We were docked in Sihanoukville when we woke up on March 11. We were up early because our private tour guides wanted to beat the heat of the day so we were treated to a sunrise over the dock. During the trip from Phu My we had sailed near many small fishing boats.
Our exit from the ship was delayed some before the local officials gave us clearance. Our tour group walked out on the deck, but our tour leaders were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that most people are barred from entering the port, so we walked to the gate of the port about a quarter of a mile away & found our tour guides there.
During the late 1970’s Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a group that called itself Communist but appears in fact to have been pretty much insane. They emptied the cities of people and killed millions of them – men, women & children – for no apparent reason. After they were overthrown there was a baby boom, so that today the population is very young & we saw few older people.
Originally an unimportant out-of-the-way town called Kampong Som, Sihanoukville was mostly built in the 1950’s as Cambodia’s only deep water port. It is primarily a beach resort area, with miles of nice beaches. It is named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who became king in 1941, was removed in a coup in 1955, then brought back to rule from 1993 to 2004.
Sihanoukville has five Buddhist temples and our first visit was to one of them. Wat Krom (Lower Pagoda) is the largest & most important temple in the province. It was really a complex of several buildings with a large number of gilded statues, shrines & family crypts, in addition to the white temple building with its gilded roof.
Inside the temple walls & ceiling were covered with paintings, presumably of scenes from the Buddha’s life. We had to remove our shoes to enter the temple. There were a number of children hanging out at the temple & when we emerged a young girl had taken firm custody of Rick’s shoes. She insisted on putting his shoes back on, to his embarrassment. The shoes were too tight for her (they are slip-ons), so in the end Rick had to finish the job himself.
We drove out along a long & rocky unpaved road to reach K’Bal Chhay waterfall. This is reputedly a popular place for locals to visit & there were a number of buildings fitted with hammocks for them. The falls are said to be impressive during the wet season, but this was the dry season so it really wasn’t worth the long trip. There was a long walk from the car park to the falls that included scrambling over rocks, which was a little much for some of our tour group. One woman, who made the unfortunate choice to wear flip-flops, fell on the rocks & scraped her arm.
In Cambodia, as in Vietnam & Indonesia, there seemed to be small shrines with trays for offerings in front of most houses and other buildings. These seemed more elaborate than we had seen before, many with gilding or golden paint, & they were even here next to the waterfall & the hammock buildings.
We visited a pepper farm, where the spice that was once so valuable that it lured many explorers was growing in abundance on plants supported by bamboo (and sometimes brick) poles. It takes several years for a pepper plant to begin producing usable pepper & after a few years it has to be replaced. They told us that the peppers that turn red before harvesting are the best quality. After picking the pepper is dried in the sun for some days on large tarps.
This farm also grows durian, the really foul smelling fruit. Some say that if you can get past the smell the fruit is quite sweet tasting, but others say it is decidedly an acquired taste. We made no effort to acquire it.
We took a long drive to Ream National Park, then drove down another rocky unpaved road to visit a fishing village. The overwhelming impression was of poverty, but the people there were friendly, especially the children. I’m pretty sure they are used to visits from tourists, but it still felt a little strange to go traipsing through their village taking pictures.
There were some lush flowers in the fishing village.
We had a Cambodian lunch at a roadside spot, complete with hammocks for resting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Nearby were signs advertising the two top Cambodian beers (we had an Angkor). The script here is quite beautiful, but completely indecipherable for a Westerner.
After lunch we had two more temples to visit. First was Wat Ream. We didn’t actually go into this temple, but there were a number of shrines & sculptures on the grounds. I should add that none of the temples we visited here are very old, all were built in the second half of the 20th century (I think), after the development of Sihanoukville’s port.
The last temple we visited was Wat Leu (the upper pagoda). It sits on top of the largest hill in the area & commands a panoramic view.
The primary attraction here was the troop of monkeys living here. They were not afraid of humans (who like to feed them) & several had babies hanging on to their undersides. A very interesting flower was growing on a vine (I think) on a tree. Interesting flora & fauna, who could ask for more?
Last and, yes, least was a visit to the downtown market called Psar Leu. It seemed like just a huge warehouse with lots of little kiosks where people were selling food (raw & prepared), jewelry & clothes. Nothing looked very interesting. It also had a number of beggars. We spent a long half hour there. Driving through town, it seemed very pedestrian with little in the way of style. I guess that’s because the town is so new & many of the people so poor. We saw again a thick tangle of electrical wires like in Vietnam, just asking for a nasty fire. Outside the market were “tuk-tuks,” motorbikes with small carriages that serve as the local taxis. After this we returned to the ship, a little early thankfully since it was hot and we had seen enough of this part of Cambodia, which would not be near the top of our list for a return visit.