The next morning we decided to go and see the Royal Palace because Sophan had seemed pretty concerned that we had chosen to see the War Crimes Museum instead of something that all Cambodians are proud of. We asked him to take us there right after breakfast and he looked delighted that we would not miss the beautiful palace. As we purchased our tickets we found that Jeong Ae was not going to be allowed to enter as she was wearing a sleeveless blouse. David and Jeong Ae hurried out the front gate to try and catch Sophan before he drove away, and found that he had conveniently parked across the street under a shady tree so they were able to get another top for her to wear. Once again, we congratulated ourselves on the decision to hire a van and driver rather than try and make our way everywhere by taxi.
The Royal Palace was very beautiful, but much of it was not open to the public because the King actually lives in the Palace. Much of the design and decoration of the buildings is like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but on a smaller scale. Still, there were touches of things that we could see that were different from Thailand, and it was a worthwhile visit. It was great to get out of the heat and intense sun, into our air-conditioned van for the four-hour trip to the coast at Sihanoukville.
As we headed down the highway to the southern part of Cambodia, we arrived at a toll booth. Sophan told us that this new road had been built by a foreign corporation and that this was the only toll highway in Cambodia. Just as we were about to pay the toll, two vehicles travelling in the opposite direction started honking their horns and the drivers started waving at us. Sophan called out to them and then told us that his wife and her brother were taking the shipment of "suits" back to Phnom Penh. We all looked over to the vans and to our surprise found them stuffed full of "shoes". At last the mystery was solved - he wasn't saying "suits" at all - he was trying to pronounce "shoes" - a word that is obviously a difficult one for native Cambodians. That explained how it was possible to carry 1200 items in one van. Great laughs ensued all round.
Sophan explained to us that this business with the shoes was a sideline that he and his wife's brother had developed and it was proving to be very worthwhile. His brother-in-law works as a translator at a Chinese shoe factory just outside of Sihanoukville. He earns about $200 per month (a factory worker makes about 80 per month, so his is a good job). However, through his connections at the factory, he has been able to purchase the "seconds" - shoes that do not pass the stringent standards for overseas export. He gets a shipment about once a month, and then his sister, Sophan's wife, comes to Sihanoukville and transports the shoes to the market vendors in Phnom Penh. We were really impressed with the entrepenurial spirit this displays. If all the Cambodians are this business-minded, they will be able to make great leaps in the future and perhaps begin to enjoy the higher standard of living that we see in Thailand and Vietnam. Even though the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1978, the country experienced continued violence and upheavals until the late 1990's. To think that there has only been peace for these people for the last several years is hard to believe.
One of the things that I haven't mentioned so far, is that the van that Sophan was driving had the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the vehicle. This would have been fine in Thailand, but in Cambodia they drive on the right-hand side of the road. This meant that Sophan's view of the oncoming traffic was very limited. Whoever sat in the front passenger seat had the unenviable job of letting Sophan know when he could overtake slower vehicles. I somehow usually ended up sitting behind the person riding shotgun, and couldn't help but shout out warnings when I thought we were about to perish. I still can't believe that I managed to travel all over Cambodia this way. Sophan is a very safe driver, as Anil assured me over and over. The traffic moves pretty slowly compared to North America, but still I was happy to arrive safely in Sihanouville and take a breather from the big job of "backseat driver".
I have to tell you about another great laugh we had along the way. On several occasions while driving in Cambodia, we had seen very large pigs all trussed up being taken to slaughter on the backs and sides of motorcycles. As cars are still very expensive for most Cambodians, a great deal of business is still carried out (literally) by motorbike. While driving along the highway to Sihanoukville, we spotted a motorbike with a very clean pig being carried in a bamboo cage instead of being tied up with rope and strapped upside down on the bike. I figured that this pig was probably being taken to be fattened up for a feast, but, just to be sure, I asked Sophan. Sophan speaks very limited English, but can usually make himself understood if we listen very carefully. He started to tell us that this was a "Man" pig and that he was being taken to a "Woman" pig for "f**king". I still didn't undertand what he was trying to say, and asked him if he meant "fattening". No, he said, it was for "f**king", and he said it two or three times, each time a little more loudly.
Well, Jeong Ae picked up on it before any of us did, and started howling with laughter. She was sitting beside me on the back seat, so fortunately, Sophan couldn't see how she was reacting. It took me quite a while to settle her down... and then we explained to Sophan that there were a few other words that he could use instead - mating being the best choice. David just piped in that this was a very "Lucky Pig", and even Sophan had a chuckle at that suggestion. Throughout the rest of our time in Cambodia and Vietnam, we still said "Lucky Pig" to each other when we needed a good laugh.
We arrived in Sihanoukville in the early afternoon and after making a quick survey of the city and the tourist beaches, Sophan drove us out to the far edge of the Occheuteal Beach to a small resort built on a point of rocky land. The Queen's Resort has several very basic bungalows built like traditional Khmer homes. They do have electricity and running water but no other modern conveniences. We were delighted to be in a quiet area with few other people around and the beach to ourselves. We quickly changed into our bathing suits and jumped into the Gulf of Thailand for a refreshing swim. It wasn't long before we noticed that the water was full of jellyfish, large and small, so we made our swim a quick one and moved into the beach cafe for a cold drink and a snack. The sun was just setting and you can see by the photos that the setting was wonderful.
After a quiet morning doing our exercises and stretching routine (we have been doing this faithfully since arriving in Bangkok and having our first Thai massage - we found we were so stiff we knew we had to work on limbering up) we went to the beach cafe for breakfast and another swim. This time there were no jellyfish at all and we stayed in the water for a long time. It was so early that neither David nor I thought to put on sunblock and later that evening found that we had sunburns. David's turned out to be much more intense than mine and days later his shoulders peeled completely. Sophan came to pick us up at noon and take us into Sihanoukville to find the Starfish Bakery.
Adia had travelled on her own in Cambodia in the fall of 2003 and had stumbled upon the Starfish Bakery in Sihanoukville. It is run by a couple of foreign women who are working with impoverished and disabled adults and children there. Adia spent some time teaching the children how to spin "poi" - I believe that poi is a Mauri sport from New Zealand that has caught on with young people all around the world. Adia wrote an article about her experience with these children and submitted it for publication in three separate magazines. It was accepted by all and she sent the proceeds to the Starfish Bakery as a donation. We were pretty impressed with the work they do there, and made a donation of our own.
Using the map of Sihanoukville as a guide, we explored all the various beaches in the area and then settled on the one nicknamed Serendipity Beach - the main one for all the backpackers. It is still the rainy season so there were tourists there, but it was relatively quiet. We found a nice beach cafe and settled into relaxation mode. We found the food to be excellent and the family that ran the cafe to be extremely kind and gracious. We stayed till after sunset and vowed to return the next day for more R&R. Sophan picked us up and drove us back to our deserted bungalow at the far end of the beach. That night we were the only guests at the hotel - it was a little eerie but we made the best of things by cranking up the volume on our ipod speakers and partying hearty.
Our last day at the beach was wonderful - we lazed the day away, swam a little, ate a lot and indulged in the cold drinks. As the day progressed we could see that something was up with the family that ran the cafe. Furniture was rearranged, balloons hung from every possible part of the ceiling of the palm thatched roof and great preparations were underway with the food. We finally asked what was happening and learned that the youngest son in the family was having a birthday and we were welcome to join in. It's times like this that you come to understand that people all over the world act in pretty much the same manner when there is something to celebrate in the family. By early evening the other guests had arrived and a great feast was laid out on the tables for all to enjoy. The guest of honour was none other that the little boy who had learned to make paper birds from David the previous day.
As it grew darker, the sand flies and mosquitoes began to swarm us - they especially like to chew on David, so we made our move to pack up our things and head back to our bungalows. The cake had not been served yet, so we were encouraged to stay a while longer so that we would not miss out. There was a great singing of the usual Happy Birthday song and then we were all given the first pieces of cake - a photo taken of each of us in turn as we were fed the cake. All the guests cheered us on our way, it was a great way to end our time in Sihanoukville.