Sin City - Cambodia Dirty South
January 1, 1970
I was not a seasoned traveller
I visited Cambodia twice. Beginning with a cumbersome suitcase, so not cool among the backpacker community, I spent three weeks in the country arriving from Thailand via air, again frowned upon as a totally unnecessary waste of time and money when a couple of buses to make my way across the border was all that was required. It would certainly have been cheaper and faster than the two flights I took, one across the gulf to Singapore then after a long layover a second one back across the gulf to arrive in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Dragging my suitcase behind me and an over weight carry-on on my back I was obviously not a seasoned traveller.
An unexpected trip
After becoming restless after ten days of an anticipated one month sojourn on one of Thailand’s south islands Koh Lanta I was itching for more new experiences. After some clumsy Googling I’d decided on another island called Koh Rong Sanloem, this time in Cambodia’s south. Once in Cambodia, reaching this island required a five hour bus ride south from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, the port to the islands. A two day stop here to check it out was my first introduction to Sinville or Sin City, its nickname to many.
Lady bars and men
I stayed in an area called Victory Hill, a small, quiet and quaint town full of lady bars and foreigners with money belts and big motorbikes wearing the smug look of kings with local Khumer (Cambodian) women half their age or more hanging off their arms. These women walk tall and proud to have a ‘rich’ western or foreign ‘boyfriend’ affording them the opportunity to not worry about their next meal and giving them the ability to help their families. A win win in both their eyes. This being so, to me it didn’t sit well, especially when the age of some of the young ladies was questionable.
Two boring days
After two boring but eye opening days in this sleazy town I took a tuk tuk (motorbike with a carriage attached) the couple of kilometres through Sihanoukville city to the main bustling port of Serendipity. Here I was to discover the primary tourist centre with its enormous roundabout landmark where two huge golden lion statutes stand tall and protective over their town. As a result of my lack of research, clumsy Googling ability and ignorance to Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and other helpful traveller’s guides I had no idea a city was just a short distance away from my seemingly isolated, seedy, Victory Hill.
A busy hub of backpackers, tourists, bars, restaurants and clubs led down to the pier and a long stretch of sand, Serendipity Beach at the hub and Ochheutueal to the north. With each step I was accosted by tuk tuk drivers, moto drivers, beach girls (and boys) as young as ten offering their bracelets, anklets and other treasures. Beautiful, charming little creatures often with outstanding fluent English, they were enchanting, enticing less aware tourists such as myself to part with their money. These young exploited children risk their safety as money makers for their parents running the same overdone spiel often with the excuse that they had to pay for their schooling. Indeed, as my later experience would uncover, this was true for some. However, others it seemed were denied that right by their parents because their youth, innocence and charm brought home too much money. In a culture where family is everything how sad to be exploited, placed in danger and denied a prosperous future through lack of schooling by those who should be nurturing them. Some are doomed to a life of soliciting and as they age their charm dissolves as does their money-making ability and their biggest hope is to find a foreign husband.
Desperate poverty everywhere
Even sadder were the young dirty children shuffling slowly with vacant looks in their eyes, their noses in plastic bags. They held out their hands and mumbled, begging for money or food. I was to learn later that the yellow stuff in their bags was glue and that these were homeless children for whom the glue was a comfort, numbing their pain, blanketing their hunger and making life on the streets easier to endure. Who supplied these children with glue I did not know but I felt a pang of anger as I wondered who these unethical people could be. Another distressing sight was the number of amputees begging, often legless and pushing themselves on their stomachs on skateboards with thongs to protect their hands. The luckier ones, those with one leg, hobbled on crutches. Shocked and shaken by the culture, I dragged my luggage through this dizzying array of desperate solicitation trying to process the innumerable voices and offers. I was relieved when I boarded my ferry for the eighteen kilometre ride to my starkly different and chilled island destination.
Koh Rong Sanloem and indeed the rest of the tourist trail I followed including the magnificent ancient temples deserve stories of their own. But this article is about Sihanoukville (Sin City) and the unwholesome and disreputable side of Cambodia.
A country of contrast
Cambodia is a country of stark contrast. Its southern coastline is lined with pristine beaches among filth and rubbish problems. Grandiose displays of wealth with majestic homes shadowing the poor in their squats and squalors. Magnificent waterfalls at the end of long dry dusty roads. Put-together motos (the name used for motorbikes and scooters) among huge obnoxious SUVs. Buddhist monks in their orange outfits, smart phones in their faces. Conventional women by day, no shoulders or knees exposed due to their Buddhist beliefs, and taxi girls (the name used for prostitutes) and lady boys by night, short skirts, busts and heels. Corruption and lawlessness exist although culprits still run the risk of time in a Cambodian prison. Depending on the severity of the crime and whether local or barrang (foreign) a cash bribe will usually suffice but Cambodia is a country where justice and fairness are not governed.
Something drew me back
On my return to the Sihanoukville area I settled a few kilometres out of town in Otres, a funky little seaside village with local shacks, eateries and shops among a rapidly developing backpack and expat community by a long strip of white sands and azure waters overlooking the islands. The low season had just begun and I quickly got bored desiring a more local Cambodian feel so I packed up my bungalow and found a cheap self-sufficient room near the centre of town.
Sin City by night
I am not a night person, preferring a nice feed and an early night to parties, bars and clubs. I’d overdone this in my youth, throughout my twenties, into my thirties and in fact had relatively recently undergone a long process to recover from chronic alcoholism. For the past two and three quarter years I’d been in recovery as they call it. Therefore, other than my small Victory Hill experience, I was naive to the transformation of the town at night. Here it truly became Sin City. My first witness to this came in the early hours of one morning when I woke at 3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I pulled on my joggers deciding to walk the couple of kilometres to the beach.
What you want i can get it?
I’d walked barely a few hundred metres when I heard the deep bass beat of dance music and saw scantily clad women and intoxicated men tumbling from a gentlemen’s club. Not exactly surprised but curious I looked but kept walking. I was amazed at the amount of activity for this time of the morning. Motos zoomed by, some carrying foreigners with their lady for the night holding on tightly, an unreadable expression in the eyes. Others held two or three stunning Khumer women impeccably groomed, thick made-up faces and revealing clothes going home from wherever they’d been for the night. Local men on their moto’s asking me where I was going, trying to make an extra buck for a ride. ‘Just walking’ I’d say as I waved them on. As I walked the stretch of road down to Serendipity pier it was much quieter than my first visit that day on my way to the ferry. However, this time I felt no less uncomfortable as local men stared from their stationary bikes or tables where they were sitting drinking cans of beer. By the time I’d reached the beach I’d had many sordid offers to join them for a beer and more disturbingly quiet whispers of, ‘You want weed, ice, heroin? What you want I can get.’
Repeating mistakes of the past
I was no stranger to the offer of weed from the odd tuk tuk or moto driver during the day and on my first visit had even succumbed to this in Victory Hill. But after an addiction in my youth and finding the drug still had the same hold on me it is something I’d again struggled with but eventually put down. I refused all these offers with a shake of the head or a flick of the hand and walking faster I reached the beach. The music hit me before the sight of the late night bars still open, drunk and/or drug affected patrons dancing in the sand and locals milling around. I’d heard stories of drugging and theft and decided I didn’t need to walk along the beach that morning. I’d also heard tales of travellers getting into trouble with drugs resulting in death, overdose and suicide. I prayed silently that those I saw would all be OK
The golden lions come alive
On my way back up the hill I avoided eye contact. However the same offers from the same culprits came and I put my head down and quickened my pace. At night and early morning the golden lions come alive. Bright lights shine up on them on their high perch in the middle of the roundabout, dozens of mainly local people loitering around. I had my smart phone with me and as I eyed three pretty local girls I asked to take a photo. It wasn’t until I heard the reply that I realised I was in the company of three beautiful yet not female lady boys. Two were happy to oblige but one was less so stating she had a boyfriend. She politely took my phone and urged me to pose with the ‘girls’. They were delightfully friendly and impeccably styled. As I strolled at the base of the lions my heart sank as I saw emaciated homeless people sleeping on the cement, one with a child still a babe. My instinct was to help but I had nothing with me except my phone. I walked on quickly and with a heavy heart headed for home.
Big nights on a budget
Cambodia’s currency, the Reil, is extremely weak. 1US dollar returns 4000 Reil and both currencies are accepted. With this in consideration, drunkenness and drugs are regular sights. Old timer bar flies frequent the numerous pubs by day, shirts open, sweat dripping as they down their glasses. At night the gentleman’s clubs come alive and the younger backpacker crew hit the beach clubs and bars near their dorms. Beers can be found for as little as 2000 Reil or 50c so a big night on the grog is within budget. Drugs are cheap and readily accessible. Even those that would be classed prescription drugs at home can be purchased over the counter from the dozens of pharmacies that dot the town: Benzodiazepines, Ketamine, antidepressants, morphine, codeine to name just a few. No wonder the stories of travellers getting into trouble in accidents, overdoses, drugging and death. I was glad not to be a part of this scene.
A job paying $5 ph
I’d been back in Cambodia just one month when a job fell my way. Considering that I had failed to finish my schooling or obtain qualifications I couldn’t believe my luck and was more than happy to accept the $200US a week pay. In a country where the monthly wages were the equivalent of this or less and the cost of living was so low it was way more than I needed to prolong my stay. Promptly I began my new employment in a call centre just a short scooter ride away. It was an easy job requiring just the possession of a pleasant phone manner and the ability to speak comfortably to strangers. I picked it up easily and quickly became good at my work.
Rain, roughts and retreat
It wasn’t too long before the wet season began and the rains tumbled from the sky. It is easy to get restless in relentless wet weather. Thus was the situation for me. I found myself wondering how I could possibly stick this out. My work became a blessing and a great constant while the early wet season rain fell in batches and bundles with the humidity overwhelming at times. The ocean was a relieving escape. However, I found myself visiting less and less since it was no longer on my doorstep. My traveller’s tan faded and pasty skin reappeared. I had very few friends most of whom were in the trendy Otres community and I found myself seldom there either.
Irritability and discontent
Dejecteddness sowly snuck in. To add to matters, after a few months in the call centre I learned from a reliable source that in fact the company was a scam defrauding investors of their money. I was shocked and quit immediately as nothing could justify remaining, even if it meant my travels would come to an end. I packed up my things and left for the capital with a bus booked for Vietnam the following day. One last night in Phnom Penh and the following morning I piled my backpack in a tuk tuk and was chauffeured to the coach terminal.
As I boarded the bus I felt relieved. I had survived the temptations of Sin City.