When I came to Southeast Asia for the first time in 2006, I expected to spend most of my time in Vietnam and Thailand. I wanted to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia but was going to skip Sihanoukville in favor of the beaches and islands of Thailand. Things didn’t work out as planned.
I wanted to see Vietnam because I had written an article in 1998 for a photographer friend who couldn’t sell his photos.
We decided if an article was attached, they might be more willing to publish his photos. I sat down with him and went through his itinerary in Vietnam and pretended I had traveled with him. Heritage, the Vietnam Airlines in-flight magazine, accepted the article but wanted me to write it in two parts.
When I got to Vietnam, I had the two-part article in my backpack and planned to follow the route “we” had taken in 1998.
The day before I was going to start my journey from Ho Chi Minh City, I saw a cyclone warning on TV. I decided to save touring Vietnam for my return journey. I got a bus to Phnom Penh and stayed at a cheap hotel near the river.
Cambodia grew on me, but I was still going to go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and then head to the north of Thailand by bus.
I went to Angkor Wat three times and was surprised by how touristy it was. I never expected to hack my way through the jungle to reach it, but I didn’t realize I’d have to hack my way through tourists to view the main attractions.
On the second day, I realized I could see the temples and not fight the other tourists if I simply stayed away from the more popular temples. My second and third visits to Angkor Wat were more pleasant because of that. I could soak in the atmosphere and imagine what life may have been like there when it was first built. I decided to go back to Phnom Penh and try the south of Thailand first.
One morning I was sitting in a riverside café and a bookseller approached me. I didn’t want a guidebook, but Lonely Planet’s guide to Cambodia was the only book he had the looked interesting.
I opened it up to a random page that turned out to be about Sihanoukville. The writer didn’t think much of Sihanoukville and that intrigued me. It didn’t sound like a tourist trap but had hotels, guesthouses and long beaches. Why not give it a try?
I took the five-hour bus ride to Sihanoukville the following day. It was still September, so the tourist season hadn’t begun yet. On my second day, I rented a motorbike to explore the city and I liked what I saw. It seemed to be a collection of villages instead of a city and I liked the fact that the restaurants on the beach were run by Cambodians. They were nothing special but served good food and drinks. I decided to stay a few more days and swim at as many beaches as I could. I ended up swimming at Occheuteal Beach, Otres Beach and Victory Beach, but didn’t realize how many more were available until later.
Then I met someone. Sopheak was much younger than I, but I was fascinated by her and wanted to spend as much time with her as I could.
She and I went on day trips to islands, the waterfall and to the top of Bokor Mountain near Kampot, which was then only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles. The road has been widened and paved and now Bokor Mountain is crowded with tourists.
I tried getting over Sopheak by going to Laos, another place that wasn’t on my travel itinerary. I loved it there because it was so undeveloped, but missed Sopheak and went back to Phnom Penh. The timing was perfect because the annual Water Festival was going to start in a few days, so I invited her and her family to come to Phnom Penh for what is probably the biggest festival in Cambodia.
I had nothing to look forward to back in Australia, which I called home for 22 years after moving there with my Australian wife and son in 1985 from San Francisco.
We lived in a beautiful beach town about 2 hours drive north of Sydney and I loved it there. Then I had to go look after my Dad, who was dying of stomach cancer, in 2004. When I returned, my wife told me she had fallen in love with another man. Nothing came of the relationship, but it ended our marriage and I decided to take a course in teaching English as a second language in hopes of making a living overseas while I looked after my daughter, who was finishing high school, for two years. Nothing came of that, either, except a stint at an Australian TESL school. I gave it a shot in Bali, but they said I was too old.
I had some money in the bank but knew it wouldn’t last in Australia and I definitely couldn’t afford to buy a house. What was I going to do? I told Sopheak I was going back to sell my car and other possessions I wouldn’t need in Cambodia and return for a few years.
I would build her a house so she could have some security. By the time we finished building the house, I’d been in Sihanoukville for two years and wasn’t looking forward to returning to Australia. I tried getting a teaching job, but failed, so after getting a job for an SEO company that only lasted about six months because they were using Black (or Grey) Hat tactics and went out of business after Google cracked down on their methods. What was I going to do now?
I’d had some luck freelance writing in the 1990s, so I decided to see what was available online. For about a year I was making $10 for 500 words, then a break came and I started earning more. More jobs came and some of them paid quite well, but still not enough to live comfortably in Australia. It didn’t matter to me then because I was comfortable in Sihanoukville. The town had everything I needed and was far cheaper than Australia.
So here I am in Sihanoukville. I’ve been here eleven years now and don’t intend to go back to Australia. I’m still working at the age of 70, but I enjoy freelance writing and the assignments keep coming.
I’ve even written a book about my experiences here and overseas. It’s called Serendipity Road because it seems like fate (or serendipity) has guided me throughout my life. It’s available on Smashwords.