Surrounded by the the deep blue-green of the Gulf of Thailand, i pause and lower the dripping paddle along the length of the kayak. Waves lap gently against its lurid yellow hull. Ahead, a small island curves upward from the horizon like a convex lens, a small window on a dense mound of green foliage.
Looking back to the Sihanoukville coast i appear to be equidistant between the two landfalls. My shoulders and arms ache, but in the warm sun and the cool breeze, it is an agreeable enough sensation. Even with my myopic vision i can make out a fuzzy strip of sand on the leeward side of the island. My glasses, along with my camera and towel, are stowed in a waterproof bag, in the entirely probable event that i should capsize.
Having never driven (ridden? wrestled with?) this type of kayak before, i wasn’t quite sure how i would go. The last time i attempted to paddle one of these long floating things was in an estuary off the North West Cape in Australia. A long and extremely thin craft, it was lent to me by a local oyster farmer, and i soon found there was an art to maintaining one’s balance on it, as it had all the lateral stability of a cylindrical floating log. At one point, a fellow kayaker paddled past as i was floundering about in the warm estuarine waters, trying to get the vessel righted and retrieve my paddle.
“You’re swimming here?” he asked, astounded, as he glided effortlessly by. “Aren’t you afraid of the sharks?”
“Pardon?” i spluttered.
“This a breeding ground for tiger sharks,” he explained. “And it’s breeding season.”
In as casual a voice as i could muster, i replied: “Oh, no. Sharks don’t scare me.”
He shrugged, and paddled on toward the mouth of the inlet. Of course, as soon as his back was turned, i clambered aboard and set a new water speed record as i flailed my way to the nearest shoreline.
“Sorry mate,” said Richard the Oyster Farmer, in his broad Australian drawl, when i returned his three-metre fibreglass death trap. “Shoulda mentioned the Noahs.”
The kayaks for hire on the shores of Otres Beach, Sihanoukville are much more sensible beasts. They come in two versions. One is wider and shorter than the other, for added stability. But having previously and rapidly mastered the art of keeping a narrow kayak upright, while escaping the circling tiger sharks, i felt confident enough to hire the faster, thinner version.
Otres Nautica, one of the many beach shacks that line the farthest and most laid-back of the beaches along Sihanoukville coast, rent them from $3 per hour to $8 for a half a day. For a two-person kayak, you are looking at $4 and $10. And unless you’re on steroids, half a day is plenty. You’re here to relax, remember. So if pumping seawater is not your thing – if you are more a fan of smooth sailing – you can rent a Hobie cat for $10 per hour or $30 per half day. However, as many of the islands of the coast are surrounded by submerged rocks, the Otres Nautica guys ask that you don’t try to beach one of their catamarans on the shores of an unfamiliar island.
But with its shallow draft, a kayak will get you just about anywhere.
And there are plenty of islands a short distance off Otres Beach to choose from – Koh Khteah, Koh Chrahloh, Koh Russei (Bamboo Island) and Koh TaKiev lie dotted about within a small distance of one another, down the coast and around the corner to the waters off Ream National Park. Given the only upper-arm exercise i get these days is lifting the occasional pina colada to my lips, i set my course for the nearest island, about two kilometres offshore. The coral-rich waters here are ideal for snorkelling.
The solitude, slow roll of the waves, the sun and the sand: it is a soothing antidote to the mad, turbulent flow of Cambodia’s boulevard traffic and highways. And with two- to five-dollar rooms in Otres’ many beach shacks, it is a cheap and cheerful way to escape.
But speaking of highway hell, you do need to factor Valium into your holiday budget. Because until the airport is reopened at Sihanoukville, the only realistic option of getting to the coast is by road. A share taxi is one option. A little blue pill and a four dollar bus ticket is another.
Valium. It’s not that I am an advocate immoderate self-medication. It’s more a question of avoiding the total nervous breakdown inevitably results from the travails of being fully conscious during the horrendous, horn-blasting, music-blaring, blind-corner-overtaking, zig-zagging trajectory through Highway 4 armageddon.
But it’s worth it to get to Otres Beach.
Buses leave from the station near Psar Thmei from around 7am, with fewer departures as the sun nears its zenith. Sorya, Mekong Express and Paramount are among the better services, but when traveling with Aunty Val, comfort becomes less of an issue. It takes around four hours to arrive amongst the indescribable squalor of downtown Sihanoukville. The first thing to do is get the hell out of there. As you alight from the bus, motodops descend upon you like flies on the proverbial. One of them can get you out to Otres Beach for around two dollars.
If you also wish to shuttle back and forth to town, or visit Victory Hill, Ream National Park or surrounds, a better bet is to leg it around the corner to DD Canada on Ekareach Street. Here you can hire a scooter for three dollars a day with your passport as a deposit. And while the proprietor will not win any awards for courtesy, the motos are in as-new condition and are well-maintained.
As I near the island, i am confident enough of not capsizing the vessel to unclip the waterproof bag and fetch my camera and glasses. Wow. When you see the greenery – huge, old trees and dense undergrowth – you realise how much of the Cambodian coastline has been denuded of its tall timber.
I run the kayak onto the sandy beach with a satisfying crunch.
A genuine tropical island getaway.
So. Return bus tickets, $8. Valium, $9. Two days moto hire, $6. Fuel, $2. Kayak, $8. Two nights’ accommodation on the beach, $10.
Getting three sheets to the wind on rice wine with the local fishermen: priceless.
Unedited version of an article published in
7Days "Weekend Escapes", Issue 5, August 28-September 3, 2009.