Unplugged on Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

When in doubt, go to the beach.

Even when not in doubt, go to the beach.

Just go to the beach, damn it, that’s all there is to it!

So I did – I’ve come to the beach and as always, it’s a magical balm!

This might sound funny coming from someone who lives in Hawaii, the quintessential beach paradise. And it may seem a long way to travel to hang out on a beach (especially from Hawaii!); but there’s a beach flair here (and in Mexico, the Caribbean, the South Pacific) that for me, really is the quintessential beach paradise in a way that Hawaii isn’t – it’s the simple bamboo thatched-roof palapa beach huts right on the sand next to the sea thing. It’s a style that Hawaii hasn’t really adopted, going more for the fancy hotels and condos thing; but for me, I love this style and I’ve arrived in just such a place!

I researched for hours and hours on the internet in my last night in Phnom Penh looking for possible places to stay, reading about the different beaches and the myriad of opinions and must-dos and must-avoids. All the while, I kept getting drawn back to Otres Beach, but with very little in the way of specifics to enable me to rent a bungalow here. I emailed several places, but the only ones which I heard back from were all in the very busy, touristy, one-place-lined-up-after-another beach area and I knew that I wanted no part of that. I don’t want to be around the 20-something, let’s drink all night and scream and yell crowd; you know, the ones who’ve made the Full Moon Rave parties in Thailand so famous – nope, scratch that off the list of must-dos for sure! But without a reservation in hand, I boarded the early morning bus out of the capitol city and had visions and imaginings of what this next leg might bring. I knew what I wanted and primarily it meant a rest. I wanted to simply stop for awhile.

As I sat on the filled-to-capacity bus, my mind kept carrying me back to a most fateful arrival on a beach not so terribly far from here, a time when I was wayyyyy road-weary from travel in India and the beach soothed me then like no other place can. It sure helped that a divine Aussie man who had been my lover at an assortment of other amazing places on the planet just happened, by total and complete surprise, to be there when I arrived. And today, I simply can’t get him or that time, out of my mind. In fact, I’ve just re-read the story I wrote about that fateful day – and as a total aside, I include it here just because it is so very present in me tonight even though it all happened 11½ years ago!!

October 1999

Shelter from the Storm

My spirit is spent. Loneliness envelopes me. Mother India has won. Either I leave this country immediately, whimpering and defeated, or head south to a much-recommended quiet, calm beach village with practically guaranteed rejuvenation. Upon quiet reflection, intuition’s compass easily steers my course. The decision is made. I begin to figure out the myriad travel logistics necessary to carry me to the Arabian Sea. First, I gift myself the luxury of a flight rather than a twenty-four hour torturous train ride. Good idea.

A short rickshaw ride to the Delhi airport. A three-hour, uneventful plane ride to Goa. Then a quick bus ride to the station for a longer one. A four-hour over-packed full bus ride to Chaudi. I’m the only westerner, surrounded with Indian men, screaming children, women with crackling plastic shopping bags and of course, chickens. The noises and smells are, as everywhere I’ve been in this country: blaring, noxious, ever-present, in-your-face. Personal space is neither. I’m more than lucky to have a seat. Teeming down late monsoon rains make the roads through the splashing, rickety windshield wipers barely visible. I feel suffocated by the stale, still, hot air. I sit behind and across from the driver. Less than half way into the ride, billowing, bright orange flames and a putrid, burning smell begin spewing out of the dashboard. Loud laughter from everyone, except me. The driver hardly slows. Horrified, I jerk my body up in rigid attention, look around and try to imagine an escape route. Realizing there is none, I sit back down into my now familiar resignation and preferred invisibility, holding the tension that has become my constant companion as a western, single woman traveling alone in India. Men see the terror on my face, smile and shout, “No problem, no problem!” The flames are doused with some unidentified liquid pulled from under the seat and I have a sinking feeling this is not the first time they’ve seen these flames. All quite ordinary fare. We carry on.

Remarkably in one piece, we arrive in Chaudi. It’s early evening. The rain continues its relentless downpour. I’m facing the final leg of this interminable trip. High finance, lengthy negotiations ensue for a less-than-a-dollar rickshaw ride to Palolem. Little do these folks know how much I know about the finagling that’s required and the little money that things actually do cost. I may be a haggard western traveler by now, but don’t mess with me. The first hotel I see, the Palolem Beach Resort, palatial in contrast to my typical standard, is perfect in this moment. I demand that the rickshaw driver stops. He hesitates to pay attention. Somehow I muster the energy to sound determined and in control. “Stop. Please. Yes, right here. This is good enough. No, I don’t want to go to your cousin’s hotel. Thank you.” I scurry out. I’m exhausted, wet, cranky and scared. I have too much riding on this place. How can it even begin to soothe the weariness in my soul?

I take a few minutes to settle into my surprisingly clean, over-priced room that I would have gladly paid double for. (I’ll find another tomorrow.) A cool shower releases the layers of the day’s dust and travel and quenches my thirst for renewal. I’m at the beach, I realize, marveling at my ability to feel some excitement amidst the fatigue. Shuffling through my bag, I come upon a colorful sarong in which I’m happy to adorn myself. Finally, I’m freed from having to cover up my body in protective garb from the street gawkers which never worked anyway. I hurriedly head out to the beach before the charcoal of night prevents me from seeing where on earth I’ve landed. Amazingly, the rains have quieted.

The beach is just a few meters’ walk from my room. The sun has already set and the sky is painted with that burnt glow of dusk and pink cotton candy colors. I’m stunned. A crescent, white-sand beach, lined with towering, swaying palm trees stands before me. Just a few temporary, thatch-roofed, open air bamboo structures are scattered about. No people. No trash. No rotting stenches. No noise. Only the sound of the Arabian Sea gently lapping on the shore. The beach goes on in both directions for a kilometer or more. It’s the quintessential beach setting. Perhaps I’ve died and this is my heaven.

I look around cautiously, confused, literally not sure whether I believe my eyes. I’m suspicious, even. Is this some kind of backdrop? My daily witnessing of the tragedy and deluge of human suffering, garbage and poverty has taken its toll. I don’t know if it’s real. I’m startled with the reminder that beauty still exists.

An ever-so-slight, almost too slight to mention settling of my shoulders weaves it way down to my diaphragm, from where contented sighs come back up and out. I am still alive. This is real. And I have Chris, my dear Aussie, sometimes traveling companion and always awesome lover to thank for sending me here. Too bad he’s half way around the world right now, on his own travel adventure. I effusively express my gratitude to him. Out loud. Even have a little conversation with him. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into, you see, this speaking out loud to myself business. Several days can go by traveling alone and I don’t speak to another person. If for no other reason, it’s an excuse to hear my own voice.

The all-day rain has finally let up. I take off my sandals and with each step, my feet sink deeper in to the soft, powdery sand. A fresh breeze delicately guides me as I stroll down the beach. For now, it’s enough company. I walk past a restaurant and then another, both dark and empty. I come upon a small beach bar that seems to appear out of nowhere, full of, of all things, people: talking, drinking, cavorting! It’s fairly close to the water’s edge, and my body instinctively turns in its direction. My mind catches up and follows along. Another good idea.

Up the sandy steps, I head to the bar to order a cool drink and find my place among the revelers. For the second time this short evening, I’m challenged to believe my eyes. This time another kind of beauty astounds me. There’s a familiar face across the bar. He’s smiling at me. I’m dazed, flabbergasted. Time stops. The once crowded bar remains filled, but now only with the electrical charges flying between us. My skin is tingling. Everywhere. My body is simultaneously frozen and melting.

It’s Chris! You know, that Aussie bloke I just had a little chat with earlier on the beach. Neither of us moves. We smile and laugh. Our eyes are positively glued to each other. We don’t dare move them away, lest the other vanishes. He looks so casual, as if he’s greeting me after I’ve just returned from the bathroom. Now we do move, swiftly and determinedly and we’re embracing. Still my body shakes. I’m bowled over. We hold each other tightly now, squeezing, nestling, effortlessly finding that place where we meet and merge.

“What are you doing here”? I ask, perplexed.

“Waiting for you,” he says, his eyes twinkling.

We can’t talk, touch, kiss or drink each other in quickly enough. There’s an urgency to the energy, like this dream will float away if we blink our eyes. We have to grab at it, chug it down while it’s here. I step away, not even a step really, to take him in, to continue the gulping. His thick, dark hair, full of wavy curls, flows down toward his broad shoulders. That smile, that impish, up-to-something Cheshire smile. His eyes, those captivating green eyes that I bathed in from the moment I first met him. His bronze-tanned skin peeks through the gauze of his sheer white cotton shirt, and I am enticed by the rest of what I know is under there.

The shock begins to soften ever so slightly. I take smaller sips now, savoring and trusting that I can slow down without him disappearing. No, it’s no dream; it’s really him. It’s really me. He’s really here and I’m really here and he’s really not here with that attractive blonde woman he was talking to when I arrived! I’m giddy with what I know is coming. I breathe deeply and casually reach out to the bamboo railing behind me for a little support.

The energy between us is as magnetic as ever. As what drew us together when we first met on a path overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the Ligurian Coast of Italy, in ‘My Manarola’; as what vibrated through us for weeks together on the Isle of Crete and the Aegean Sea. And what now again, has serendipitously led me up the steps of Ciaran’s Camp in Palolem, Goa, India on the Arabian Sea. I am drenched in the holy waters of these Seas we’ve crossed to swim together.

With rapt attention, we catch up on the last quarter of a year. Giggling, we recall our outlandish tales of the mishaps, misfortunes and daring discoveries of our solo travels. Chris makes me laugh like I haven’t laughed in what feels like a lifetime – it’s the devil-may-care laughter of uninhibited joy. I laugh until my belly hurts – at his silliness, his sometimes unintelligible Aussie dialect and his willingness to make total fun of himself. And he’s clearly tickled by how he’s tickling me. We gingerly tease each other. I catch myself falling into what I had thought was a bygone ease, and the peculiarity of it scares me.

My tears leak out as I describe the last months’ trials and torments of Indian life that have bruised and battered me. It’s not only the constant intrusive harassment, but the spiritual pollution I’ve witnessed daily throughout India’s clogged streets, teeming with flagrant disregard for life. I’ve been on the wrong side of weary.

It’s hard for me to conjure up that care-free, open, playful woman he met on those Italian cliffs many months ago. I suddenly feel self-conscious of this and tell him so. “No worries, Mate,” he says. He still recognizes me, and somehow him doing so makes it possible for me to do so, too. His soft words and kind heart hold me, invite me to let go, to let down this guard, to begin the demolition work on this brick wall I’ve armored myself in. These past months, lingering on as they have, to give me the hallucination of a life-time, of a time I have felt so achingly alone, lost and invisible to the world. And now, to open to this solace: to be found, to be seen, to be known. I feel the rigidity and tightness in my body slowly melting away, more slowly than I’d like, but I let the pace be.

He, too, has had his own challenges: a hard, disappointing trip to Baja, complete with robbery, lost passport and Federales hassles. While his style is not to belabor those details, he lets me see the anguish in his now sad eyes.

We listen intently. We understand and feel understood. We find refuge in this generosity of presence. We revel in the soothing comfort of simply knowing that it’s a new day.

In a moment and only a few words, it’s settled that tomorrow I’ll be moving in to his two dollar a night, sand-floor bamboo hut, three meters from the beach; and we’ll take the rest as it comes. For tonight, he’ll be moving in with me.

And move in he does. Though desire has been building all evening, we linger. Unhurriedly, we undress and slide into bed, slowly reacquainting ourselves. We touch lightly, kiss gently, prolonging this mesmerizing enchantment. My prior exhaustion long forgotten and the earlier urgency between us lifted, we gracefully dance across the threshold into that magical field of familiarity, pent-up passion and still plenty of undiscovered territory to explore. Our hungers, our longings, our desires, so compatible, so healed in the way we touch and taste and penetrate one another. Before we know it, the glimmer of daybreak appears through the windows.

I languidly greet this morning with an invigorated spirit. He’s still here at my side. My body remembers. With each kiss, each embrace, each taste and thrust, gentle and powerful, I remember. I am wet, flooded with remembering what it means to be connected. I take him in once more, this time completely, profoundly. I realize I am surrendering not only to him, but to life itself.

And so it is. Life can change in a day. Everything can be different.

Okay, so back to the future … or to the present – Sihanoukville, southwestern Cambodia – March 2011. The bus ride was uneventful, although longer than anticipated (aren’t they all?!), stalled by stand-still traffic in Phnom Penh for over an hour. I knew I would be trampled with the tuk-tuk drivers upon our arrival in S’ville, so I braced myself and decided to be easy and relaxed with the chaos of it all. Without a specific plan in mind as to where I was headed, I descended from the bus and already had several guys following me to the luggage area offering me moto (motorcycle taxi) and tuk-tuk rides. As they asked where I was going, I wondered what was gonna come out of my mouth … without hesitation, I said, “Otres Beach.” The tuk-tuk drivers became less interested as it’s the furthest beach with a road that’s not terribly friendly to tuk-tuks. But one of the moto drivers remained glued to me and after a short amount of finagling, we were off and cruising. I only asked him to drive slowly and got the standard answer – ‘no problem, no problem!’

As we drove past the busiest parts of the beach town (I could see the sea off in the distance), he kept pointing out other bungalows and guest houses reciting their prices and how convenient they were to everything. “But I don’t want to go there”, I kept saying. Then he pointed out other ones that were blocks away from the beach – “But I want to be on the beach,” I insisted.  Finally he was getting the idea and we continued to whir by the busy-ness. We left behind signs of beach BBQs and ATMs; Happy Hours and $1.99 Breakfast Specials; Girlie Bars and Tattoo Parlours … and the road became a sandy, bumpy, narrow track that was hard enough for a motorcycle to navigate. But navigate he did, effortlessly,;and he patiently drove up to each bungalow along Otres Beach – of which there were only a half a dozen or so … but because I simply must know all my options, I had to see each and every one of them. Some were simple shacks without even a door to close, only bamboo blinds which functioned as walls – very Puna-like, but I wanted something a little less rustic. We pressed on to the very end of the beach and there I came upon my beach hut.

Ridiculously named, “Cinderella’s,” I recalled it as one I had written to but hadn’t heard back from. I liked what I saw before I was even off the bike. Stand alone, separate, thatch-roofed, bamboo, A-frame-style bungalows that crept right up to the water’s edge, just inches away from the gently lapping sea. And I knew, I just knew I was in the place I wanted to be. Several tree-covered, non-inhabited islands dot the horizon. The sun sets practically right in front of my bungalow. There is no sound other than the sea. As I stepped onto the sand, my feet sunk into the soft talcum powder-like sand. I headed directly into the water and not one muscle in my body flinched at the temperature – actually, quite the contrary … the melting process had begun. And this time, rather than from sweltering heat, it was from the delicious comfort that only soft sand and a warm sea can give me.

So here I am in the “Boot House # 2” – I think they meant to write ‘Boat House’ as the outside is shaped like a boat.

Isn't this sweet?!

The place is owned by a German man – yep, you got it, his name is Rainer. <sigh> He’s in Germany now and in his absence, it’s run by a sweet young Khmer family who are friendly and welcoming. Ohyes, I’ll take it! And yes, I took the most expensive one at $15, which I just couldn’t resist as it’s right next to the water – I mean right next to it! Oohhhhh, this is heaven!!!

I spent the afternoon getting acquainted with my new digs. I laid on the chaise. I had some lunch. I gazed at the sea. I went in the sea. I went in the sea again. And again. I walked along the beach, in the water, along the water. I had a cold (I’d like to say ice-cold, but …) beer. I read. I had a few words with the local folks working here. I had dinner. And now, I’m back in my sweet little bungalow, doing what I want to do more than almost anything … writing.

But there’s no electricity here, only a generator that’s only on for about 3 hours a day. And no hot water. And there’s certainly no internet! They do have it down the beach a bit and I may end up down there when I feel the need for slightly more civilization, but for now, I’m here at Cinderella’s! It’s a place of total peace and quiet that I’m thrilled is still something that can be found out here in the world.

It’s now a few days after my arrival – this is my 3rd night here – and as I wonder about the next leg of my trip, I can’t help but feeling like I just want to hang out here for awhile.

After a few hours of my first afternoon here, I wondered if I could really stay. It’s ridiculously romantic and the only other travelers I’ve encountered are all couples. I felt like I had landed on a gorgeous deserted island surrounded with pretty boring straight couples – ugh – what had I done to deserve this fate?! I actually thought of leaving because I didn’t want to be surrounded with all this couple energy – but then I decided that that was really the ridiculous thing – this was just the kind of place I had ordered up and I certainly wasn’t gonna leave out of a sense of awkward aloneness. It didn’t help, of course, when one of the men running the place repeatedly pressed the point – “You’re alone?” <Yes> “Why are you alone? “ <Because I want to be> “How could you travel alone?” <Very easily, thank you!> “Where’s your husband?” <He’s dead> (that shut him up!)

It reminded me of my early solo travels when having dinner, especially in nicer restaurants, was awkward for me. Sometimes I wouldn’t even go to such places. Sometimes I would hide in a corner and eat as quickly as I could. And often, I felt self-conscious and aware of the pitying looks people would give me because I was alone (perhaps a slight projection on my part – ?!). But that was a very long time ago and that awkwardness is long gone. It’s a non-issue now, the eating alone thing and soon, so will this being alone thing here in Honeymoon Heaven! And hey, I’m open to an adventure if it appears along the horizon (or anywhere else, for that matter!). So it’s settled – let the couples be damned … or even better, let them be … let myself be … and all is well in the world!

My second day here I awoke early, had an early morning swim (wow, the water is still warm like a bath!) and then took a looooong walk along the beach. The beach is quite a narrow strip of sand with some ironwood-like trees dotting the shoreline offering some shade along with plenty of sunning opportunities. And it goes on for many kilometers in both directions. I walked in the direction of where there are more guest houses and restaurants – we’re the last guest house on the beach and it’s about a mile+ to where there is more ‘civilization.’ I spent the entire morning walking, stopping for tea here and breakfast there and even checked email in one place. Then back here at Cinderella’s in the afternoon, with ocean dips all along the way and reading and napping.

I had read about an Italian restaurant (with a ‘real’ Italian, from Italy!) in the area but didn’t see it on my walk, so I asked about it here at the guest house. Oh yes, they knew about it and they could take me there whenever I wanted to go. Tonight would be the night – authentic Italian in Cambodia – I’m there! I got on the back of the motorcycle and off we headed, just a mile or so up the road, but off the beach – mauka as we would say in Hawaii.

It appeared to be someone’s house, but there were a few tables set up. A woman and man were sitting at one table sipping chilled white wine. They both got up to welcome me when I arrived, so I assumed these were the Italians I had heard about. Sure enough, the accents were there, the hands and arms gesticulating wildly. Yep, I found the Italian place!

A lovely evening ensued of talking with the Italian guy who, after talking to me for 20 minutes, finally took my order: A glass of white wine, bruschetta and penne arrabiata, yes, strong, please – and everything, everything was fabulous! They live in Italy half the year and here half the year (hhhmmmm…!!) and they bring the olive oil and parmesan cheese with them! We enjoyed plenty of laughs together and the company was a welcome relief.

My next day here was a day of total and complete ease. I read for hours, swam and laid in the ocean for hours, napped, ate and read some more. While I would like to be writing more, I am somewhat restricted in the amount of time I can write based on the time my computer can be un-plugged. I have about four hours a day of charge time – other than that, I’m stuck hanging out and swimming – oh, what a fate!

As I fell off to sleep last night, it became clear to me that it was time to leave Cinderella’s – the feeling just came and I went with it. So I got up out of bed at 1:30 am, began packing up my things, preparing to move down the road where I could access electricity and the internet and stay more inexpensively.

I got up for the sunrise, which was spectacular and then took a long walk on the beach in the other direction – enjoyed a lovely morning swim and then made my way the long mile to my new home.

I knew the place I wanted to come to – although not on the beach, it’s directly across the street, a 10-second walk at most and really, I had my amazing time right at the lapping sea. For now, I wanted something clean, comfy and cheaper. And I found all that and more at Mushroom Point, still on Otres Beach. There were no single rooms left when I arrived, so I’m staying in the dorm – probably one of the nicest dorms I’ve ever seen – a round room, with several beds each encircled in their own mosquito net and all of them round beds! At $7 a night, this will really help my budget, which has been a bit too far afield from my projected amounts. I’m all settled in, spent the afternoon walking the beach here, having a few snacks, swimming, getting a massage on the beach ($5 for an hour)! and talking with some folks. It feels good to be here – less isolated, more energy around and not stuck on that deserted couple island! No really, I loved being there and now, I love being here!

My New Home!

Tomorrow I’ll head into Sihanoukville as it’s time to take care of some business – like getting my Vietnam Visa, picking up a few toiletry items and such. I’ll put myself on the back of another moto and off we’ll cruise!

So, while I’ve been unplugged on Otres Beach, I’m back in touch and now, I can write, write, write! That is, if I can find the time in my busy beach schedule!

Oh, one more thing, most of this area’s beachfront is owned by the government and they recently sold it to some foreign interests who want to build some big fancy resorts – this beautiful paradise will be transformed into something completely different … all the more reason to enjoy it as it is while I can!

Oh, yeah, and one more, one more thing … I had quite the traveling plans in mind for this area – going north of here, heading over to a nearby Thai island … on and on. I’ve decided to do none of it. Really, I’m on the best beach I can be on – there’s no need to search out another one. Ohsure, I imagine there are some amazing sights to behold in those other places – but guess what, there are here, too. And I’m staying put here for the rest of my beach rest time. Then I’ll spend a week in Kampot & Kep, small nearby villages – they still call me, but cancel the further afield travels – I’m too busy doing nothing!

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2 Responses to Unplugged on Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

  1. James Mack says:

    Christina,
    Once again you amaze me with your seemingly innate connection to the Universe, your sensitivity to your spirit….have I told you recently that you’re my hero?!

  2. Donna Ingenito says:

    You’re back!!! I’ve missed you! What a lovely story you’ve shared…

    Reading over your posts of the last few days I am filled with awe, and so very proud of you. My wish for you, my dear sister, is that this trip is everything you want it to be, and even everything you *don’t* want it to be…and that all of it is perfectly OK, because ultimately, it’s all about the journey, the adventure. After all, you’re traveling, not on vacation, and it was only recently that I came to understand the difference between the two after a discussion we had (I think it was when you were talking about your trip to India).

    One thing I have learned, is that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely…I could be in a room full of people and feel lonely, if they’re not the *right* people to be surrounded by. I’m glad you were able to connect with the Italians and get a good sense of being around the right folks! And of course, whenever you’re feeling like you need a friendly voice, I’m just a skype call away.

    Much love, and more safe travels to you!
    P.S. Love the digs!!!

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