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Preface from Ellen in Afton, Virginia, Thursday 18 December 2003

Dear family and friends,

When Ron emailed me a few days ago and said he was at the beach in Cambodia, in Sihanoukville, I looked at my National Geographic atlas, and I looked in our Lonely Planet guidebook covering Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and could not find any town by that name -- either on the coast or elsewhere in Cambodia. I emailed him back and said I couldn't find the town on the maps, but since Cambodia doesn't have very much coastline, I did know approximately where he was. Then I looked for Sihanoukville on the Web, and found lots of information, including a very detailed page put up by a citizens group there. One thing the Web search told me was that it is the third largest city in Cambodia. Surely it should be on the maps! Finally I found a Web page that told me why: Sihanoukville was known "in the old days as Kompong Som and is still called that by the older people and the Thais." Mystery solved: the town is also called Kompong Som in my 1990 atlas and the 1991 edition of the Lonely Planet guide. I guess the early 1990s are "the old days" -- after all, it is a new century now!

Love to all,

Ellen

Ron's travel report

Sihanoukville, Cambodia - Now where is that? - 18 December 2003

Dear Ellen,

You couldn't find Sihanoukville on the map? Perhaps you can follow my route of how I got here.

Originally I wanted to do a cross country trip from Hue, Vietnam across Laos, northern Thailand or southern China, across Burma to Bangladesh or Assam, India, and continue across northern India to Nepal. Burma was the country that blocked such a trip, so I decided to go there instead. In spite of reading the quotes from a German travel guide, it still appears impossible to enter or leave Burma (other than limited border areas) by land, so when I left Burma I flew to Bangkok. Now I am exploring the southern route across Thailand and Cambodia to meet up with my 1991 trip from Saigon to Phnom Penh.

Thailand, being a sensible country interested in promoting the tourist dollars for even the low-budget traveler, has made entry and travel easy, cheap and painless. There was no requirement for a visa in advance, and at the airport, for no cost, I was provided a 30 day visa, quickly and easy. After clearing customs it was very easy to find the tourist bus by just telling the taxi touts that I was looking for a bus, they just pointed me to the bus ticket stand, and for a couple of dollars and in less than five minutes, I was on my way to downtown Bangkok. The bus ends at the Ko San (Khaosan) Road area, the famous backpackers' ghetto, and right in front of the bus stop was a new hotel where I got a room for $12, with air conditioning, TV with movie and news channels, icebox, and in the lobby an Internet Cafe.

Bangkok is still a wonderful city, full of interesting sights, wonderful food, and heavy traffic congestion, but it seems to me to have made progress in its battle with air pollution, with all the cars looking new since I was here last. I only spent a night, long enough to eat some wonderful Thai food (Pad Thai of course!) and get my camera chips contents put on CDs.

Because I got distracted by the food, I didn't get back to the photo store before they closed and I had to wait until 9 the next morning to reclaim my chips and CDs. This caused me to get a later bus to the border than I had intended, resulting in the border closing before I got there. Agh...the life of a traveler.

But some of the things I have learned about traveling are flexibility and opportunity. When I bought my bus ticket at the eastern bus station in Bangkok, I was also given a flyer for a ticket to Koh Chang, and on the back of the flyer was a map of the Trat area, the ferries to Khang Island, and a map of the western portion of the island. From what I had read and what I could see, I really didn't have any desire to spend the night in Trat where the bus stops, so I asked a young European couple about Koh Chang and they said they were coming from there and gave me the names of two bungalows at White Sands Beach: KC and Cookie. I negotiated with a taxi (not a truck and not a motorcycle, but something in between) to take me to the Cen'Point Ferry (from the map on my little flyer), and got there in time to catch the last ferry to Koh Chang (Koh is the Thai word for island). After getting off the ferry there appeared to be only one taxi available, and he wanted to know where I wanted to go. So I said KC at White Sands, but really having no idea where I was going. White Sands was not on my map, and I was told by one person that the beaches I was pointing to on my little flyer were 3 or 4 hours away. In any case, within 15 minutes I was dropped on at the KC Resort, which turned out to be a place with about 40 small bungalows for about $7 per night. They were on raised wooden floors, with bamboo mat walls, large enough to hold a large mattress with a mosquito net suspended from the ceiling. There was a light bulb above and enough left over floor space to walk and put my things. There was a large shared bathroom area with private stalls for toilets and showers. Far more primitive than anything I had experienced in Burma.

Later I walked up the beach, and it was packed with restaurants and bars right on the beach. Cookies bungalows actually had plaster walls and seemed to be much nicer than KC, but of course more expensive. I also found very expensive and upscale accommodations.

I think Koh Chang would be an interesting place to come and explore. Motor scooters are available for rent and this would probably be the way to explore the island. The beach was beautiful. At night in front of the restaurants people were hanging out, listening to music and drinking while sitting on blankets or fancy mats, with little tables with candles, right on the white sand beach. I joined a group of Germans, one of whom wanted to tell me loudly and clearly how wrong our policy in Iraq was, and even though I kept telling him I agreed with him, he still continued.

The next morning I enjoyed the beach and then in the afternoon caught a shared taxi to the ferry and then back to Trat where I caught the shared van to the border for the fixed price of 100 B, about $2.50, which took about an hour and a quarter. (the four hour air conditioned bus from Bangkok to Trat took 5 and a quarter hours and cost $12).

Clearing the Thailand border was a breeze. Entering Cambodia I was immediately followed by touts wanting to know where I was going, what transportation they could sell me, etc. I ignored them the best I could but they followed me through the entire customs process, telling each other information they could get by listening to me and the border guards. The first station had me fill out a SARs questionnaire and then wanted a dollar for services rendered. I smiled and asked: "What services?" He smiled back and waved me on to the next station. A woman then took my passport and had me fill out an application for a Cambodian visa. She then wanted 1200 B, about $25 for the $20 dollar visa. I handed her a $20 bill and showed her the contents of my wallet, smiling and explaining that the passport was American, not Thai, and that I didn't have 1200 B. She smiled back, took the $20 and asked for 200 B. I smiled back and said that the visa cost $20 and what was the other 200 B for? She smiled back and gave up, and passed my passport on to the next person, who stamped my visa in my passport. After I was all cleared, I turned around and gave a couple of nice new shiny pennies to the woman and the last man, and they were very surprised and appreciative of the good luck token. We all smiled and I went on, still ignoring the touts who had been following me through the entire process. I found a van that was dropping off a load of tourists coming from Phnom Penh, and negotiated with him a ride to Koh Kong for the same rate as a motor scooter would cost, 50 b, about $1.25). The touts insisted that I pay 100 B (I think to include their commission), but I persisted and paid only 50 B.

Obviously I had read a lot about this border crossing and knew the correct prices and procedures. It was enjoyable using my bits of knowledge and watching the reactions of the people when they knew that I knew what the situation was. In my opinion they smiled more and respected me, even if it meant less money for them. Again, I spread a few new pennies around to their delight.

By using the van I avoided the next scam which was for the motor scooters to transfer you to small boats instead of using the new bridge to Koh Kong.

The ferry to Sihanoukville leaves at 8 in the morning, so I enjoyed dinner at Otto's, sunset along the harbor, and explored the village of Koh Kong. The weather can be rough for the last hour of the 4 hour trip, but my experience was very calm. The boat (I saw several similar) was built for river traffic, but is used on open water, so I guess there is some risk involved.

Koh Kong and Sihanoukville have been my introduction to Cambodia, and they are very different from what I experienced in Cambodia in 1991. I like the people and I have found good accommodations and restaurants, with my favorite being a Vietnamese restaurant named Pho where I can get good Pho Bo and Pho Gai ('pho' is soup, 'bo' is beef and 'gai' is chicken). I have met many Europeans (mostly well tanned and traveled couples) and Australians (mostly single guys), but no Americans yet.

After sitting on the beach to finish my book, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I was walking down the beach and noticed a young lady reading Setting Free the Bears by John Irving. Since I loved his other books, which I tried to remember as I walked on (World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany), I turned around and walked back and asked her if she would like to trade books when she finished. She (Canadian) was about half way through the book and explained that she was leaving in about an hour to catch the ferry to Koh Kong, but she asked me about the book I was trading. She considered it, and then said she didn't really like the one she was reading and would just trade it now. We exchanged email addresses and will compare our opinions later.

As I wander around the area I have looked at a lot of different places to stay -- and there are lots. Most backpackers are staying in accommodations costing between $5 and $10. One of the benefits about traveling when I am older is that I can afford to spend a bit more, and I have been staying in places costing generally between $10 and $15. The air conditioning, hot water, HBO, CNN, BBC, and generally larger and cleaner rooms makes my travels a bit more comfortable than when I was a true backpacker. But I still enjoy hanging out in places where I have more contact with the long-term travelers who generally spend less per day than I do.

After traveling for two and a half months, it feels good to slow down and spend some time sitting and reading on the beach, just sort of hanging out, meeting people, and enjoying the seafood and Vietnamese Soup.

I am in no hurry, but will probably go to Phnom Penh in the next few days, but may return for more time at the beach.

The news channels here seem to be full of news about the capture of Saddam, and the discussion of how to give him a fair trial. I can not keep from wondering how the current administration will accept a fair trial by an independent court, where all the background about how we armed and supplied him as our friend with his chemical and wmd supplies while he was fighting Iran and committing all the genocide and atrocities. Our friends can do no evil, while our enemies can do no good, but keeping track of who has which status at the moment is not easy. But can't you just see him testifying how we gave him the ability to do the things we are trying him for?

Perhaps my next trip should be to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan? By the time I get there, backpacker hotels and restaurants should be opening up.

Ron

 

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