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The next day, my husband and I decided to find our own adventure. We rented a motorbike for $4 and borrowed a couple of sturdy helmets from Bob, the Australian restaurateur who runs Bob's, in town. Then we headed east about 12 miles out of town to check out the Tatai waterfall with two friends we had met on the boat the day before a 20-something German woman who was traveling solo in Asia for six months and a dreadlocked guy we resorted to calling the Wanderer because when asked where he was from, he said, "My last address was Berlin, but I am now a man with no address," and when we asked for his name, he replied, "I don't believe in names. They are so superficial."
Tatai gushes rapids during the rainy season (May to October), but during the dry time of year, the river is low and dotted with warm, freshwater pools. Families picnicked and swam. And barefoot kids climbed up and hurled themselves off the cliffs in ways that would give most parents I know a seizure.
But the real adventure of the day was the motorbikes. The last time my husband Keirn had driven one was 10 years ago in the Philippines. Now that we live in Vietnam, where everyone gets around on scooters or motorbikes, we were keen to practice our driving skills and happy to do so outside Saigon's swirling, incessant traffic.
We rode the highway, over hills, across a bridge and back. It was exhilarating. But on the dirt access road from Tatai to the highway, we hit a patch of sand and lost control of our bike. Next thing we knew, Keirn and I were lying on our sides, covered in red soil, wondering if we were still in one piece. We were. We had been traveling slowly, luckily on a dirt road rather than asphalt, and there were lots of people around to help us.
Everyone came running. A group of five women our saviors pulled their truck over just past our crash. A few of them hoisted our bike into the truck bed, tied it down and piled in after it. Keirn and I climbed into the cab with the driver, who turned out to be the proprietress of one of the nicer guesthouses in town, Koh Kong Guest House (Street 1, Koh Kong; +855-16-654-171); she took us to a pharmacy before dropping us off at our hotel.
The Wanderer, it turned out, had trained as a nurse sometime in his shrouded past. It was another stroke of luck for us. I had gouged some holes in my hand in the accident, and Keirn had a deep gash on his elbow that probably should have gotten stitched. But we felt wary of our chances at a neighborhood clinic, so the Wanderer cleaned our wounds, patched us up and sent us back to our comfy bed to relax.
Which is what we did for the rest of our trip. From Koh Kong, we moved on to Sihanoukville, a 3-hr. drive southeast. Sihanoukville, named after a former king, is billed as Vietnam's up-and-coming high-end resort town, but for now, it is more accurately described as a beach town for backpackers. Hostels are abundant here, and there are a couple of nice hotels where you can get rooms for $5 to $400, depending on your budget. We got the last room, a private bungalow, at the one real resort in town, the Sokha Beach Resort (Street 2 Thnou, Sihanoukville; +855-34-935-999; firstname.lastname@example.org), which was nice enough but not worth the $200-plus per night.
Sihanoukville's main public beaches, Occheuteal and Serendipity, are lined with cafes that offer lounge chairs by day and become bars at night. This shoreline and the roads behind it constitute the town's most popular restaurant and nightlife area, and there's enough litter piled about to prove it. We had excellent Mexican food at the new Reef Resort (Road to Serendipity, Sihanoukville; +855-012-315-338; email@example.com), a boutique hotel, and practically fell asleep afterward on the huge pillows spread out on the sand at Purple Lounge (at about the midpoint of Serendipity Beach). The town's former main drag, a 10-min. ride northwest of that area, is called Victory Hill. The crowd there comprises mostly older Western men and their young Cambodian companions, which is a little creepy, but we had a nice French dinner at XXL (+855-92-738-641).
We pried ourselves off the beach for one day, paying a tuk-tuk driver $30 (probably too much) for a 6-hr. tour of town. If you like animals, ask someone to take you to the Buddhist monastery, where the legions of wild monkeys will eat out of your hand. And definitely set aside an hour to visit Boom Boom Room (Serendipity Beach Road; +855-12-219-657), where you can load up your iPod or MP3 player with supercheap music.
In recent years, Russian developers have taken an interest in Sihanoukville, helming many inventive projects, including Snake House (a guesthouse, restaurant and zoo on Mittapheap KampucheaSoviet Street; +855-12-673-805) and the town's most impressive bar, Airport (Krong Street; +855-34-934-470). It's an open hangar housing a real Antonov-24 turboprop plane, which makes up the club's VIP section. The airport opens onto Victory Beach, which during the day offers a small, calm, shallow shoreline without the hectic scene found on Serendipity.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia's main shipping port, so there's local wealth here as well. In five years, a handful of new resorts and several middle-class housing developments probably will have sprung up. So if you like your beach towns simple, cheap and dirty the Wanderer, for one, thought Sihanoukville was already too bustling you might want to go there now.
Meanwhile, if anyone wants to visit Angkor Wat, let me know.