Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Sanloem: When Anticipation Surpasses Reality
My first weekend escape was with two fellow volunteers to Sihanoukville, a highly recommended beach town about four hours car ride from Phnom Penh (technically six, but we had an overzealous driver). After a rough week of stifling humidity, excessive sweating, and breathing in smog, I was definitely anticipating paradise at the end of the tunnel. I am sad to report that this was not the case.
Although Sihanoukville is significantly more touristy than Phnom Penh, it is still underdeveloped and not as commercial as I’d imagined. This is normally an advantage for travelers seeking authenticity – unfortunately, authenticity in Cambodia means you seriously have to sacrifice even the simplest of comforts. Which is fine, if that’s what you are looking for. Considering I had been doing that for an entire week, however, I was really hoping to get a break.
Sihanoukville has its own charm, in the backpacker haven type of way. Colorful shacks lined the sides of the bumpy, pothole-filled and sometimes unpaved roads, crowding them with signs for cheap hostels, drink specials, and restaurants offering Western food. The whole town was teeming with disheveled 20somethings hunting for their next party night out.
I wish I could tell you about the exciting night I had staying at the bungalow in Otres 2 beach, but the cold, hard truth was that it was underwhelming. We arrived right as the sun was setting, which was as beautiful as the beach got. While it was relaxing and the place was almost empty, our experience was tainted by the 2+ hours it took to get served food and the unprecedented mark-up on the room fare. The highlights were the two adorable little puppies living at the hotel and the bulging full moon glowing against the backdrop of a stark black sky.
Koh Rong Sanloem (an island about 45 min away) was our next stop, a shining beacon of hope to redeem the prior night’s mediocrity. It’s likely that our disappointment of Sihanoukville further fueled our expectations for Koh Rong Sanloem’s supposed beauty. We arrived and… eh. Don’t get me wrong – the island was beautiful and had nice beaches. It just didn’t offer the type of beauty and relaxation that I expected: similar to Sihanoukville, the water wasn’t the same clear, turquoise blue that was promoted on online searches, the bungalows were dark and stuffy, and the sand strips were short and lined with garbage. We had chosen Koh Rong Sanloem over Koh Rong, the neighboring party island, on the promise that it would be quieter and more isolated. This was true, and ended up being detrimental to our experience: it heavily rained most of the afternoon, the only people our age were couples, and there was no Wi-Fi, meaning we had little to do other than chat, glare out at the foggy waters and wait for the minutes to drag by.
Although this was supposed to be a mini-vacation away from the week’s work, I felt strangely restless sitting around not doing anything. My anticipated beach getaway, which I had been planning for weeks, turned out to be quite boring. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I missed the kids at CCH. I kept imagining how fun it would be to have them with me, to show them the ocean and have them play with the puppies. I missed the adrenaline and semi-nervous anticipation I feel when heading to class. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed incorporating them into my daily routine this past week. In fact, I surprised myself with how much I would have preferred to have been at the school over this supposed relaxing escape.
My key takeaway from the weekend is that expectations are no good in Cambodia. The more of them you have, the more you’ll likely be disappointed. Cambodia is the type of place that you love precisely because it is what it is. It’s uncomfortable, rough to live in, and its luxuries do not come in the material form: rather, they manifest in the form of a rich history, complex yet loving people, and an overall resilience to extreme difficulty. I suppose that those who come from a first or even second world country and wish to find their place here need a reality to hold on to, something that makes them happy regardless of the less-than-ideal circumstances. My reality is the kids at CCH. Now that I’ve figured that out, a private beach getaway pales in comparison.