"Snakville? Sihoonville? Si – hou – nak -ville...? Eeeeey 'ow you say it again bonita???"
Never has a place been visited by so many ...whose name could be pronouced by so few. I leave Phnom Penh at 8am in the morning and arrive four hours late into the dusty bus station just outside of the main sprawl of Cambodia's “premier” beach resort down in the South of the country - Sihanoukville.
Martin, Juan and Amparo (the Spanish girl I met on the bus ride from hell) are all staying in the centre of town at the optimistically entitled hostel “Utopia.” If your idea of spiritual nirvana is a bunch of ruddy faced 18 year olds swigging from whisky buckets surrounding a tiny neon lit pool to the obligatory thump of Gangam Style... then perhaps...
“They say if you swim in that pool you can get pregnant!” whispers Amparo with a husky giggle.
Sihouanakville isn't very nice. Its trying to be Thailand but it just doesn't have the pretty to compete. The waters are a rough murkish green, the sands are greying and every spare grain is rammed with tourists and child hawkers touting toot.
The next day, Martin, Juan and I decide to ship on out to Bamboo Island - which is supposed to be better. We have our big backpacks with us and end up getting on a boat filled with Russians doing a day trip. When it doesn't look like we are going to reach our destination any time soon we strip off and join in their fun - throwing ourselves from the top of the boat. They are the archetypal definition of a White Russian: mostly middle aged with huge flabby paunches of pallid skin that hasn't seen sun for a while.
A large arrow headed jelly fish floats in the waters. If this were Australia the crew wouldn't allow us in the water, but its not, its Cambodia - so they just watch as the Russians continue to hurl themselves from the top deck.. and one pasty girl comes up for air with a shawl of scarlet streaks across her shoulders where its tentacles have brushed against her skin.
Juan starts chatting to a couple of the younger Russian girls and they obligingly begin to preen and pose for both boys' benefit. I'm hot and feeling uncharitable today (having to lug The Bastard around hasn't helped. ) Is this what happens when you are with someone very good looking – because to be honest bearing in mind my exes, I simply haven't had much experience of that. I'm not sure I could handle being with a guy so good looking he was always getting female attention. I would never make eyes at a guy if he had his girlfriend by his side but that doesn't seem to stop some women with less integrity flaunting it about. Later, when we decamp to another beach, the Russian girls happen to be there too and wade out and position themselves next to us even though we are hugging in the water.
They ask “Where is Juan???...” but I have a feeling they've waded out to continue the show for Martin's benefit. It makes me feel churlish and petty, but I can't stop thinking “I've already got the face, I don't need to put on the parade...”
Or maybe i've just caught a glimpse of the other ugly face of my feminine insecurities ...hmmmm.
We finally get to Bamboo Island which is not quite what its cracked up to be, I heft The Bastard on my back and we make our way across the other side of the island, dodging hanging vines and millepedes as we go. There is a laid back bar with a nice vibe and we check out the bungalows. Its literally a bed: no fan and no ensuite. I'm not sure Martin looks that overjoyed to be staying either but I put on my best brave face nonetheless. Then I try and shut the window and a big wormlike creature wriggles out and I let out a blood curdling scream.
"I'm not sure you really comfortable here, bonita” he says: “come on lets go.”
It doesn't take much to persuade me, so we decamp and get the boat back and I suggest we take a tuk tuk to Otres beach which the owner of The White Rabbit in Phnom Penh has recommended to me. Its a 10 minute drive down the road, but its a world apart from the seedy sex slinging, grimy throng and seedy thongs of Sihouanakville.
Martin is sick and I'm worried he's coming down with tonsilitis; it hurts for him to swallow and he's burning up. So the little romantic beach holiday a deux stumbles a little bit but as I scramble to go and sleep in the other bed he grabs me and says:
“Eeey bonita, I'm sick that's all! Not dying!” How very ummmm Latin American....
We end up watching a couple of films. You are in paradise and you want to stay in a cheap hotel room and watch dvds??? Yes! It was heaven – there has been nothing I miss more (particularly after deciding to travel for a year enforced singledom upon me) than cuddling up at the weekend with a boy and a good film.
I'm not really a chick flick, romcom kinda gal so we watch Unthinkable. It starts with an actor that seems to be doing his best “method – Juillard does Iraqi terrorist” face - sure enough its the British actor Michael Sheen working up a sweat.
Sheen plays a terrorist who has planted three nuclear bombs around the US that he will detonate if the Government don't meet his pro Musli country demands. Samuel L Jackson is brought in to extract information by torturing him and when the clock is in its final moments of ticking, he wants to resort to mutilating Sheen's wife and children as well in order to find out the location of the bombs. It is, at its heart, a moral dilemma. Does the end justify the means? If the only way to save millions of people was the torture of a terrorist's two children what call would you make? I honestly don't know if I can answer it. Do I even have to? After the history lesson in horror that i've been educated in in Vietnam and then The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh – it feels too close to home. How do human beings commit the unthinkable against each other? Somehow they find a way of justifying it in their own minds.
Its lovely spending time with someone with whom I have so much fun...so many laughs...and he strikes me as fairly together for someone about 15 years my junior (ahem.) When most of the men in my entire life have spent their considerable focus on complimenting my tits n' ass it seems remarkable this 23 year old cites my patience with his friends' English skills as something to find attractive in me.
It also causes me to reflect again on how great it is to go travelling. I meet people who tell me tales that are so far removed from my own litle London world experience. Martin tells me a remarkable story. How his friend called round one day and encouraged him to go hunting with him. They killed a deer and cut it up. He helped lug the heavy weight of the carcass home, its back spread over his with the legs and hooves draped over each shoulder. He describes the ordeal of dragging the dead and furry weight through the mountains and the navy pleats of frozen streams in Patagonia. When he burst through the door of his home in a mustard shirt sodden purple with blood - his mother screamed. She thought he'd killed a man.
He continues my love affair with Argentina. I think in part my fascination is down to the fact that the people i've met are so similar to me and my friends in terms of lifestyle and humour, except with the flip of a coin, they've grown up in a third world country; another parallel universe in which they or their parents experienced what it was like to live under a brutal military dictatorship that “disappeared” people. In the 70s and 80s his own parents (both doctors) who were students of medicine had to move out of Buenos Aires and to the North of the country as they were under threat for being educated people.
We spend the next couple of days in a blissful haze, lounging on sun beds with proper white comfy cushions at a place called The Lighthouse. Its run by a Brit that understands the importance of proper freshly ground coffee, a genuine crumbly butter croissant, salty thick ham and fresh apricot jam as well as poached eggs. Impossible to find so far in Asia.
Women come past hawking mediocre manis and pedis and massages, which while away a few hours. The water is calm and warm. On our final evening we eat at a beach BBQ (a tough critic of a BBQ - an Argentinian...) but for $5 dollars each we get a plate of chargrilled squid, prawns and white fish and a plate of grilled chicken, pork and steak along with fries, salad and beer.
The waves are crashing and the moon is beautiful and bright in the sky. It just peeps through the soft feathered branches of the pine trees and a gentle guitar music floats across the breeze.
“Ey bonita you wanna come to my beach party?” asks Martin with quite possibly the dirtiest laugh I have ever heard...
“Mmmm maybe – do you wanna see my full moon?” I retort.
So we walk along the beach away from the bars and leave behind the sound of laughter and the dying embers of the fire. The moon is incredible – huge and bright and full with an extraordinary luminous circle around it; not the usual tight amber ring created by cloud shine but an enormous silver halo that stretches out far around it and fills the sky. The sand is glowing white under our toes, he strips off his clothes and wades out into the sea and I do the same. The water is milky and soft and lights our skin to pearl. This is, I think, my first time skinny dipping in the sea. I can't think of a more beautiful moment to try.