Monday, March 8, 2010

Sihanoukville

Friday, March 5

Albie and I arrived here following a 3.5 hour taxi ride at about 2:30 yesterday afternoon and after checking in to our hotel I immediately took a 2-hour nap. Internet is not working here or in many of the other hotels so I'm a little frustrated because I was hoping to be online again instead of having to drag this bulky laptop around to a place that has a functioning Internet. That was the scenario at Superstar also -- no Internet in-house -- drag the big Thinkpad across the street, buy breakfast, do email and post items to the blog using their slow upload speed. We also do not have refrigerators so anything we want to keep cold must be left downstairs in the main refrigerator. My aircon unit is tricky to run because the lettering on the remote is in Japanese. This room is pretty nice however: it has attractive spreads on both beds, a deck with a small view, TV, a bathroom with bathtub, a first for the entire trip. Not that I care that much about having a tub--the other situation mostly suits me fine. For the first time since Pattaya, we’re near the ocean but the beaches, unlike Pattaya’s, are not crowded.

Hotels on Victory Hill
Today, our first full day here, we actually did go to the beach. And, I actually did go into the water. We drove out along some rugged dirt and gravel paths on our rented motos ending up at a place called Mean Mean, another Albert favorite restaurant situated right on Otres Beach. I had asked him if it was safe to bring along stuff like a camera and money. If we were going to go swimming I assumed we’d have to leave our stuff on the beach. He said, “Sure, there’s a changing place and beach chairs within plain sight of the water. No problem.” The way things work here is that at some point an enterprising person builds a little restaurant right on the beach. Over the years, the kitchen is expanded, then a bar added, then changing rooms, then, well, you get the picture. Pretty soon there is a row of these small bars, I’ll call them mini-resorts, that cater to tourists and offer beer and food along with seaside seating, showers, parking, etc. We sat down in the well shaded and breezy “dining area” and ordered a beer.

Beach view from Mien Mien
Allbie has heard that these impromptu resorts are scheduled to be removed by the authorities. They are probably completely illegal and the government no doubt feels justified in doing it. Yet, as in all such development plans, the hidden costs to the community might not be revealed for years afterward. I’m reminded of the 1950s in my home town of Buffalo, N.Y. It was the era of expressway building, modernization, and the so-called urban renewal projects. Massive amounts of private property were basically appropriated by the federal and state governments, homes, businesses, indeed entire neighborhoods, razed, and the debris hauled away to make room for the huge multilane highways with which probably, by now, we all have a love hate relationship. My story has to do with the Niagara Expressway, I-190, that runs alongside the Niagara River in north Buffalo, through an area known as Riverside. I saw photos recently that showed the numerous little fishing shanties and impromptu dwellings that once lined the riverbank. The residents, some of whom no doubt were squatters like the ones on Otres Beach, fought the bulldozers for a long time but finally were forced to stand aside and watch as their homes and histories were brutally pushed aside in the name of progress. Below is a photo of what appears to be an abandoned hotel project on the road to Otres Beach. Progress?


The Niagara Expressway is still the fastest way to get from north or south Buffalo to its downtown area and the Peace Bridge to Canada but now in a period of government financial distress is in relatively sad shape and desperately in need of repair. And here’s something I certainly never thought about when it was being built: there was no way for a resident of Riverside to enjoy the river from which the neighborhood derived its name. These days, you can cross the expressway on an elevated pedestrian bridge to a walkway and the river's edge, which of course is very closely bordered by the busy and very noisy Niagara Expressway. Picnic anyone? I’ll bet there’s more than one person my age who would gladly turn back the clock to the days when those little fishing shanties were full of life, and illegal squatters. To the days when a picnic in Riverside Park meant you could walk right up to and dip your feet in the Niagara River on a hot summer day. This condemn, raze and build scenario was often repeated in those highway boom years. New York State residents should read Robert A. Caro’s magnificent biography of Robert Moses, The powerbroker, to get a detailed look at urban renewal and expressway building in New York State during the period 1945-1975.

We had a swim, got a bit of a burn on our mostly untanned bodies, and had lunch. Mein Mein served up a mean plate of Hot and Sour Chicken Salad. Topped with kaffir leaves and our usual concoction of fresh chilis crushed in soya sauce it was delectable and only cost about $3 including the Angkor. (Note the ice cubes in the beer. Gotta keep it cold somehow.)


We were constantly being asked to buy food or fruit, massages, and trinkets of every size and description by sellers passing through. Shown below is a woman selling fish or chicken on a skewer. She is carrying a complete kitchen with her. The charcoal-fired grill is in that large bowl behind her, the raw materials, rice and trimmings are in the front bucket.



Sunday, March 7,

We’re more or less killing time here in Sihanoukville. Aside from the beaches the town hasn’t much to offer your standard tourist. We enjoy eating in the small bars and street corner kitchens but not everyone would be thrilled with that arrangement. The beaches are nice but not maintained in any way. There is litter everywhere, plastic water bottles mostly, which I call first world trash in a third world country, and the roads are bumpy and potholed. I took a short moto ride this morning just to get out of my hotel room. I headed north this time and after passing hundreds of little tin shacks and shanties, came across a very nice stretch of sand called Samdech Hun Sen Beach. It’s located just south of the big oil refinery. The colors and apparent solitude in these photos hide the fact that we’re surrounded by a huge slum and that what you’re seeing is the best Sihanoukville has to offer in terms of beaches. The heat is fairly intense and it’s what keeps me hanging around near the hotel with its air conditioned rooms rather than out walking or exploring on foot. That and having a moto right outside waiting for you to jump on and ride whenever you want to go anywhere. Unfortunately, due to my inactivity and the large amount of beer I've consumed of late, I've gained some weight and will have a devil of a time getting in shape for tennis this spring. Note to Doug: I put the pedometer in my pack during the first week on the bikes in Thailand. It's still there ;-(


Two views of Samdech Hun Sen Beach

We want to head back to Thailand soon but have heard about a huge political rally scheduled for this coming weekend in Bangkok. In order to get back to Chiang Mai I must go through Bangkok while Albert will fly back to Alaska from there as well. We want to miss that rally because it will cause endless congestion and traffic in a place that under the best of circumstances, has a major traffic problem.

Sihanoukville sunset from our hotel balcony