Mangrove swamps, mudbaths, snakes and a pair of thieves in the night

After a couple of lazy days on the beach, we decided to explore a little of the surrounding area today and hire a motorcycle to make the 26km journey out to Ream National Park. It’s frighteningly easy to hire a motorcycle out here in Cambodia : you don’t need a licence and you don’t even need to have ridden a motorcycle before. Fortunately Kotoe had owned a scooter back in Japan for some years and the 125cc motorbike which we rented from the Diamond Guesthouse was quite similar in its operation.
Ream National Park is located just of Route 4, an undulating but straight road slicing its way through the Cambodian countryside. When we pulled into the ranger station, we were met by a Jica (Japanese International Co-operation Agency) representative who happened to be from the same province in Japan as Kotoe. This worked in our favour and we managed to get a $10 discount off the $30 price to charter our own private motorboat around the national park. We relaxed on the deck of the boat as we were transported through dense mangrove swamps, several storks, some jumping shrimp and a few fisherman being the only other signs of life upon the calm shallow waters.
Our relaxing river journey became a little less relaxing when we reached the end of the wide river and were about to turn into the smaller tributary leading back up to the pier. It was still low tide and the water was not deep enough here to carry the weight of the boat, so our vehicle became stuck in the mud. Following our driver’s failed attempt to shift the boat, Kotoe and I volunteered our services. I stepped out of the boat and my entire leg, knee and half my thigh disappeared into a river of dense clay-like mud. It took a huge amount of effort to simply move my legs through the mud, let alone try to move the weight of the boat through it. No wonder our driver was struggling! Eventually, with the four of us (our driver, English-speaking guide, Kotoe and I) wading knee deep through the muddy waters, pushing the boat forward with all our strength and being watched by amused onlookers from another tourist boat upon the river, we managed to move the boat into deeper waters. Once we had done this the driver was very quick to restart the engine and as Kotoe and I were unable to walk as fast as the speed of the boat, we were almost being pulled along through the mud. Clinging on to the side of the boat, I managed to clamber aboard in the style of a beached whale, my legs caked in inches of thick mud reminiscent of those face packs they sell at Boots.
Shortly after we’d restarted the journey, the skies began to darken and large grey rain clouds floated into view. Within minutes there were large droplets of cold rain pelting down upon the roof of the boat. The other tourist boat had lost its roof in the wind and the couple aboard were attempting to keep dry under the shelter of a very flimsy umbrella. As soon as the boat docked, we jumped back on the motorbike and headed back into Sihanoukville, the hard rain burning my face and making it difficult to see.
We drove to Victory Hill (above Victory beach), and drank some warming coffee at Na Na Restaurant. Victory Hill (the original backpacker ghetto in Sihanoukville) looked very unattractive in the rain and there was no-one around, save for a tiny gathering of moto drivers parked at the end of the road. Once we’d dried off a little we headed over to The Snake House, an inventive little restaurant set amidst a flourishing reptile house. The glass-topped tables contain snakes inside and the nearby pond houses a rather ferocious looking crocodile who surfaces cunningly as you approach.
If you don’t choose to eat here, there is a fee of $1 to see the snakes, which includes a free soft drink. Among the snakes on display, there is a white python, an oriental whipsnake, a long-nosed whipsnake, and an indo-chinese ratsnake, as well as some turtles, a couple of forest geckos and an odd looking furry creature with huge eyes. It’s certainly a unique dining experience, but for those more adventurous meat-eaters, the snakes are only for show and not for consumption!
After leaving The Snake House we watched the sunset at Victory Beach and then headed back to the guesthouse. In hindsight I wish we’d have returned the motorbike at this point but as we still had half a tank of fuel we decided to hang on to the bike for the evening and drive into downtown Sihanoukville to find a place to eat. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn off the Three Lions roundaboat and ended up driving down the road to Sokha Beach, a road which was very poorly lit once we passed the enormous 5 star hotel complexes which surrounded Sam At Lake.
We were driving quite slowly as I was looking at the map to try and find a road that would lead us back into the centre of town. Two Cambodian guys on a motorbike appeared to be trying to pass us but were driving a little too close for comfort. Kotoe attempted to speed up but as she did the guys drove past and a hand came out to grab Kotoe’s bag from the basket on the front of our bike. As the bag was actually locked on to the basket, their attempt had been unsuccessful but it had managed to throw our bike off balance and the two of us fell on to the grass verge at the side of the road.
Once we realised we weren’t hurt – other than what would probably turn out to be a few cuts and bruises – we got up, remounted the bike and were about to start the engine to make our escape. However, in the time that it had taken us to do this, the guys had turned the bike around and one of them had returned to our bike on foot and made another grab for the bag. Kotoe tried to hit the guy to throw him off balance so that we could drive away but in a split second he had managed to wrench the bag, together with the basket it was still locked to, off the front of the bike, and started to run down the road, where his accomplice was waiting for him on the motorbike.
Instinctively we both leapt off our bike and let it fall to the ground whilst we chased after the guy. Clearly he hadn’t banked on us doing this, as I caught him up pretty quickly and made a grab for the bag. He tugged it from my grasp, and belted me around the head with the basket it was still attached to. Once I had recovered from the shock of the impact and managed to steady myself again to continue the chase, the guy had jumped on the motorbike and the two of them had sped away. Kotoe had been unable to catch him either. Following much cursing and shouts of “fucking wankers!” and “I cannot believe he came back for it!”, we jumped back on the bike, my head still thumping, and returned to the safety of our guesthouse.
Although the contents of her bag ($20, a camera, several memory sticks full of photos she was about to burn to CD, and a watch) were not insured, I tried to persuade Kotoe to go to the police station for three reasons :
  1. If, as was the case when I was mugged back home and my bag was stolen, the thieves were only after the money, the bag and the remainder of its contents may be dumped, found and handed in.
  2. If we had a crime reference number and the rental company (whom we’d hired the bike from) were insured, we would not have to pay for a replacement basket and padlock ourselves.
  3. We’d picked up the thief’s shoes (which he’d lost whilst running away from me) and I was hanging on to the possiblity that the police (or rather, a police dog) may be able to trace him from his footwear.

In reality, I was probably looking at the whole situation with a slightly idealistic viewpoint. The chances of the bag being handed in were very minimal, it’s very unlikely the rental company were insured (as no-one in Cambodia seems to have insurance) and i’d be very surprised if a policeman would be prepared to waste one of his dogs (if he has one) or his time on investigating an incident which is probably not altogether uncommon. When we returned the bike and paid $8 for the damages, we discovered that it’s actually quite a common occurance in this part of Cambodia : within the last few days, there have been another 2 incidents that the staff at The Diamond Guesthouse know about (one of them involved a couple being pushed off the motorbike and the motorbike itself stolen!) as well as the possible incidents they don’t know about.

Having returned the bike we walked down to the beach and ordered two large mugs of cold Angkor beer and Kotoe chain smoked about 3 cigarettes! In light of the situation Kotoe remained very calm and positive. I was seething with hate for the pair, furious that people like that can get away with such crimes and such brutal treatment of other human beings. Momentarily we laughed , recalling the way Kotoe had punched the guy and I had chased after him, and imagining how different the situation would have been if we were both martial arts experts. But, as rumbles of thunder approached and flashes of lightening illuminated the sky, I quietly hoped that a thunderbolt would find its way to that shoeless, heartless, cowardly little man, running through the streets with Kotoe’s memories in his hand.

Photo is of a longnosed whipsnake, The Snake House, Sihanoukville.

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