Shihanoukville or Kep: bustle or bliss

15 Jan
Shihanoukville Sunset

Shihanoukville Sunset

Shihanoukville was nice. You could just feel that you were at the beach. There were beach bars, lots of (smelly) seafood, shops selling floating animals, offers for boat trips left right and centre… I had found a local guesthouse (no English spoken) which brought my daily lodging budget down to 7 US$. There was no hot water, but there was satellite television with BBC world, RAI, TVE, TV5 monde and the whole shebang, besides the usual Indonesian, Hong Kong, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese and a few Cambodian channels… Yep, we’re in Asia here! The guesthouse even had free internet, if you’d connect your lap top to the cable sticking out of the wall on the terrace. Well it did the job ;-)

Shihanoukville beach has lots of animation and infrastructure.

Beach beach beach - what else do you want...

Beach beach beach - what else do you want...

Once you’ve waded through all the people trying to sell you a moto-ride, boat trip or drinks, you come to a nice white beach, but filled with deck chairs and parasols. You basically just pick one and order a drink and snooze away for the day (the best way to avoid all the children and women selling bracelets, massage, pedicure, fruit, lobster, and what not). At sunset, the deck chairs are exchanged for lovely cuddly comfy chairs to watch the sun going down and dusk & darkness jumping up from its sleep. The sunsets are just lovely here, changing through every shade of yellow, orange and red – especially accompanied by some background music of the beach bar, and torches in the sand…

But Ochheuteal beach (try to pronounce that!) remains busy, shack next to shack, chair next to chair, white skins turning red,… It is the difference between a massage you get in the front room of someone’s house turned massage parlour for the working day of a hard-working independent lady who has ambitions in life – and the massage factory where we went in Siem Reap where they could easily host tour buses with a few dozen girls on call (numbers on their shirt instead of names) and a hall lined with benches where they take your shoes and wash your feet… Kep (another beach town I went after 3 days of S-ville) is more like the quite personalized massage studio, not the massage factory.

Seafood and Sunset - hmlmm

Seafood and Sunset - hmlmm

I found a lovely little bungalow resort in Kep: Botanica (8 US$/night), with 5 thatched-roof bungalows set in a lush green garden, with red brick paths leading to the different cottages, between the overhanging bushes and trees. Each bungalow has a huge bed with a mosquito net over it (like a nuptial bed) and its own little terrace with a hammock. It is just loooooovely snoozing away in one of them under the caressing sun. The guesthouse is a bit out of town, but you can take any bike on the premises to move around – a lovely way to see the place – and very efficient (or dangerous? As the Australians here would say) to get a tan.

There is no hot water in the bungalow (but in 30° C that is not one of my worries) nor television, but there is Wifi! So imagine lying in your hammock, sipping a drink, with your netbook on your lap and chatting to your friends from the other side of the world or quickly checking up on the places you want to visit next – this is surreal! How did people travel before internet???

kepcity-151Turns out that this place is owned and run by a Belgian guy. The ‘Stoofvlees’ and ‘Vol-au-vent’ as well as the Leffe and Hoegaarden beers on the menu should have rung a bell ;-) So it’s a guy from Dendermonde that happened to be on holidays in Cambodia and then met the love of his life – and decided to settle down in lovely and peaceful Kep. And he told me that you don’t even need to fulfill a lot of formalities to do so. You just start, and then the tax office will drop by one day and fix a lump sum per month that you’ll have to pay (depending on the size of your business and your negotiation skills! Things are still less complicated here – no tax declarations, no staff regulations, you just do the best you can…).

Kep town, as opposed to Shihanoukville is deserted (I heard that it fills up on the weekends – with Cambodians though). There is a lovely pic-nic area with tatched roofs and hammocks, whose workers would run after you on the street for your custom (during the week that is). The beach is not as white as S-ville, but there is 1000 times more space, as there is virtually nobody there, except a wedding couple taking pictures on the beach and a few ‘lost’ white tourists or local kids splashing in the water.

It is in Kep that I managed to start thinking for the first time during my trip. Lying in my hammock, reading the blog of a friend-world traveler. Or watching the sun set from the Crab market, with stilt houses (restaurants) hanging above the sea, eating yummy seafood that I usually don’t even like (but I’ve come to have a serious craving for sunsets!). Or today, I discovered paradise on Earth in Kep Lodge (Swiss run), where you have a lovely swimming pool (3US$ to use for non-residents – free with a drink or meal) with a superb look over the forest, with the sea behind, and the sun sinking into it (combine that with a Caipirinha and I just melted away). Or the self-made El Dorado restaurant, set in an enormous lotus-pond with a hanging bridge going across, alternative classy & jazzy music on the background (the owner was a famous musician once), munching on an overly delicious ‘Hungarian Pizza’ (as the owner and cook is Hungarian).

Hm, what is it with these international people, how on earth did they end up in Kep of all places? Some followed their dream of ‘living in paradise’, whereas for others it was an escape from western ‘hell’ (not being happy with Europe). Many of them though followed their special person in life… and have a Cambodia Connection (mostly wife, haven’t met any white woman with a Cambodian husband yet).

And why do I end up staying at their places, eating at their tables, drinking their outrageously expensive imported Belgian beers? Is it because they ‘know how to’ cater for western taste, and Cambodians don’t? Are they just better in tapping into the ‘tourist channels’, because they were once one of those travelers, or because of the English, or…? Or is Cambodian tourism education and expertise not up to standards (that might also play). When talking about how the Belgian guy built his Botanica bungalows, he had many stories about how the workers did the construction completely haphazardly, one day painting the walls, the next day needing to make a hole in the freshly painted walls for the electricity or water pipes… A nice example attached (for the construction workers and architects amongst you – hehe).

I was thinking that I should stay in Kep for a while as this is really a cool place to wind down. But maybe it would be nicer to visit with someone. But one thing is sure – this is a place I want to come back. 200% recommended – and Kep Lodge is certainly worth the money!

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