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Postcard from Cambodia – Part 3: The Road to China

December 2, 2019

Sihanoukville – concrete festooned with cranes

Holy shit! Such words rarely utter from my mouth, since in moments of perceived peril I prefer the British equivalent: “bloody hell”, or simply “I say…”. But there are times when the stiff upper lip dissolves into quivering astonishment.

Anyway, the last thing you want to read from a pampered old fart like me is a description of a road trip peppered with near death experiences. I leave that stuff to professional travel bloggers, most of them aeons younger than me, who make money through writing about their exotic experiences.

I suppose it also helps that most of them are fit, healthy and with Facebook smiles ready to burst into life at the moment God provides a majestic backdrop. Whereas you wouldn’t be fainting with pleasure at the sight of me sitting like a grumpy toad in a bus designed for malnourished stick insects on the way from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Just imagine William Barr, the equally toad-like Attorney General of the United States, in a pair of Marks and Spencer shorts and a sweaty tee shirt, man-spreading between a long-suffering wife and a Chinese construction worker. Not blessed, as the Irish, including my wife, would say. So no photos. I couldn’t stand the adulation.

But I’ll share a few snippets, more by way of caution for those thinking making a similar trip.

I’m well used to dodgy highways whose purpose is less to help people get from A to B than to enable trucks to carry their monstrous cargo from one centre of commerce to another. The Dammam-Jubail highway in Saudi Arabia is a good example, where trucks plough deep furrows that are difficult to negotiate even in a SUV travelling at 100 miles an hour, and which occasionally disappears into temporary sand dunes, hence the wrecked vehicles that litter both sides of the road.

But Cambodian National Highway 4 is something else altogether. It’s a two-lane road, but it has a truck’s width of compacted red soil on either side. Which is important, because most drivers consider this part an unpaved extension of the road, which explains why when you’re scuttling along and a huge truck full of concrete pipes appears on your side you quickly scuttle on to the hard shoulder to get out of the way. Or, when you encounter a tailback (every ten minutes approximately) you take a nifty shift onto the pot-holed soil for a few hundred yards before sidling back into the crawling line. There were times when I expected our bus to turn into a hovercraft and go straight across the paddy fields beyond the hard shoulder.

And then there are the motorbikes. As in most of the poorer countries in the region, the average Cambodian gets about in low-powered bikes that accommodate up to four people – usually two adults at either end with two kids squashed between them. Larger forms of transport adopt a might-is-right attitude, so when faced with overtaking oncoming traffic, the motorbikes scatter like houseflies, usually onto the side, but sometimes between the vehicles. The same goes for tuk-tuks. If I needed a daily reminder of how precious life is, one way of getting it would be to ride a stretch of Highway 4 on two wheels. Within seven days, though, I’d probably be dead – if not spread over the radiator of a juggernaut, certainly choked by the fumes.

What lies at the end of the road? Here’s a strange thing. Sihanoukville is one gigantic construction site. 90% of the hotels, apartments, malls and casinos being thrown up at breakneck speed are the result of Chinese investment. It’s as if the Chinese have run out of new cities to build in their homeland and have decided to inflict one on their neighbour. The city’s participation in the Belt and Road initiative probably has something to do with it. But the relentless appetite for tourism from mainland China is turning the once-modest port city into a concrete paradise, much to the dismay of locals who feel that their culture is being overwhelmed.

But if you were the minister of planning – if such a post exists in Cambodia – before allowing a construction boom, would you not build a proper road system, at least in the approaches to the city, that can accommodate the endless stream of pollution-spewing, road-churning traffic that turns a daily journey of a few miles into hours of automotive hell? And while you’re about it, why not build a proper railway that doesn’t just run on a single track three days a week. I’m sure the Chinese would be happy to oblige given their prowess in road and rail-building. Or is it that they don’t give a shit on the basis that most of their citizens will be arriving and returning by air?

The same goes for the other end of the journey. We were promised a four-hour bus journey. The bus was fifty minutes late leaving, and took almost two hours to crawl as far as Phnom Penh airport. The entire journey actually took eight hours, and that wasn’t even the end of the journey. Our considerate bus company, instead of taking us as scheduled to the bus terminus, dumped us outside the city centre without apology, leaving us a one-hour journey in a tuk-tuk to our destination. This to travel a mere 138 miles, at a measly average of 15mph.

Not that I’m complaining, because at least we were in an air-conditioned bus. But I felt sorry for the van-load of pigs, confined to tiny cages, noses bloodied by continual abrasion against the metal bars, staring mournfully at us as we passed them by.

If there is a minister of planning, he should be ashamed of himself, though he can probably claim that he inherited the situation. Phnom Penh is also a mess. A few well-designed traditional buildings surrounded by lumpy high-rises cheek by jowl across ridiculously narrow streets. Planning? You must be joking.

Phnom Penh

Sihanoukville, the part where people actually live as opposed to come to stay, is even worse.

Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, is a bit of an exception. There’s a distinct lack of high rises, and the place feels like less of a rat run, despite the famous tourist trap known as Pub Street, where bars compete with each other to make the loudest music – an auditory nightmare.

So what the hell, you may ask, are we doing in the middle of a construction site? Fortunately there are a few places where you can still escape the dust and the din, and that’s where we are. You can still hear the clanking and sawing as a background noise, but it’s distant enough to be able to filter out. The sea’s close by, even if you have to march past a shanty town of tattoo parlours, bars and minimarts to reach it. There you will see a contrast in vistas. Look left, and you will see dreamy green islands. Look right, and the concrete inferno shimmers on the horizon.

We’re staying in one of a collection of bamboo villas. Close by there are more basic versions rented out by backpackers for a few dollars a night. The place takes me back to our first trip to these parts back in the Eighties. Phuket at the time was on the cusp of development. No fancy hotels, no ladyboys and outside the main town not much else. Just wooden huts, beaches, long-tail boats and deserted islands. When we came back twenty years later, the place was unrecognisable.

No doubt this little resort, ran by a French guy, will give way to the concrete tsunami before long. Until then, it’s still possible to dine in relative peace and quiet with the owner’s choice of music in the background: Erik Satie, Ali Farka Toure, Cannonball Adderley, the Beatles and Monteverdi. And a reminder of times gone by as impossibly frail-looking female backpackers waft past to check into their huts across the road.

Yes, I know, this is a western lament in the Asian Century. We no longer count, and, you could argue, nor should we if we don’t bring in the money that helps the country develop. Assuming, of course, that that’s where the money goes, rather than into the pockets of the corrupt.

When the concrete collides with the sea, crushing the shanty towns and driving the unmoneyed travellers elsewhere, how long before the little green islands also become grey monuments to mass tourism? I suspect the plans are already being drawn up somewhere in a Shanghai office block.


From → Postcards, Social, Travel

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