Friday 3rd I made a last minute decision to have a birthday weekend at the seaside. Siem Reap Airways have been doing some good deals on flights (and considering I have been limiting my spending to approx $10 a day) I headed down to Phnom Penh on the 10.55am flight. The International Departures building at Siem Reap Airport is very nice with its beautiful ornate Khmer architecture. Sadly the same can't be said for the Domestic Departures building, which still resembles a shed and looks like it came straight out of the 1960s! The plane was only small - 80 seats - and it even had propellers on the wings. At only 35 minutes it was definitely the quickest flight I've been on. The Chuppa Chups lollipop I was eating when I boarded the flight in Phnom Penh still wasn't finished when we touched down at Pochentong. I was met by my usual Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver - Chanthou - who took me to pick up a car, and then I set off on National Route No 4 for my first visit to Sihanouk Ville.
Kep, which I visited to August, used to be Cambodia's version of the French Riviera (almost literally, seeing that the majority of the people who visited were French expats and wealthy Khmer families). However following the war, Kep was left in ruins and Sihanouk Ville (also known as Kompong Som) was promoted as Cambodia's ideal beach destination. Sihanouk Ville is also the only international port in Cambodia, as well as the home to Cam Brew - the Angkor Beer brewery.
The majority of the 218km road to Sihanouk Ville was, by Cambodian standard, amazing. You have to pay two tolls of 2800 Riel but it's worth it as they actually repair the road. I even reached 70mph on certain sections! I still encountered the usual moto / 4x4 / cows / dogs / children / chicken problem though!
I made the required stop at the Ya-Mao shrine at Pich Nil Pass. Legend has it that a woman called Ya-Mao was the wife of a village chief in the area of Ream. Her husband was forced by work to spend months away from her in Koh Kong. One rainy season, she grew lonely for him and took a Koh Kong bound boat to meet him. On the way the boat was swept away by a storm, drowning everybody including Ya-Mao. But her spirit was powerful and through dreams and spirit possessions she made it know that she was overseeing the southern coast and protecting the fishermen and villagers. She required only their good behaviour and occasional offerings of phallic symbols. Why Ya-Mao makes this particular demand is a matter of debate. Some people say that this was the reason she made her ill-fated trip to visit her husband, and so still desires it, however most people now say Ya-Mao is too old for phallic symbols and only requires bananas! As a result her shrine is usually covered in hands of bananas (together with a little money and incense) left as offerings, usually made with prayers for safe travel. I finally arrived at Sokha Beach Hotel (having taken advantage of the last few days of their low season half price accommodation offer) around 6pm.
Saturday 4th - my 35th - I had a Blessing at 9am from three monks at Wat Utynieng (also known as Wat Krom meaning 'lower wat') which sits on a small hill overlooking the ocean, before spending most of the day on the gorgeous private 1.5km white sand beach owned by the hotel. I hadn't told the hotel that it was my birthday, but they must have noticed it from my passport when I checked in, because when I went for dinner I was greeted with a birthday cake, a bouquet of red roses, and serenaded with 'Happy Birthday' by the hotel band's saxophonist.
Sunday 5th I drove to Kbal Chhay Waterfall, about 18km from Sihanouk Ville, and spent a few hours reading a book and dangling my feet in the river. It's a popular weekend picnic location for Khmer families. I finally decided that it looked great fun to go wading into the actual waterfall and asked someone to take the above photo. The only drawback was driving back to the hotel in damp pants, having forgotten to take a towel! Luckily it was a very hot day and most of my clothes dried after just sitting in the sun for a while. Sunday early evening I had a walk along the beach and then drove up to the Ochheuteal Beach area, where most of the bars & restaurants are. There's even a tiny cinema called Top Cat Cinema with the old cartoon as its logo. I had an Angkor Beer at a bar called Monkey Republic and then lasagna at an Italian restaurant called Luna d'Autunno.
Monday 6th I spent another hour on the beach, scrunching sand between my toes, and left Sihanouk Ville around 11am, stopping off at Sihanouk Ville Mountain on the way, which gives a great view of the city, the port, and beaches. I arrived back in Phnom Penh around 3pm and Siem Reap at 7.30pm, to a birthday card waiting for me from my oldest friend, Victoria.