Crossing the border was a bit nerve-wracking. I wasn't sure if we'd have to pay more than we were supposed to or how the border police would act toward us, but all was well and we paid exactly what I thought we should. There were many people who wanted to "help" us with our bags and paperwork, for a fee of course. But they don't tell you that until after it's already done. Only one time did two guys start filling out an item of paper work for us and then just as we started to get in our cab, they asked for payment, which I refused. I never asked them to help and they never said they were doing it for money. We just got in the cab and drove to our hotel which was surprisingly nice and we knew the cabbie was asking for more money than was reasonable, but in most cases, that just happens and there's not much one can do about it. Plus, when you figure how much extra they are asking for, it begins to feel ridiculous to argue over the 100 Baht or whatever the extra amount is, (100 baht is about 3 bucks) and then you figure they could use the money a lot more than we can.... so I'm gonna haggle over a buck-fitty? The cabbie was asking for 300 Baht; we looked at the visa agents and they were smiling, so we knew we were getting ripped off. When the cabbie left the room for a minute, I asked them how much would be fair, and one of them told me to give him 200. Well, I think 100 would've been fair for a local, given how far it ended up being (not far at all), but I wasn't going to pay the guy who just started filling out some paper work for me outside a visa office. So it's been interesting dealing with money here in SE Asia. In fact, the town we stayed in that night used 3 currencies: US dollars, Thai Baht, and Cambodian Riel. All 3 were used by locals at most shops in the town. I even ended up paying for our first Tuk-Tuk ride in Sihanoukville, our eventual next destination(pronounced See-un-nook-ville), with all 3 currencies because I didn't have enough in either of them. :) Well, some of the bills I had he couldn't make change for, so he ended up getting a mish-mash of bills.
But our first night in Koh Kong was pretty fun. We met some people going to Sihanoukville with us the next day on the speedboat and some locals who were hanging out at the hotel's restaurant where we decided to eat after our long day of travelling. We talked a little of Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge was mentioned as well. Actually, we've had a few conversations with Cambodians, and they seem to be willing to talk about the insanity that gripped the country during those tough years. I thought they wouldn't have wanted to talk about it out of fear or shame or just the desire to put it in the past, but again, I was wrong. About Buddhism though, one of the guys we were talking with, said that us westerners have a strange conception of Buddhism: that we all think that Buddhists have to be monks. He said, he was buddhist and wasn't a monk. He had smoked, drank, had sex, and lived a pretty "regular" life (whatever that means). He said most of Cambodia was Buddhist but only a small % were monks. The Buddha does say that one shouldn't intoxicate oneself with things like alcohol, so there is a bit of a disconnect there but Jews aren't supposed to eat Bacon either...so I think it's more that most people don't live their lives so strictly. Really, who knows how religion really works within individuals; Christianity is supposed to be about loving thy neighbor, and well, we know how that story has gone down many times in history. But, all that aside, we ended up playing poker with them (for no money) and having a really fun night.
We had to wake up early, and we took our first motobike rides to the speed boat, which would be a 4 hour ride. We chose to sit on top of the boat because downstairs, which had the advantage of chairs, seemed kinda sticky and crowded, so we opted for the top of the boat, despite the strong sun. There were handrails toward the front of the boat but not in the back, and there were about 20 people who mostly stayed to the front (I assume because of the handrails.). All of a sudden, I realized this is not something you'd see in the US. The boat company would probably make us sign a waiver or something or just not have those "seats" available. But, of course, we made it to Sihanoukville unscathed, and only slightly crispy only to redden a bit as the night continued. We heard Sihanoukville was an up-and-coming destination, but we never would've guessed it was going to be hard to find a room on the beach. There were at least 20 places; some with more rooms than others. Our place had about 5 rooms for rent ($12/night and yes, it was clean and very pleasant, except we had to walk quite a bit to get up there). The whole time we were there, we saw people asking for rooms and being denied over and over and told to come back and ask tomorrow morning around check-out time. Actually, the first couple we saw get rejected was on our boat from Koh Kong, so if we had been about 20 minutes slower, we wouldn't have gotten our room with the nicest family, a great roofdeck, and the wonderful view it provided of the beach.
After we checked into our room, we went downstairs to the hotel's restaurant on the beach and ordered some food. In Sihanoukville, there are tons of kids/young adults who try to sell their wares all day up and down the beach. Some offer fruits, some hair-braiding, some massages, and some offer little trinket type things like bracelets or necklaces. I even saw one kid just sit down with a bunch of guys who were messing around with him a bit, and he just sat down and joined them in their conversation for a long time. So as we sit down to eat, these two girls come over to us and start trying to push their wares on us. We just say, "No thank you," and more or less expected them to leave. Well, these girls were professionals. Professionals, I tell you. They ended up pulling out all the stops. They wouldn't take "No" for an answer. They offered their bracelets, we said No. There were two of them, each working one of us, and they spoke English well, so we could really converse with them. They offered necklaces, we said No. Then, they offered the bracelets again, but this time as anklets; again, No. "Oh, mister, you read....then how about a bookmark?" Again, No thanks. Then, my girl started working me, telling me I should by something for my wife -- No -- ok, then for your little brothers or sisters -- No -- Ok, then maybe little cousins? I finally just wanted my girl to leave me alone, so I said, "I'm sorry, I just don't want anything." She responds (no joke here, no exagerration), "I don't want your sorry's; I want your business." I was left speechless. This girl is 13 years old. Her partner was 12. I started chuckling and I just said, "I'm sorry, I just really don't want to buy anything right now." She replied, "Your sorry's don't pay my school bills." I'm not kidding, this little girl was gangster in her sales techniques. After she could see that I was amused and that her friend was talking to Laurie about her school, she told us that they had to pay $10/month for tuition and that they went to 3 schools: cambodian, English, and computer. She started to build rapport, look for sympathy, anything to close the sale. At one point not long after, she even said, "Just buy something and I'll leave you alone." To which I replied, "Have you ever heard of the Mafia?" From then on, we referred to the kids pushing their wares as the Cambodian Mafia, but none came close to rivalling the sales techniques of those two young girls. In the end, I got a bookmark and Laurie a bracelet, which they made for us while we ate, and the girls got 3 bucks each.
Our first morning/afternoon (we only stayed 3 nights), we went to check out the casino, since I read it was near our Hotel and it was on the way into town. So we head that way, into the Casino's Hotel, doors being opened for us like we're Royalty; we go through a metal detector into the casino. We look up: one guy at the slots immediately to our right, and everybody else staring at us. It was like the record had come to a screeching halt. When I say everybody, I mean all the employees working the cute casino floor. We were obviously shocked to see no other players at any of the tables or slots, save that one lonely guy. Has anyone ever been in an empty Casino before? 'Cause I sure haven't, and, actually, it was quite awkward. All the dealers and pit bosses were staring at us, smiling and hoping/waiting for us to sit down and play. I mean, there was NOBODY there; when we walked to the back of the room, a table of waiters and waitresses quickly stood up so it didn't look like they were loafing. The sight was very odd. If we had sat down and played and won just $50 or a hundred bucks, they'd probably be in the red for the day! We should've tried to play for that reason alone; how many people can say they made more than the Casino did on the same day? :-)
We checked out the rest of the town and found a couple of really cool places with great food, ambience and just a nice feel to them. One place was a used/new bookstore with a cafe in front called "Q&A." Sihanoukville is a pretty interesting place, but what was the most interesting was the money situation. First off, Laurie read that there wasn't even an ATM in Cambodia until about 4 years ago. In Sihanoukville, you pay in dollars (most prices are even quoted in dollars) and you get change in dollars and Riel. US coins, though, aren't accepted we found out. We even got US dollars from the ATM, of which there were 5 or more in the town by the way.
Sihanoukville's a nice beach town that isn't too overrun with tourists yet, but given our recent desires to learn more, it really wasn't the place for us even though it was super fun, cheap, and pretty. So, we move onto Phnom Penh.