While my just-completed three days in Phnom Penh had always been on my to-do list, my real interest in escaping to Cambodia for Songkran was to visit Sihanoukville, a beach resort that everyone who’d been there said was great, and one that everyone who hadn’t been there said they’d heard was great. I planned a week there. This is a tale of how good, and how frustrating, “Snooky” can be.
Located 230km (143 miles) southwest of the capital, Sihanoukville is most often reached from Thailand via bus and ferry from Koh Kong, one of the world’s finest shitholes. The grueling journey that combines Thai transport with ferries and Khmer mini-buses is what put me off in the past. The idea of taking one large air-conditioned coach from Phnom Penh in just under five hours actually made the trip appealing.
As it turns out, there are multiple bus lines that run almost hourly to Sihanoukville. The public bus, from PP’s Central Market, is just $4. Too lazy to find out where to catch it, however, I booked a $7 ride on a private company called Paramount at the travel agency next to the Paragon. It turned out I should have asked around which company was best.
Being the Khmer New Year, the buses would all be full and even two days in advance my preferred 8:45 a.m. trip was sold out. I opted for the 9:45 a.m. and the agent booked me into Seat 3, which she said was good because it was at the front. She failed to mention the first row has no leg room, not a minor detail on a five-hour trip.
Away We Go
Monday the 13th dawned too early for me at 8 a.m., having tossed out my short-time girlfriend at around 2. I had planned to get up early, pack, have a leisurely breakfast and grab an unhurried tuk-tuk to the bus station about five minutes away. What I actually had was a lie-in until 8:45, a quick throw-together of my things and a rushed (and substandard) Eggs Benedict at the Hope and Anchor and a harried moto-ride to the station at 9:40 a.m.
Turns out I needn’t have rushed. The bus staff was still loading several motorbikes into the cargo hold of the bus, along with my bag. I was handed my bag-claim ticket and settled into my smallish seat. The bus left at 10 a.m.
The road to Snooky is said to be one of Cambodia’s best. And while it was smooth, if a little bouncy at times, it is only two lanes. The driver spends the entire trip with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the horn, scaring to the red earth shoulder the millions of motorbikes carrying two or three helmetless people. Get rid of the bikes and the trip would be an hour shorter. It also occurred to me that the shoulders were wide enough in most places that the government could have plans to widen the road. That’d be a good thing.
Leg cramps and the 7-foot Khmer guy in the seat next to me made sleep pretty much impossible, but the view out the windows was actually worth staying awake for. For anyone who has been upcountry in Thailand or in similar places, the scenery will be nothing new. But for me, it was a first-time in the village/jungle experience. The city quickly falls away and is replaced by rice paddies as far as you can see. The countryside is amazingly flat, with nothing on the horizon and few if any structures to be seen from the road.
Taking it in was lovely and bizarre at the same time, as the bus line’s choice of movie for the first half of the journey was “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” Seeing a young Sylvester Stallone blowing up legions of Asian people in countryside identical to what I saw out the window bordered on the surreal. And listening to Sly speak Khmer simply weirded me out.
At just past the two-hour mark we pulled into a roadside market for a much needed leg stretch and watering. For the first (and only) time in Cambodia, I was charged less than $1 for a Coke. (50 cents to be exact.) And it was even cold. There were a number of vendors selling very strange stuff they called food, but I passed. Twenty minutes later we were under way again.
Back on the road, the flat land and rice fields gave way to jungle and small mountains shrouded by gray thunderheads marked the horizon. Then, about an hour before arriving, houses, then shops, then towns started popping up along the road. At first they were the most primitive of wooden dwellings, on stilts with no windows and no running water. But soon sturdier buildings appeared and then, every once in a while, a palatial western-style house surrounded by fence and well-tended yard. Call me cynical, but I’d bet my bus ticket some woman once connected to a bar lived there on farang money.
At just past 2:30 p.m. the ocean came into view and, soon after, hoardes of overpriced tuk-tuk and moto drivers waiting for foreign bus passengers to be fleeced for rides into town. I grabbed my bag and found a decent moto driver who took me to the hotel for $1,50, just 50 cents over the correct rate I found out later. Tuk-tuks were asking $4 for the $2 ride.
The Coast with the Most
Sihanoukville has a number of beaches, but the one you want to stay on is Serendipity, the northern section of Occheuteal Beach. There are lots of accommodations options, some of which are actually free. Many bungalows can be had for $7-$10 with hotel fan rooms for $20-$25.
I’m not into backpacker travel and the humidity in Sihanoukville made me glad I’d booked an air-conditioned room at Coasters. Located at the far end of the beach, Coasters is one of the few hotels that actually can sit literally on the beach. Further down the government forced all the guesthouses off the beach. Now the bars that once had rooms upstairs had to either shutter them or convert them into staff accommodations.
I grumbled throughout my stay at the $35 a night room rate, but I saw nothing else comparable at the price. The water literally is less than 30 yards from the check-in counter and the hotel is extremely quiet at night. The room was big, with two double beds, aircon, fan, a very good hot shower, lots of cable TV channels and even a dedicated foot washer for all that pesky sand. (The sand is such a pain that a broom is placed in every room.) There’s also a restaurant and Internet cafe on site with decent, if slightly expensive, food. I ended up eating there only twice, however.
The only real jolt I had checking in was when I sat my bag down and noticed one of the outer pockets was unzipped. Seems the Paramount bus staff decided to clean out that luggage pocket in transit. Upon telling Coasters’ Irish proprietor what line I used he informed me they’d long ago dropped Paramount for poor service and sticky fingers. (I was to discover a week later that one of the items taken from that pocket was my set of house keys, leaving me locked out when I returned.)
Checked-in, I beat a hasty path to my room and a much-needed toilet break, followed by an even more-needed shower. Even for a five-year Thailand resident, the humidity was oppressive, even if the temperature was a couple degrees lower than Bangkok on that day. If you come to Snooky, bring lots of t-shirts. Next stop was lunch downstairs. While delicious, $6.50 for a burger, fries and Diet Coke was a bit much, in my opinion.
Lay of the Land
Fed and watered, it was time to start exploring, starting with the beachfront. There’s no road that runs along the water, so most places are most-easily reached via walking on the sand. And, it being 4 p.m., seems I’d just embarked upon my journey at happy hour. The funny thing is every beachfront bar pretty much operates the same way, with a covered bar area back from the water, rattan moon chairs on the sand and BBQ special.
Let me tell you, eating and drinking at night in Snooky is very cheap. Happy hour runs until 10 p.m. most places and large mugs of draft Anchor or Angkor beer is just 50 cents (That’s 18 baht to you swilling down the brew in Bangkok.)
TIP: The two local beers have nearly identical-looking names (and logos). Anchor is pronounced “Ann-Chore” and is better in cans. Angkor is most closely pronounced “En-Core” and seemed more tasty on draft.
The barbecue deal is even better: Your choice of (very tasty) fresh snapper, barracuda, jumbo prawns or squid, plus potatoes/rice/chips, salad and garlic bread is just $3. Big eaters (like me) can enjoy a whole (and huge) red snapper grilled to perfection in a sweet and sour glaze plus all the fixings for $5. The same fish meal in Pattaya would have been more than double that.
Then, of course, you have the pleasure of enjoying the cheap eats and drink sitting on a comfy beach chair feet from the waterline watching a brilliant pastel sunset. Not a bad way to spend the early evening.
Still amazed at the beer prices, I sent Bangkok Bad Boy an envy-inspiring text about it. His reply left me wishing I hadn’t:
“Fuck, that’s cheap! Are the girls any better there than here?”
I was too embarrassed to answer that I actually hadn’t seen an available Khmer woman yet.
Whiel sunsets and good food are peachy, I didn’t come to Snooky to just looky. My jaunt down the beach confirmed what I’d suspected: This place is a resort for loved-up couples, fat English and Australian women traveling in packs and backpackers. The bars this time of night were devoid of not only Cambodian girls, but customers of any sort. I asked Jack of Jack’s Shack, one of the more popular beach bars, where all the people were between 6 p.m. and midnight. His reply? Eating, swimming or watching TV. Oh boy.
Although I’d done some research on where to find the women, it seemed I needed more intel. So it was back to the Internet cafe for more reading. I found some message board postings with more current information than I originally turned up and the news was grim. New Cambodia Rumor #2, which I confirmed a few days later, was that in February the Khmer government changed the laws to prohibit bars from having short-time rooms. Basically, you can have girls and you can have short-time rooms, but not both. A Phnom Penh bar owner told me a few days later the change has devastated his business and he’s let go 20 of the 25 women he had on the payroll.
In Snooky, it was even worse. New Cambodia Romor #3 says that Sihanoukville officials have also now outlawed barfines, though I was never able to confirm that.
Now left wondering what I’d gotten myself into, I headed back to the room, sleepy from beer, food and the long travel. Turned on the news to watch the Red Shirt Follies and some HBO then dozed for a while. Woke at midnight and decided to check out the beach bars. How to dress for a beachfront disco? Were Quality Fabrics required? No idea. So I simply threw on some shorts, polo shirt and my sandals and headed out.
A Sore Thumb
Things were easier to sort out now, as most bars were quiet and dimly lit and just three pumping out the tunes: Jack’s Shack, the Dolphin Shack and another shack to the left of Dolphin I never made it to. Jack’s was empty and even Jack wasn’t around to shoot the shit with, so I pulled up a bench at the bar at Dolphin and started in on the draft beer on the $1 cans of Anchor. (I was to learn later draft beer from 10 p.m. to midnight is just 25 cents and vodka drinks are $1 from midnight until 1 a.m.)
This was Monday the 13th, the official Khmer New Year’s Day and the mood was up. The bartenders had a couple of water guns which they occasionally squirted around. Normally adverse to water throwing at night, I was actually wishing they’d do more: The humidity was absolutely stifling and sweat was pouring off me and pretty much all the tall, young and beautiful white couples around the place. Seems I’d also underdressed. Even though the floor of the Dolphin Shack is sand and the dance floor a few slabs of sandy concrete, woman were dolled up in dresses and guys were in long-pants with closed shoes. A small number of people were in the casual mode, but the next night I did put on some jeans, with sandals.
As the place continued to fill up, it was 95% white girls and a few below-average Khmer girls. But what was particularly striking was how the mongers in the crowd stood out like a sore thumb. There was me, obviously alone and 20 years older than most the crowd. Next to me was an even older Scandi named Jan, very drunk and decked out in his finest Thailand tank top with sweat and beer dripping off his white goatee. Not sure which way Jan swings, but when he shook hands with me, he exclaimed “such strong hands!”and wouldn’t let go. Once freed, I got up and moved. But later, I saw him crashing in flames trying to pick up on a couple attractive 20-something Aussie girls. So who knows.
In all, there were about six of us among the pretties, all looking kind of pathetic. I was ready to pack it in for the night, but decided more alcohol might improve the outlook.
Finally, about 1:30 the Khmer girls started in arrive in numbers and, beer goggles or no, there were more than a few hotties. Where the hell were they until now? Many hang at the Freedom Bar across from the bus station, but as I was to find out the next night, many of them do not.
Being New Year’s, most the girls were more interested in water/powder play than foreplay. One sad bloke, who I was to see alone, miserable and trying to attract the attention of one particular whore every night that week, was doing his best to drag over any brown-skin he could grab onto, without much success. The real hotties zeroed in on the young bucks in the crowd. I simply sat back to check out the scene to see how it worked.
I finally caught the attention of a cutie in jeans and tight-fitting t-shirt as she came to the bar to order more beers. Enough conversation passed that I finally invited her back to the room, but she said she just wanted to celebrate New Year’s. Ten minutes later I saw her heading out with another guy with less hair and, obviously, more money than me.
Turns out, however, that while I’d been chatting her up, I noticed her friend, darker (not a plus in my book), but taller and more slender and looking very hot. Once her friend departed, I waved over her pal and, within minutes, she had me head out first and wait for her near the water. Seems that while she’ll pick up a customer occasionally, she’s still sensitive to people seeing her leave with one.
She was drunk, half-covered in powder and did not go willingly into the shower. But I’d be damned if all that dust was going to end up in my bed. And then, even though I told her “long time” she didn’t stay long. Our one round was a knockout. But as penalty for making an LT and ST, she was rewarded with a $10 note to only minor protests.
Closing the door after her, I was wondering if this is what my week in Snookyville was going to amount to: Waiting until 1 a.m. to start scouting girls, until 3 a.m. to get laid once and waking up alone. Surely, there had to be a another way?
There was, but you’ll have to wait until Part 4 to find out what it is.