Saturday, 16 January 2010

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Do you realise how complicated it can be to obtain a Vietnamese visa? You can’t just turn up at a land border or fly/sail in and buy a visa on the spot: oh, no. You MUST be in possession of a visa in advance, and our visit to Vietnam starts on the 28th January. Do you realise that the easiest place to buy a Vietnamese visa in Indochina (is that term still acceptable, or must we say “Southeast Asia? The nostalgia and exoticism of “Indochina” is more evocative….) is at their consulate in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. And guess where we are today!

The trek to the consulate was a great introduction to the style of this particular country. For many varied reasons, we loved Bangladesh last year, and right here we are starting to feel a similar and welcoming vibe. Smiles all round from the people, and a gentle, light-hearted hassling for tuk tuks which takes a polite ‘no’ at face value. Such a refreshing experience after Indonesia. But there’s more to it than that: the contrast between the opulent, ostentatious architecture of the rich, and the aching poverty of the shop-houses, with the angled concrete slabs covering the sewer beneath as you approach from the street. All this was familiar territory for us. But the luscious Bougainvillea, the smells of cookery and the nostalgia of the massive mansions now used as bars and small restaurants, the rear of the property far too big for the small business being transacted out front. All this added a new dimension to our first impressions of this country. When you’re out travelling, the first 24 hours in a country pretty much sum up the vibe you are likely to experience on the road. And Cambodia seems pretty special right now.

Take the coffee roaster in the street. We could smell it long before we encountered the spectacle on the street corner, complete with charcoal, roasting thurible and turning handle. They like their coffee smokey here in western Cambodia. Oh, yes, the consulate. We filled in the form, handed over our passports together with $40 each for a single entry visa, and in about two minutes flat, the process was complete and we are now the proud owners of visas for Vietnam. But you’ll have to wait till the 28th January to find out how we go on with immigration actually getting in there. Before that there’s three whirlwind days of Bangkok to experience, then the breathtaking majesty of Angkor Wat and the stark reality of Phnom Penh.

The vast, blue covered market started out as just trinkets, baseball caps and denim, but as we delved deeper into the alleyways and lanes which ran off the main drag, it became obvious that this was a treasure-trove of local produce. First we encountered the fruit and veg. aisles, and then we were into the paradise of the seafood and bugs department. This market must surely be the most fascinating we’ve ever seen for exotic sea-life and other edible creatures.

As we approached Sihanoukville in the dark, we were surrounded by the glow of the lights from myriad small fishing boats, and here in the gloom of the tiny market alleyways was the fruit of their labours. Yesterday afternoon we spied our first Cambodian vessel, wallowing in the turquoise swell behind us. “Pirates!” someone exclaimed, for the old wooden ship with its finely crafted superstructure seemed to come straight out of Captain Pugwash. But back here in the market we were surrounded by their catch: all manner of fish we could not name, prawns, shrimps, crabs, catfish, sardines and even shark. Each tiny market stall was equipped with its own shallow fish tank, for all these creatures were still alive! And as for the grubs, well we’re looking forward to trying all this when we return to Cambodia next week!

After walking 3 miles in the blistering heat, we decided that a visit to the Snake House could be fairly rewarding. This place is set back away from the main centre of Sihanoukville so we decided to take a tuk tuk for another 3 miles in the direction of our base to get there. This ride should have cost us $10. I don’t think so somehow. We got him down to $4, which is nothing, especially when split between 3 people. Our friend Scott Blessley came with us to explore Sihanoukville and was curiously snapping away with his machine gun of a camera. We hope that he may have a few good shots for us. The tuk tuks in Cambodia are different to ones that we have seen on our previous expeditions. Picture a carriage with two benches facing towards each other, all sheltered by a soft-top roof and being towed by a motorcycle. This was it and was a great novelty! During our 3-mile journey to the Snake House we embarked on a learning curve of the basic mutualism between the people here. It was impossible to cease staring in pure admiration at two young boys transporting a huge pane of glass from A to B on their motorbike. The one at the front was in a sheer trance of concentration as he was driving the bike with one hand on the handlebars and with his other hand on top of the pane of glass behind him. The younger lad on the back was holding the pane with both of his hands. This demonstrates very well the importance of symbiosis here, which, for some, may be the only way of guaranteeing food on the table. Without such teamwork, there would be no income.

We arrived at the Snake House. It’s not so much a restaurant as a bar, a restaurant and a zoo all rolled in to one! Plus there are fantastic two storey cottages where you can stay. The eating area is surrounded by wildlife: vast fish tanks, smaller glass cases containing a wide variety of snakes, plus a chained up crocodile just a few metres from our table. Oh, and of course, our table itself was a snake pit, with a glass top revealing a massive somnambulant python beneath. But oh, no! There was no snake to choose from on the menu; only crocodile was available to order, but at the price displayed, we opted for a small amphibian, rather than reptile fillet. Scott had snails, Simon had a mind-blowing eel broth laced with fresh chilli and coconut, whilst Jon had Roti Frog. This looks like tandoori, but seemed to have a barbeque sauce glistening all over it. Oh, and by the way, this was most certainly not just frogs’ legs, but the whole frog. And Jon had two of them!

After this exotic feast, it was time to move around the Snake House, looking at all the species of snakes, turtles, lizards, birds, and, of course, the large number of crocodiles in the pit. Didn’t James Bond come across something just like this at the villain’s lair?

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