It was pitch black when I arrived at Sihanoukville‘s port. A huge thunderstorm was brewing on the horizon, periodically lighting my surroundings. I had been dumped in a shabby area outside the central area of the port, where only a few boats were stationed. Noone I could see spoke any English. My motorbike driver had departed quickly, leaving me with no real certainty that this boat was actually going to take me to my destination – Koh Sdach. It’s a tiny island, home to only a few hundred people so boats rarely go there. My friend Sarah, who lives on the island and whom I was going to visit, assured me that the driver would take me to the right boat. Looking at it, though, I wasn’t so sure. I had been expecting some sort of passenger ferry, but it turned out to be a cargo ship. It was being slowly loaded by tired looking men who seemed not to have any problem vigourously throwing delicate looking packages aboard. A kind woman came up to me to see if I wanted to get on the boat. After making sure a dozen or so times that this boat really was going to Koh Sdach, I bought a ticket off her.
I got on, following a young monk and his brother onto the upper deck of the boat. Here, I saw my sleeping quarters for the first time – a nice hard wooden bench right above the noisy, noxious engines. I knew I wasn’t going to get any sleep, so turned to the monk to say hello. It turned out he and his brother were heading home to celebrate Cambodian New Year on the island with their family. We got on well for the first hour, practising our language skills on each other. I liked him a little less, when he said he was getting a headache and asked for some aspirin. I got out my packet to give him a pill, and he grabbed my whole supply. Who did he think I was, MSF? Conversation dwindled after that, so I feigned sleep for as long as I could. At a little past 3am, my destination appeared on the horizon.
Sarah had arranged for me to stay at one of the two island’s hostels, where I could sleep for a few hours before she would pick me up and take me on a day trip snorkelling around the coast. Unfortunately, as I was born an idiot, I went to the wrong hostel. It was also still pitch dark at this point, and there were no signposts at all. I was lucky to have found any hostel at all. As such, I wasn’t picked up, wasn’t taken scuba diving and was annoyed at Sarah for apparently having forgotten me. Around 10am, I decided to have a walk around the island, see thesights (of which there are few) and go find Sarah and yell at her.
Koh Sdach only has one street, running down the length of the island. Everyone lives on this road, from the cute little street kids who smile and wave and shout ‘hello’ at you to the island’s pseudo-mafia boss riding his motorbike carrying a tiny chihuahua in the front basket. I eventually found Sarah, who had gone out to look for me. She explained the confusion, how her boyfriend had spent ages looking for me earlier. The scuba boat had gone without me, she said, but I was welcome to take a snorkel and flippers and explore the coast. I was annoyed (at myself now) for missing the scuba boat, as I’d never been scubaing before, except for one disappointing trip in mid-winter on the south coast of England, where the only wildlife I saw was half a fish.
I left Sarah doing some important work on her computer. As well as running a scuba diving company with her boyfriend, they are also trying to set up a marine conservation area around the island. She explained that they’ve been teaching school children about wildlife, and helping the local fishermen organise a community-led sustainable fishery. It’s all very admirable stuff. I left to be frivolous and selfish and have fun snorkelling. Sarah ruined it a little by saying that the area does have a few stonefish so I should be careful. Knowing that its venom is one of the most painful, I was incredibly nervous wading out. Half way to swimming to a nearby island, I had a minor panic attack and had to turn back. To calm down, I made myself an impressive sand castle, a miniature recreation of the temples of Angkor (which I would visit later).
I returned back to Sarah’s house. We had lunch in a tiny local restaurant where, thanks to Sarah’s Cambodian language skills, we had a delicious meal. When we got back to the house, the scuba team had also returned. We chatted about the dive (which apparently wasn’t that great anyway) and other things for a few hours. Then, Sarah’s housekeeper cooked for us all another delicious meal, while we gradually got quite merry drinking local beer.
I had to leave at 4am the following morning, as this was the last boat that was going to leave the island for a whole week (since it was New Year). Luckily, it was impossible to sleep in Sarah’s house as it was, with no exaggeration, about a million degrees in there. I snuck out as quietly as I could, promptly knocking over dishes and waking the sleeping chickens outside. Getting to the dock, there was no helpful woman to guide me to the right boat, so I picked one more or less at random and boarded. This boat was a lot more crowded than the last, but I managed to find a bench to sit on. Once the boat set, it was only a few minutes before the sun began to rise, which was magnificent as the boat passed sleepily between the other countless tropical islands.