On the eve of our return to Cambodia, we flash back 10 years to a time when our backpacks were smaller, our budgets tighter and we slept rough and partied hard.
The crafty ticket seller underestimated the trip’s duration, knowing that no one would choose to spend that long on a bus. Desperate to escape the dreary Cambodian border town of Koh Kong, the fast ferry to Serendipity Beach should have swayed us, but the ticket seller’s description of a scenic bus ride through jungle-clad mountains had us swiftly venturing along the road less travelled.
Things started promisingly enough: an uncrowded bus, heaps of legroom and window seats all round
Things started promisingly enough: an uncrowded bus, heaps of legroom and window seats all round, and by Cambodia’s standards, the thin, red ribbon of corrugated, pot-holed road was probably not too bad. But as more and more passengers began piling on, folding themselves neatly into the smallest of spaces, it became increasingly difficult to keep my protruding, oversized limbs tucked up around my ears.
Submitting to the appalling road conditions, the bus inched along, falling into deep potholes and sending up clouds of thick, red dust that turned each passenger a deeper shade of crimson as the day wore on. We crossed bright blue rivers on makeshift ferries fashioned from precarious looking platforms laid over skinny longtail boats.
Filing off the bus at each river crossing offered some respite from the cramped conditions and when we eventually blew a tyre, no one complained about the delay as we stretched our legs in the shade, shunning cold drinks in the absence of a private spot to pee.
When the bus finally crawled onto the bitumen after almost seven hours, the locals dispersed and a motley crew of 12 dusty foreigners with frayed nerves and swollen bladders were wedged into a tiny minivan, cemented into position by our oversized backpacks, a couple of 6-foot-tall guys bent double and the girl with a broken leg laid out over the top of us.
Behind the wheel, our sleepy driver crawled along at a snail’s pass, swerving off the road and blinking away sleep, oblivious both our desperate discomfort and the long stream of traffic angrily blasting horns behind us. When we finally tumbled out of the minivan and into the ocean at spectacular Serendipity Beach – eight tedious hours after the journey began – it took more than a few cold Angkor beers to restore our sanity.
We couldn’t have picked a better spot to unwind: crashed out on Serendipity Beach, a smattering of deserted islands girthed by coral reef beyond, and a lazy kind of beach lifestyle so laidback that local women switched to PJs by early afternoon.
The big attractions at Serendipity Beach were all natural: island snorkelling and dive trips, and at nearby Ream National Park, the chance to spot freshwater dolphins, birds and monkeys. At sunset, the beach was seductively aglow with romantic, candle-lit tables for two, and in the much-more-fun backstreets, Happy Pizzas turned our crazy day on its head.
Despite all the discomfort of getting there, the trip did provide unforgettable snapshots of Cambodian country life: water buffalo cooling themselves in water canals by the road, kids swimming across flooded rice paddies, waving furiously, and farmers patiently cutting rice by hand. But if you ever find yourself trying to escape Koh Kong in a hurry, I hear the ferry trip is fantastic.
Qantas/Jetstar flies from most capital cities to Phnom Penh (via Singapore) and Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach is a 3-4 hour bus ride south. 30-day evisas are available online for USD$36 (evisa.gov.kh). Cambodia maintains a dual currency system – US dollars and Cambodian riel. The weather is best from November to April. For more information visit www.tourismcambodia.com.