An Island Christmas (Part 1)

Waking up at 6:30am on a Saturday is not usually fun. But when the reason to do it so you can catch a bus to head off for vacation, that inspires less grudging when climbing out of bed. We had fortunately packed the night before, so there was less to get ready. A quick shower and we were off on the tuk tuk towards the bus station.

Getting to the bus was fast and painless, but getting out of the city in the bus was a whole different experience. The bus was actually a 12 passenger van. We left the station with only 4 people in it. By the time we got to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, all the seats were occupied. Having stopped along to way to grab more people, it added at least an hour to our already 6 hour planned ride.

The driver didn’t speak a word of English, which didn’t matter anyway. He didn’t say a word in Khmer either whenever we stopped. He would randomly pull over at a stop and people would pile out of the van in search for a toilet of snack for the ride. Somehow, they seemed to know when it was just a bathroom stop or when it was time to sit at a table and order lunch. Watching fellow passengers, we managed to figure out the purpose of the frequent stops. We used them as a chance to gather our breath and pray over the next set of miles, hopeful to survive the trip. Not only did the driver limit his speech, but he was also the world’s most aggressive driver. His communication was limited to constant horn blaring at other drivers. Any part of the road, the shoulder, the opposite lane, in between other cars in made up lanes, were all acceptable for him to drive on. The rural roads of Cambodia were polluted with big trucks transporting goods and construction vehicles not reaching over 60kph. Our driver was creative in his navigation around them.

By divine protection alone, we made it to the bus station in Sihanoukville. Having had only 13 near misses, we arrived on time. Upon exiting the van, we were bombarded with drivers calling out “tuk tuk?” Some with broken English “I know whole city, where you go?” We needed to go the port, and one driver offered to take us for a 5 dollar fare. After a painful negotiation with some words in English and some in Khmer, we agreed on 4 dollars. Still too expensive if you ask me. Foreigners are an easy target to squeeze more cash from.

We had pre-booked a boat ride to the island. The options were a ferry or a speed boat. The ferry would take a little longer to get across the bay. The speedboat said only 30 minutes ride. Easy choice. Having been already booked, the clerk found our names in the computer and directed us to sit in a waiting area full of benches. Some people were laying down from a long day of travel. Others were dressed in nice clothing with large sun hats, buzzing about excited to head to start their vacations.

After sitting for thirty or forty minutes, an garbled announcement in Khmer came from a small in adequate speaker mounted to the ceiling. Unable to understand what was said, we followed the crowd to the boat. The vessel had 6 outboard motors of 250hp each. This was going to be fast. I quickly realized everyone was boarding the boat. This was a little concerning to me. You see, there are two island resorts off the west coast of Cambodia: Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The latter was the smaller island with less excursion activities and tailored for quiet, smaller groups looking for relaxation and rest. That was our destination. But I doubted it was the same destination for the entire crowd.

When getting ready to board, a representative asked me which island we were going to. I answered and he pointed at our luggage bag and a spot on the ground next to him.

“Put bag here.” Hesitantly I obliged then he pointed to boat, “Go”.

“Koh Rong Sanloem?” I asked.

He nodded ever so slightly as if he was unsure of the answer and repeated “Go”.

The crew hadn’t provided boards to create a bridge from the port to the boat. Nor did they provide a step ladder or any mechanism to get on the boat. The method was wait for the water to calm then leap to the boat into the arms of a small Cambodian to break our fall, hoping to not miss and fall in between the potential crushing boat and concrete pier.

The speed boat was big with fifteen by six or so rows of bucket seats. We found a pair in the back where there was no roof, hoping to enjoy some sea experience and cool breeze. In minutes we regretted the decision. The sun beat down and the air was stale. We watched as passengers piled onto the shaky boat, growing more and more warm from the relentless sun. When all seats were full, we were convinced we would be on our way. But a full boat didn’t stop the crew from piling on more people. They stayed in the bow where they would have to stand for the trip. Then the crew started loading the luggage. Piles of suitcases, backpacks, and ice chests were tossed on to the boat and piled up between the people standing in the front. I could only hope our bad made it one. By the time we left, we had spent 30 minutes waiting in the sun, wiping sweat from our glistening foreheads.

Only another 30 minutes and we would be able to finally rest on the beach. We slowly undocked and carefully turned, mindful to not create wake. As soon as we were lined up to exit the port, the pilot hit is full throttle. All 6 engines were screaming, and the nose of the boat was out of the water. Docked boats bounced against the port, which we could only see in a blur.

The air was cool and the heat from the sun dissipated in the mist created by the water hitting the side of the boat. In open water, we could see Koh Rong Sanloem in the distance. It was a glorious green mound covered with trees, hovering motionless on the water. Next to it was another version, only bigger. That was Koh Rong, which I realized quickly was where our boat was headed.

“I don’t think we’re going to Koh Rong Sanloem” I shouted in Jeanine’s ear. The noise from the engines overpowered my voice. But she heard well enough to understand, and a look of panic was on her face.

Part 2 is coming soon!

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