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Cambodia

The Future of Sihanoukville, Cambodia and the Surrounding Areas

Joe raised his glass and shouted “To another season!!” and emptied it. Joe is the owner of Seagarden at Otres Beach near Sihanoukville, Cambodia and today is his birthday.

For the last year or so, Otres Beach has been under the threat of being completely removed. Currently 50-something laid back chilled beach establishments fills up the space – most of them run by expat westerners that found their happiness here. The staff is a mix of locals and westerners – the guests are all foreigners. This is a place where the beer is ice-cold, the weather is hot and the weed is cheap. Showing up here for a day or two but then staying for a month or more is a recurring story.

The problem is that technical ownership of the land is somewhat chaotic to say the least and I personally have only scratched the surface about who owns what and wants who to do what.

The short story is that the entire area is threatened by Chinese investors looking to build luxury casino hotels in the area. Based on the large number of empty or abandoned casinos all around Cambodia it doesn’t seem to be a very successful plan but nonetheless many casinos are in the making.

On Koh Ta Kiev (an island off the coast of Sihanoukville and Otres beach) I asked around what the deal was with that and got various vague answers. From what I could gather, half the island is owned by Chinese and half owned by the French. The various accommodations out there are just built with a somewhat bribe-induced dubious permission which is why they never know when it’s revoked and the whole area is cleared. Furthermore, there is a large amount of free-roaming cows just grazing at will. These are apparently owned by the military and have been shifted around from island to island over the years – “sometimes the government comes over and moves some of the cows to another island – we don’t know why”. Lastly, some local fishers put some shacks on the island into an area called “the fishing village”.

To sum up: there are a lot of different forces operation out here and to me, the foreign tourist, it’s all very hairy.

Last year, the Chinese came and cleared a huge path straight through the jungle to make way for a road but then, just as quickly as they arrived, they left again. The theory is that the Cambodian government is putting pressure on the Chinese to develop these areas and apparently some sort of timeline required that there would be a road by the end of 2015 or whatever. To comply with this requirement, they just cleared some random jungle and left again. The French side remains untouched as the Cambodian government apparently are more lenient with them.

In conclusion: I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going to happen even just within the next year.

I really would love to know more about all this and not just here but also at other locations in Cambodia. Are the Chinese building Casinos against their will because of some strange arrangements with the Cambodian government? How long will we be able to drink pina coladas at these remote islands? Please comment if you know anything.

Koh Ta Kiev – Where the boat leaves from

Update: I’ve written a post about the future of this area. Have a read: The Future of Sihanoukville, Cambodia and the Surrounding Areas

As I’m writing this I’m listening to “Zac Brown Band – Where the Boat Leaves From” and it couldn’t be more spot on. It’s uncanny how this song just is this place.

Koh Ta Kiev is a small remote island off the southern coast of Cambodia near Sihanoukville. It’s a small island and currently has about 50 people on it, including staff. My and I lodged ourselves in a jungalow at the last point on the southern bay.

View from the Bungalow

On the other side of the island, about 45 minutes of walking through dense jungle path, you have the treehouse which literally has treehouse like bungalows. Except for a fishing “village” which has no permanent shops, those are the only two places open on the island now and with no permanent residents it’s not a busy place. The boat arrives once a day IF there are any people coming in and IF the weather permits. Not a given these days as we are in low-season / rainy season. We were 3 coming in with the boat and that’s a lot apparently. The next day, 4 left and none came, leaving us with a grand total of 4 guests including us.

Untold unstirred beaches ripe for exploration

There is no WiFI *gasp* and the only place to charge your electronics is in the bar in the evening. They turn on the generator to get some lights but only in the bar. If you want lights in your bungalow they’ll provide you with some candles. But then again what do you need your phone for? It’s truly one of those islands you just go to, to get away from it all – “you can take your worries and dump ’em in the blue ocean”. During the day they have solar panels which are used to power the gently playing stereo.

Ossi aka Monkey Boy aka Green Boy sitting in the bar

Ice is shipped in to Koh Ta Kiev every day with the passenger boat – about 30kg’s for the kitchen and 20kg’s for the bar. Tough luck if there’s no boat. However, if the boat stays away for too long, there’s coconuts a plenty if you know how to pick them from the trees.

So the bar, the jungle, the ocean, the bathroom and the bungalows is really all there is but that’s all you need. If that’s not enough, the bar sells spliffs and condoms for $2 each and any item can be made “happy” for $3. You can snorkel anywhere on the island and when the sun goes down you can see bioluminescent plankton anywhere in the water – a very unique experience. Sun -rise/-set isn’t too shabby either.

“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted” – Unknown

If you’ve read this far, I thank you and if you ever have the time to visit Koh Ta Kiev – please do!

It’s time for me to get back to my beer but I’ll leave you with “Where the Boat Leaves From” as Zac Brown Band explains it better than I do. Take a listen!

ZAC BROWN BAND

“Where The Boat Leaves From”

There’s a place, where the boat leaves from
It takes away all of your big problems
You got worries you can drop them in the blue ocean
But you gotta get away to where the boat leaves from

Take one part sand, and one part sea, one part shade of banana tree
The drinks they’re cold and the raggae is hot
And I know this is the place for me

So get away to where the boat leaves from
It takes away all of your big problems
You got worries you can drop them in the blue ocean
But you gotta get away to where the boat leaves from

See the problem is that you’re right there
And there’s a perfectly good island somewhere
Where a ride that floats and don’t grab your coats
You won’t need it where we are going

Get away to where the boat leaves from
It takes away all of your big problems
You got worries you can drop them in the blue ocean
But you gotta get away to where the boat leaves from

Pick me up
Pick me up
Pick me up

Put me down
Down on the sand where its cool
Put me down
When I fall off my stool
Put me down
I’ll just sleep there til morning comes around

With sunshine tanned ladies and piña colodas
And Bob Marley songs that are playing
There’s a song in my ear that I want you to hear
Soft tropical lips that are singin

Get away to where the boat leaves from
It takes away all of your big problems
You got worries you can drop them in the blue ocean
But you gotta get away to where the boat leaves from

So get away to where the boat leaves from
it takes away all of your big problems
You got worries you can drop them in the blue ocean
but you got to get away to where the boat leaves from

so get away to where the boat leaves from
it takes away all of your big problems
you got worries you could drop them in the blue ocean

[x4]
oooooo pick me up
oooooo pick me up

i gotta go

[x4]
oooooo pick me up
oooooo pick me up

Cambodia – First Impressions

After crossing the border to Cambodia by bus the first town we encountered was Ban Lung. Although similar in many ways, once you look closer there are many differences between this town and the similar town of Pleiku in Vietnam on the other side.

Ban Lung is a fairly remote “genuine” Cambodian town about 1 hour from a small remote border. Of course, cities like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are significantly different but I think it’s fair to compare Ban Lung (Cambodia) with Pleiku (Vietnam).

First of all, in Ban Lung, there are more cars and less motorbikes and the motorbikes are older. My pointed out that the motorbikes they drive here are like the motorbikes in Vietnam 10 years ago. And unlike Vietnam, almost no one wears helmets.

The second thing you notice are the streets. They seem dustier, more “sad” – in lack of a better word. The houses are of poorer quality and more spread out.

Why are there so many pharmacies!?

Now, when you take a closer look at the streets you’ll see that for this town particularly there is an abundance of pharmacies and moneychangers. My initial guess was that drugs are cheaper or more accessible here so many Vietnamese cross the border for this very reason – this would explain the moneychangers – this is a border town after all. Another theory is that since this used to be a French colony they adopted the French style pharmacies where they double as convenience stores selling shampoo and snacks and things like that. Contrary to Denmark, for example, where they only sell drugs and medicine. To me, it still doesn’t justify that literally every third shop was a pharmacy – and by far it hasn’t been as striking in other Cambodian cities as it was here. Please comment if you have a theory or better yet, know!

That air-conditioner you’d gotten used to in Vietnam – not in Cambodia.

All over Vietnam, even in the cheapest places you’d get air-condition. It usually wasn’t really an option to go for a fan-only room. In Cambodia, however, the default is fan-only. You can get air-condition in Cambodia but it’ll usually cost you $4-5 which is a lot when a room is $6. Alright, after a while you get used to the heat and air-condition isn’t really that important but the point here is that it’s a symptom of the general state of the room. Many cheaper places don’t have hot water, the rooms are smaller and simpler, and bugs crawling around is a thing you’ll have to accept. So in this sense, Cambodia is cheaper because there are cheaper options but if you compare two similar quality rooms – Vietnam comes out cheaper I’d say. There are of course exceptions to this as I just made a very broad generalization.

Oh yeah, this goes for food as well. Cheaper but grimier solutions in Cambodia. Walking around town we had trouble finding a place that looked clean enough that we wanted to eat there.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same isn’t it?

There is one last thing worth mentioning which is significantly different. The money. Although Cambodia has a local currency, Riel (4000Riel = 1$USD), Cambodia runs on US dollars. Everything is given in dollars except for marketplaces and very local spots. It’s also used for small prices as 4000Riel to 1$ makes it a lot more granular. They even have a 100Riel note (0.025$).

All over South East Asia you will see many prices given in dollars and especially if you go to places with tourists but this is different. Here, even the ATMs give dollars. You can find ATMs giving local currency but they are rare and only accept local cards. I have yet to find a place where they don’t accept cool dollars. So you wouldn’t really need the local currency at all if it wasn’t for the fact that dollars are likely to be rejected if they are not in close to mint condition while riel you can chew up and spit out again and they still work. For those often changed cash, riel is better.

A funny anecdote is from the first time I tried to get cash from an ATM. I put my card in the machine and it asked me how much I wanted (without options as there usually are or the currency expected) so I clicked 800000 ($200) and pressed accept. It didn’t work. It now told me it had to be a number you could get with 35 notes. Great! Could you now please tell me what notes you offer, dear machine. I tried a little lower, 350000, guessing the machine had 10000 riel notes. At that point I gave up and thought it was just the ATM that didn’t work. Later, I found out that they run on dollars and by pressing 200 on the machine I got 2 100$ bills. Apparently it means that it runs on $100 bills – just like the machines in Las Vegas. Also worth noting is that although I didn’t test this out, in theory, with 35 notes you can get $3500 – quite a significant amount!

So that’s about it. The rest you will have to experience for yourself! … or maybe stick around for my next post

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