Sihanoukville

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SV Serendipity 1Last time I visited Sihanoukville was over 10 years ago when there was still a civil war going on in Cambodia. In a sign of change for the better, at the point in the trip where drivers used to speed up to cross Pich Nil Mountain because the area was subject to attacks, our tour bus from Phnom Penh stopped to make offerings at a shrine to Ya-Mao, an intriguing local deity.

(One) Legend has it, Ya-Mao was the wife of a village chief and fisherman who, tired of being Stung Hau phallic shrineseparated from her husband, set off by boat to visit him at sea. She and all on board perished in a terrible storm, but her spirit was so strong, her presence was felt returning to the coast. She’s revered as the patron and protector of travellers and fisherfolk on Cambodia’s southern coast and people make offerings of phallic symbols and bananas at shrines erected (pun intended) in her honour.

Wat Krom, Ya-Mao shrineOpinion is divided on the rationale for the phallic objects: some say she still craves what she longed for from her husband; a more sinister reading suggests she blames men for her demise and and is thus pleased by severed phalluses; others say she is ‘too old’ for any of that and can be sated with bananas. Whatever the case, she’s a powerful presence: there’s even a shrine to her at Wat Utynieng (aka Wat Krom) in Sihanoukville.

Sihanoukville today is unrecognisable to me, but a decade of ‘development’ will do that. Roo and I are at odds about the place. I find the beaches of Serendipity and Ochheuteal pretty depressing with their wall-to-wall bars, restaurants and guesthouses, jet skis and banana boats, and seemingly endless stream of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and grilled squid, to manicures, pedicures, massages and hair removal services — not to mention the beggars and street kids. Roo reckons it’s just like any beach in the region, only with more amputees. He’s probably right.

Family shot on Ochheuteal beachWe’re staying at the Ochheuteal Beach Bungalows, which serve our purposes well, with two double-beds in the room and a balcony out front. We’re about 100 metres from the beach, near enough for a quick walk to swim and/or eat a BBQ dinner on the sand, but far enough not to be kept awake by doof music and fireworks. The balcony is not so ambient when the locals burn their rubbish downwind of us, and the toilet keeps bubbling suspiciously as if the sewerage system isn’t keeping up with the tourist numbers… But there I go, bitching about progress again! Sihanoukville is a welcome change of pace, and Tash loves being at the beach.

Yesterday we headed away from the main beaches to do some sightseeing by tuk-tuk. I’d planned an itinerary around town, but Roo upped the ante by suggesting we visit Stung Hau village “where the rusting remains of Cambodia’s communist navy lie abandoned”, according to the Lonely Planet.

St Michael's Church, SihanoukvilleWe started at St Michael’s Church, a distinctive and beautiful building designed by Vann Molyvann, based on elements of fishing boat design — such as a prow-shaped roof line and brickwork like wicker baskets. Two Dominican nuns, Sisters Philomena and Juliana from the Philippines and South Korea respectively, were mopping the floor when we visited. They said this was the only church not razed by the Khmer Rouge because it was such a ‘good’ — i.e. secure — building. The KR used it as their HQ from 1975-79 (the guidebook says a prison, but nuns wouldn’t lie), before it was taken over by the Cambodian government as a storage facility. In the early 1990s, the former bishop, a Frenchman now retired to Sihanoukville, negotiated a deal in which the Church paid for a new government building in exchange for St Michael’s. Today the church is in pristine condition and has an active, mostly Vietnamese congregation, a Thai priest, and Sunday masses in Khmer and English.

From St Michael’s we meandered north to the Port of Sihanouk Ville, stopping to take photos at the railway station — Tash likes trains — and other sights along the way. We followed the coast road from the port northeast around the Gulf of Kompong Som. For most of the drive there was only fives metres between us, white sand and the water’s edge on one side of the road, clusters of fishing villages on the other. The last stretch was a drag when the road veered inland, but after 45 dusty, bumpy minutes, we finally found Stung Hau. The communist naval remains — if there are still any — eluded us, but it was fascinating to see the Cambodian fishing villages, some with homes built out over the water and connected by narrow wooden walkways; others little more than shacks by the roadside, every one of them containing a small shrine. At the end of the jetty in Stung Hau there was also an impressive Ya-Mao shrine with phallic objects of stone and wood.

Besides, Stung Hau will always be special for me because, as we skidded a long a dirt road towards the water, Tash took my face in her hands and said, ‘I love you Mummy’ for the first time. Later that evening she told Roo, ‘I love you Daddy. Good night. See you in the morning.’ She was terrific during a rough trip that we felt sure would make her feral. She sang ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ along the way at the top of her voice–the latter learned at childcare and coming out as “Muff blah blah Dragon blah blah blah blah autumn mist blah blah blah blah OH!” We also had our first experience of ‘tuk-tuk milky’: a breastfeed in the back of a moving motorcyle taxi!

Anyway, we all made it back to Sinahnoukville in good spirits, where I directed Thien our driver to take us to my surprise (for Roo) lunch venue, ‘Snake House’, a Russian restaurant-cum-herpetarium set in a lush tropical garden. Tash and I were particularly taken
with the Indochinese Spitting Cobra… I won’t say much more about the place here in case any Snake House tableof our readers get the chance to visit ‘Snake House’ one day (highly recommended) as I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, except to say make sure you get a seat at one of the glass-topped tables that also functions as a terrarium. There’s nothing like being eyed by a live snake while you tuck into a bowl of varenicki.

Click here for more photos.

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2 Responses to “Sihanoukville”

  1. Helen Morgan Says:

    Photos, yes please! How wonderful of Tash to say I love you. I hadn’t thought about that to date – any words would be welcome, but that will now be something to mark when it happens.

  2. Mike Aquino Says:

    Snake House – what an interesting dining experience! I like the idea of having lunch next to a snake who’s contemplating having you for lunch too. 😉

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