An Unexpected Slice of Island Life

We knew nothing about Sihanoukville, a beach town on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, other than the fact that a friend of Riccardo’s from Montreal, Kylie, lived somewhere near there. With a heads up to Kylie that we were on our way, we boarded the bus southwest from Phnom Penh.

On arrival at the guest house he’d suggested, we promptly got online and read up on our latest destination. The reviews were bleak. Sihanoukville is a relatively new city, cleared out of jungle to create a new port in the 50s, and added to the tourist circuit only about 15 years ago on account of its proximity to some lovely white sand beaches. None of the ancient pagodas or French colonial homes we’d seen elsewhere in Cambodia could be found here – what we observed instead was a gritty town home to a healthy prostitution industry, scores of jovial Russian mobsters, and most distressingly, children as young as eight wandering the streets at night huffing glue out of plastic bags…

On our first day in Sihanoukville, after a tasty and typically Khmer breakfast of sai bach chrouk (rice and grilled pork), we ventured out to explore. The afternoon was whiled away on a small swath of sand known as Sokha Beach, the original inhabitants of which we later found out were violently evicted to make way for a sprawling resort where a beer, incidentally, costs $7 USD. Ric arranged with Kylie that we’d go out to meet him where he was – the island of Koh Rong. To get there, we needed to hitch a ride on a diving boat to another island, Koh Rong Samloen, and he’d meet us there and bring us the rest of the way. Without the slightest idea of what to expect, we happily agreed to this plan.

From the noodle shop on Koh Rong Samloen, where we spent a few minutes just staring out in awe

The next morning, a two-hour boat trip took us from surly Sihanoukville to the extraordinarily idyllic island of Koh Rong Samloen – we stepped off the pier slowly and with awed faces. Kylie was only due to arrive in the afternoon, so we spent our time eating noodles in the tiny sandy village, watching a vigorous water fight between some adorable village kids, chatting with the few other visitors we encountered, and goofing off on a perfectly tiny, secluded, screensaveresque beach.

That's me out there

You might recall that our recent and exciting engagement did not feature a ring; Riccardo wisely hadn’t wanted to bring an expensive ring on the long trip. But there, in the clear and soupy warm bay and under a scorching sun, he pulled a little red box from the pocket of his swim trunks. Somehow, in the limited time we’d spent apart, he had found an intermediate ring for me to wear until we get home to Montreal (that is, besides the marriage-symbolizing anklet I’ve been sporting since India). It was a very romantic moment, the details of which I won’t bore you with!

Actual, real-life heart-shaped stone spotted on the beach right after the whole ring thing

Kylie arrived at 3pm as promised. We found him sitting at the noodle shop with a small assembly of his colleagues who would become our housemates for the weekend: a bubbly Hawaiian-German girl called Maya; a gentle and shaggy-haired Thai-English boy, Louis; and a pair of loud, brash constantly bickering (though not dating) Americans – Chrissie from North Carolina, and Zak from Oregon. They were all enthusiastic enjoyers of a drink or two, and we instantly liked them all. We picked up a few more Klangs for the boat ride, during which we all got better acquainted. The scenery as we sped across the bay could scarcely be described – the kind of surroundings that make you glad to be alive.

Docking at Kylie's. Yes, people really live in such spectacular places.

A beautiful day in the neighbourhood

But it would get even better. Docking at the pier in front of Kylie’s place was slightly surreal. He lives in a stilted wooden house directly above the green waters of the Gulf, which can be seen through the slats in the floor (we were advised to avoid such tasks as changing sim cards over it). His home and the adjoining ones of his neighbours comprise a very small village; only about 15 or 20 homes, if that. The common pier joining the homes serves as a sort of social hub – we watched shirtless men fishing or reeling wheelbarrows of goods from the pier, relaxed women chatting with each other, and mischievous little boys pulling the hair of crying baby sisters as the sun sank. A trio of adorable little girls befriended us, joining their hands in a polite greeting before giggling and demanding to be carried or piggybacked up and down the pier with sweet expressions no human being could consider denying.

Late afternoon

Beware shrewd manipulation via extreme cuteness

We're no sunset junkies, but this one's not bad

Kylie’s beautiful wife Tuit, whom he married in December, was a lot of fun and a most welcoming hostess. She whipped up a princely feast for dinner, including curries of pork and tomatoes, chicken and morning glory, fried eggs, grilled fish, and rice. All we could do was grin stupidly and repeat the word “arkun” – thank you (she doesn’t speak English, and our Khmer skills are dismal). After dinner, leftovers were scraped directly into the water where they were promptly gobbled up by hundreds of tropical fish.

We all walked around the corner to a restaurant/bar type establishment for some beers and Kalaka with Coke imbibed in the Cambodian style – that is, two shot glasses are passed around the table so that two at a time take a drink and the rest of the group can offer encouragement. The Khmers who had joined us were happy to explain the local custom for cheers-ing – touching one’s left hand to one’s right arm during the gesture indicates friendship, the degree of which is determined by the particular location touched on the arm. To denote a higher level of respect, one touches the bottom of the glass. This should be done frequently; indeed, any time anyone feels like taking a drink; and must be accompanied by a rousing shout of “ch-moy!” Quite a lovely, if complex system.

Kylie and Tuit

Waking up and seeing the ocean beneath one’s feet is an experience I wish for each of you. We spent a blissful day at Kylie’s, beginning with a breakfast of noodle soup at the same place we’d ended the night before, a lazy morning on the pier, and a brilliant lunch courtesy of Tuit. Those who know me will be surprised to hear that I then accepted Kylie’s offer to take us out to try some scuba diving. As we suited up and picked out masks and fins, I secretly regretted leaving our emergency supply of Atavans in our big bags back on the mainland – but Kylie and Zak’s calming reassurances kept the panic at bay.

Scuba gear being readied for our maiden voyage

We jetted out to a lovely spot near a reef, and jumped into the shallow water (well, I nervously eased into it). Zak accompanied Riccardo, who has never dived before either but was a quick study, and Kylie took on the gargantuan task of giving me a crash course. My intense fear of being underwater was swiftly, if temporarily, conquered as I practiced breathing with the regulator. Before too long I was deemed ready to go for an actual swim (with Kylie beside me). For thirty glorious minutes, I was able to suspend my assumption that I was about to meet a watery death. We floated through reefs resembling futuristic cities, giant clams, waving sea worms, tiny hermit crabs, and millions of fishes. We didn’t go far down, only about 13 feet – probably because I would have instantly lost it if we had. But it was a fantastic introduction to a magical and addictive world, and I just might try it again sometime.

No actual photos of our diving experience were possible, but here's a rendering of what it may have looked like

In the late afternoon, we jumped on motorbikes and rode around the island; a terribly bittersweet experience. Much of the area we could reach by road is uninhabited now – we came across a few tiny farms, a couple of people, and one large water buffalo. But the very fact that the road exists is an indication of what’s to come – we’re told a bidding war is on right now and development for tourism will start soon. It was amazing to see the place in its “before” state, but tragic to think it won’t be this way for long.

Getting back on the bikes after reaching the end of the road

Someone had the bright idea to go by boat around the island to the side where development has already started – ironically, in search of pizza. The fresh-faced Khmer boatman Kylie employs was happy to take us on the 45-minute journey, as his girlfriend lives there (normally a 2-hour motorbike drive for him!). We piled in with a cooler of Klangs and headed out, singing and laughing and getting soaked by the waves. Once there, we found a smattering of restaurants and $5/night bungalows on the beach – a charming atmosphere that will also be lost within a few years. We walked along the dark shore until we found pizza, and walked back afterwards for drinks. I was surprised to see “hot shots” listed on the shot menu, and after clarifying that the ingredients were the same as what we’re used to at home, we ordered a round. Sadly, the espresso wasn’t quite hot enough, and worse, the Galliano was actually Sambuca. Not quite the same! Slight homesickness ensued – only slight.

The next day, Louis came out to us as we were chilling out on the back deck, and in his gentle English accent, told us something “massively bad has happened, in my suitcase”. His face betrayed his worry and horror. As it turned out, a rat had taken refuge in his luggage and given birth to a litter of ratlings (ratlets?) amidst his clothes! To our dismay, Louis’ suitcase also happened to be in the room we’d been sleeping in – the event was minorly helpful in dissuading the sadness we felt at leaving the island! Riccardo took a photo, but I’ll spare you.

A melancholy farewell to the island

Kylie and Tuit joined us for the two boat rides back to Sihanoukville since Tuit had an appointment there. A tuk-tuk wasn’t available so we hopped on motos to take us into town from the pier (each couple got on one, uncomfortably wedged behind the driver). That night the four of us had a leisurely dinner and opted against venturing out into the unsavoury jungle of Sihanoukville nightlife. Riccardo had some work to catch up on, so he spent much of the following day at the computer while I checked out the miserable town on foot and indulged in too many banana-chocolate milkshakes. There was time for cocktails and one more dinner with Kylie and Tuit (we chose an Italian spot, and had surprisingly decent gnocchi) before almost missing our night bus to Siem Reap and the next adventure.

Kylie and Tuit's kittens, Supercat and Batman, devour some leftover rice

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