no idea where they kept appearing from). We grudgingly accepted (it wasn’t what we wanted, or had paid for), but it would do the trick and, unless we wanted to sell our internal organs, the private island wasn’t really an option. On the plus side, our hotel is in a pretty sweet location – close to the beach and lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. We got lunch on the house, and there are a bunch of puppies that live here, which did wonders to help soften the mood. We’ll spend New Year’s Eve here and then we’re looking forward to striking out for Kampot and Kep – the last destinations on our Cambodian trip.
While our lack of planning screwed us a bit this last week, it has paid dividends on another front and we’ve realised that, once we reach Kep, we can catch a ferry from there directly to Phu Quoc island in Vietnam. Phu Quoc was on our wish list of places to get to, but was starting to look a bit unlikely. We’re so stoked to be able to go there before we venture north to Hue that we went straight to the Vietnamese Embassy in Sihanoukville this afternoon and got our Vietnam visas amended so we can get there quicker. After the day we’d had, we were expecting something like a Visa amendment to be a real drama. I was envisaging stacks of forms, some form of cavity search and lots of money changing hands. I could have hugged the man behind the desk when he said that ‘yes, he could change our Visa entry dates’ and that it would only cost us $20. He then rifled around in his desk, got out his twink pen, changed the dates, blew on the twink to make sure it was dry, and saw us on our way. On a day when easy things have been hard, we laughed out loud that something with the potential to be hard had been so so easy.