Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Cambodian Coastal Adventure-Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville - Part 1
Day 1 - 06:20 AM

I awoke this morning in Phnom Penh to a gloriously beautiful day with the air cool and a crisp breeze blowing, which seemed like a great way to start another journey out of the capital and make my way to the coastal towns of Cambodia.

After grabbing my 2 small bags and making my way downstairs to the street, I hailed a motorcycle taxi and headed out for the Central Market and the G.S.T. bus station located near there. Paying a generous 2,000 Riel (.50) to the driver, I decided to head over to the large, Chinese "Sorya Restaurant" for a spot of tea and an omelet after purchasing a seat on a southbound bus for 14,000 Riel ($3.50)

Sorya Chinese Restaurant in Phnom PenhAs I waited for my food, I started to watch the beginnings of yet another day in the city, with all the rituals and ceremony associated with life in Asia. Of course there is the mandatory spirit house and the sweet aroma of incense sticks with staff members taking a moment to make their prayers to their Gods and family. a light, lyrical Chinese music is played from the overhead speakers and as I drank my pot of hot Khmer tea and jotted down my notes, I couldn't help but feel all was well with the world (...although I knew different.)

As I've already gotten my ticket and seat assignment, I waited until 7:10 before heading back next door to the awaiting G.S.T. buses. I noticed during this short stroll that the former Shell station on the corner across the small street from the station has lost its Shell name and logos but had been freshly painted with the same Shell colors. Changes are constant here and I suspect this trip south to be nothing different.

G.S.T. is one of the major bus companies that ply what are loosely described as "highways" here in Cambodia. Considering what these tired workhorses go through, I really never get upset with the frequent breakdowns of air-conditioning and coaches. Usually however the stops along the highway are short, with drivers carrying their own tools, often times crawling under some part of the bus or another and fixing whatever has become broken or loose. If they can't, another company bus is not far behind and if worse comes to worse, you simply switch buses and finish your ride to your destination while standing in the aisle.

G.S.T. buses leaving Phnom Penh's Central Market presently have the following schedules and costs (11- 2004).

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville - 14,000 Riel - 07:15, 08:15, 12:30, 13:30
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - 14,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:45
Phnom Penh to Poi Pet - 20,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Bangkok - 56,000 Riel - 06:20, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Battambang - 12,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:30, 07:55, 09:00, noon
Phnom Penh to Pur Sat - 10,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:00, 07:55, noon, 13:00

G.S.T. Bus Station in Phnom PenhAs the bus won't leave until it is as full as it can be without being too late for the scheduled arrival time of 11:30 in Sihanoukville, it is only after 2 more "barang" (foreign) woman arrive on the back of motorcycles that the driver blasts his horn and the doors close and we make our way out onto Monivong (Street 93) from Street 142 (the G.S.T. Bus Station) at 07:30, 15 minutes later than scheduled.

As we head south out of the city we soon turn off of Monivong onto Russian Boulevard and follow signs pointing to Highway 3 and the Phnom Penh International Airport. It is also at this intersection you will notice on your right the old, colonial main train station and rail yard still serving freight deliveries from Thailand to Phnom Penh and Cambodia.

As the price of oil continues to climb around the world, with prices at or over $55 a barrel, I can't help but notice the numerous gas stations as we inch our way out of town. It seems every station, even though they are different companies, have all posted the exact same price for each grade of fuel with Diesel advertised at 2,350 Riel a liter, 3,000 Riel (.75) for unleaded and 3,100 Riel for "super". It wasn't that long ago I remember buying barrels of diesel for my hotel's generator at .44 a liter.

As we continue to crawl out of the city in the very early morning traffic, we pass several large and famous institutions of higher learning including the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, the Engineering Institution of Cambodia and the huge campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. (The only thing that seems to be missing in any of these thousands of high sounding names throughout Cambodia's education system is the use of the word "Imperial".) This is quickly followed by numerous nurseries for flowers and plants as well as countless stands selling freshly baked loaves of French Bread at 500 Riel each.

People are everywhere doing what people do on the streets of Cambodia; selling, buying, praying, bartering, eating, arguing, etc., and even though you are in the middle of city of over a million people, chickens, roosters and children roam the sidewalks and alley ways everywhere.

As we make our way closer to the airport, signs for the Hong Kong Garment Company, Toyota, the Phnom Penh Water Park and the National Technical Training Institute pass buy. Cambodian Air Force Headquarters is also visible on this stretch as well as the infamous Dragon World Disco long since closed.

A half hour after pulling out of the station, we reach the entrance to Phnom Penh International Airport and the buildings for the Cambodian Air Traffic Services (C.A.T.S.) and the ornate looking building belonging to the "Department for Foreigners".

You might also notice if you look closely at the area across from the airport as you continue down its perimeter, a large army base with open bays for aging (that is a nice term) APC's (Armored Personnel Carriers) and trucks as well as large early morning formations of troops around its barracks area. While observing this, the "bus steward" starts up some Khmer music and the bus starts to pick up speed. I guess the driver likes the music.

As we approach the circle where signs point to Sihanoukville and Ta Keo, for the first time we have to stop at a police check point where they seem to be making vehicles coming into the city unload items stacked high above their vehicles as is so very common on the roads here. Although we are obviously headed south and a bus, it never becomes apparent why we have to wait the 3-4 minutes that we did.

For many months I have noticed a large compound of new buildings just south of the circle on the road to Sihanoukville. I had speculated that it was going to be a new Wat or university as it obviously had large, ornate, multi-leveled housing areas/dormitories as well as central offices or classrooms. It seems I was wrong on both accounts as a new sign now indicated it was the base for the "High Headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Air Force". Sharp looking soldiers holding bayoneted rifles guarded the entrance and activity seemed everywhere. I couldn't help but wonder what this was all for in a country that had no operational air force? Was something about to change? Was it all show for the new King and his upcoming coronation?

Almost immediately past this new base is the older and better known "Special Forces Airborne 911" battalion on the right where many have gone in recent years to fire small arms or blow up a cow with a hand-held grenade launcher. Recently however, the cows are gone (many survived the experience as the sites were rigged...) and it has become a bit more humane and low key.

As we pull through the toll booth, military formations continue on the right, soon followed by numerous textile factories lining the road south out Phnom Penh. A new, obviously modern truck weighing facility has also appeared on the north bound side of the toll booth where trucks are stopping to be weighed. That's another first.

It isn't long before the insanity of the capital's streets disappear and fields of rice paddies soon dominate the landscape. On this early fall day, the sky is is perfectly clear with not a single wisp of cloud to be found. Combined with the amazingly, almost luminous green of the countryside, it makes for an incredible treat to the visual senses.

About an hour from when we started, a sign welcoming us to the "Kompong Speu Province" appears and I once again start to notice the red and white concrete kilometer markers on the east side of the road that inform you of your distance along the road south to Sihanoukville. As street signs and addresses are practically non-existent once you leave the city, with villages not having signs indicating their names, I have found the road markers to be the easiest way to describe locations and cross roads for travelers south.

At marker 41 you will notice the Kompong Spey Meteorological and Water Office. Sort of an interesting combination but knowing the importance of weather and the rains to life (or death) of rural and urban Cambodians, maybe not so strange after all.

At markers 42 and 43, the larger town of Kompong Speu lines the road. Here you will find the hospital district headquarters, Veterans and Youth Affairs (...does that seem like a strange combination to you?) and the Provincial Election Commission (...what a fun job that must be.).

Schools are of course everywhere as well. It often makes me wonder where all the students come from and how they get there. You of course see the motorcycles with wagons attached to them carrying tens of students but even with that, can there really be that many children from such small villages? This makes me even wonder more as recent reports indicate that Cambodia has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world with 1 in 7 children dying before the age of 5.

More signs indicate that Kompong Speu has a Teacher's Training College, a Post and Telecommunications office and a Women's and Veteran's Affairs Office (...is that different than the Veterans and Youth Affairs office?)

As I peer from building to building you realize that there is literally nothing behind them and the entire town is literally lining the American built roadway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Sort of reminds me of a Hollywood movie in which the old, wild west town is in reality nothing more than the facades of make believe saloons and town buildings.

Shortly outside town the bus overtakes an old blue dump truck with numerous warnings indicating it is a "driver's education vehicle". From the looks of the terrified occupants in the front cab holding on to the front dash for dear life and the 15 or so "driver trainees" in the rear, it appeared that this driver wasn't one of the better students. Fortunately, we overtook the menagerie quickly and left them in our dust!

Between markers 87 and 88 a sign indicates the road that veers off to the southwest leads to a national park called "Preah Suromath". At marker 90 a long and ornate fence appears and once again, it is another Cambodian military installation belonging to the "Mixed Officers Training School". Immediately past this and on the right is where the Wah Genting Bus Company stops on its way between Phnom Penh and Sihaoukville. Actually the food and facilities are a bit better here than the G.S.T. stop a short distance further.

Shortly after this at 09:15 (right on time) we enter the roadside rest stop used forever by G.S.T. and tourist other buses headed north and south between the coast and Phnom Penh, as it is the "half way" point between the 2 destinations. It is also where you leave the central, flat plateau with its thousands of rice paddies and descend into the lower, more rugged coastal plain with its numerous hills, streams and recently planted orchards.

Over the months of the monsoon rains, it is here you will find the dividing line between the perpetual rains and mist of the coast and the clearer skies and occasional, afternoon rains of the capital. Although only a couple of hundred meters difference in height, combined with a line of low lying, steep hills, it seems to be just enough to block most of the southwest winds and the monsoon rains.

After a 15 minute "breakfast" break, the driver gives notice he is ready to depart by a single blast of his air horn and as we start off continuing our journey south, I have often thought this would be a perfect place to begin a bicycle journey as the scenery and landscape quickly changes, becoming hilly and steep to the east and west of the highway with heavily forested, lush hills hiding numerous plunging waterfalls during the rainy season.

Spirit HousesBefore the descent however, we pass by the spirit houses occupying the higher hill guarding the road to the coastal plain. Occasionally we have stopped for riders to offer prayers to their ancestors and pray for luck and prosperity for them and their families. Today however, we continue on.

Soon after this another military camp appears indicating it is the Cambodian N.C.O. (Non-Commissioned Officers) School followed by a huge sign indicating Sihanoukville is another 125 kilometers away.

At market 114 I notice something else new on the trip and that is a rather large sitting Buddha with accompanying buildings. At marker 117 the terrain starts to change again with numerous streams winding their way around fields, dikes and the ever present water buffalos hidden up to their sides in mud holes.

The traffic has now become quite light with long straight stretches of roadway with cattle of various descriptions. Everywhere as far as the plain stretches you can see thousands of fig trees lined up neatly in rows and neat little villages for the workers working the plantations.

A "New Life Retreat Center" appears off to the right at marker 144 and I guess if you are a fundamentalist Christian, as good as any to get closer to your God.

At 10:50 and marker 197 the toll road ends and another new weight station appears. I am wondering who is making money on what will obviously be many fines to come with this little innovation or is it in fact an effort not to destroy the best highway in Cambodia?

At 11:00 and market 208 the new Sihanoukville Airport appears followed by signs at marker 219 indicating we have finally arrived at the outskirts of our destination, the port city of Sihanoukville. After passing CamBrew (Cambodia Brewery) where you can savior their products for free in their private pub in the late afternoons (with the right connections), we finally arrive at the taxi/bus station downtown at 11:30, pretty much on time.

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