Cambodia is a small country tucked in the upper eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, neighbor to Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam. Besides being influenced by China, Cambodia also has a history of Hindu influence, starting with the Funan Kingdom during 100-700 AD, when the Khmers established a powerful empire that lasted into the 15th century.
Sihanoukville is known as the "agreeable port", and is a province of Cambodia. It is also our port of call for this country. It is located about 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. It attracts young tourists with its "relaxed" beach atmosphere ( you can buy joints for $1 right on the beach - no thank you) and is also home to the country's national beer brewery, Angkor Beer ( also available everywhere for $1 a bottle - yes thank you). The brewery there is the main employer for the townspeople at the moment, followed by fishing and tourism.
Sihanoukville, also called Snooky for ease of pronunciation by Westerners, is named after the Father of the Nation, King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a heavy promoter of independence from the French in the 1950's. While the riel is the currency, US dollars are widely used and accepted.
The other notable fact about the history of this city from an American point of interest is that it was the location of the last official battle of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, known as the Mayaguez incident on May 12-15, 1975, between US forces and the Khmer Rouge.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only developed port. Traditional boats still bring in the daily catch. The boats go out at night, staying out until nearly dawn. The boats are small and they use green lights to attract the fish. To keep fishing sustainable, no large troller type fishing is allowed, which helps to keep the fish population healthy and growing. As we sail throughout these waters at night, we can see hundreds of these "green light" fishing vessels dotting the watery landscape.
During our time in port, a group of 25 of us gathered in two minivans with dubious air conditioning - it was screaming hot and humid - and visited the fishing village first thing out. It was good to see the fishing village early in the morning, because later in the day makes for a much more, ah, vivid experience, olfactory-wise. I was able to get some good photos of the village, what the small boats look like, the daily catch of shrimp being rinsed and shelled on the docks, young men mending their nets, and young children doing what they do best, playing and giggling at us. One little boy kept shooting little pea pod pellets at me and laughing hysterically. He didn't know it, but he was glad I was in a good mood, otherwise he might have found himself going for a dip in the harbor water.
Our tour was arranged through the Don Bosco Hotel School, a non profit organization founded after the Italian saint. There are a number of Don Bosco schools scattered across the world, and this one is the only one in Cambodia, focusing exclusively in hotel trades. Disadvantaged and orphaned teens, once accepted, are provided with two full years of schooling in all manners of hotel operations, as well as English immersion, free of charge. The school only has space available for 300 students in any given year and each year over 1,000 apply. The current volunteer managers, a lovely couple from Germany, formally trained and experienced butlers themselves, came to Don Bosco only 11 months ago on holiday, and were so taken with the work being done at the school and the need for more hands on management and assistance, they left their old life behind and stayed on.
The kids that are fortunate enough to be accepted into the program view Peter and his wife as their parents, and all are extremely devoted to them. Every one of the students works very hard and they will, upon completion of their program, have their choice of employment at any 4 or 5 star hotel in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. With tourism growing so quickly here, there is no shortage of jobs, and all will find employment immediately. These young people's lives, as well as what families some of them have, will be immeasurably and profoundly changed for the better once completing this program. We were all moved deeply by what we saw and none of us left without offering an additional cash donation to help sustain this phenomenal place and these hard working and determined young students.
Before we stopped in at the school for a formal lunch, prepared and served by the students, we visited an old but still thriving pagoda. It is built on one of the higher hilltops that partially surrounds Sihanoukville and afforded us a beautiful view of the town and harbor.
Following that, we ventured out of town, into the countryside, and down a nine kilometer dirt road to a lovely waterfall, a recreational spot for locals. There was a bit of a rickety wooden bridge to walk across to get to large shaded huts, where hammocks abound, some filled with sleeping and soon-to-be sleeping babies, their mothers sitting on rug mats, swinging and cooing them into an afternoon slumber. Oh, how I longed to be a baby again, to be able to be swung into Lala land in a hammock!
We headed back out the dirt road and finally arrived at the school, where we were enthralled and utterly impressed with their facility and their students. They range in age from about 16 to 25 and each one was dressed in black slacks, crisp white shirts and black vests. They were in a receiving line when we arrived and each bowed and greeted us as if we were royalty. Ha! Once we were seated, Peter had each of them introduce them self, giving their name, age and where they were from. Then, some other students came in, dressed in Cambodian costume dress, and performed a short traditional ceremonial dance, after which lunch was served. A couple from our tour had spent the morning at the school, cooking with the students, having forgone our other tour activities. Now, they joined us, and I was lucky enough to sit right across from them so I had the pleasure to hear how much fun they had (and how hard they worked all morning, grinding spices, building the grass boats our curry was served in, etc.) and it was clear they had fallen madly in love with these kids.
Peter is teaching them very formal methods of restaurant service, and as each course was presented and served, a student server came with our plate, stood directly behind each of us, and as each table was ready, Peter called out "serve" and in unison, the students placed our dish on the table at our setting in front of us. They were quiet as a mouse, and you hardly knew they were there. The food was authentic Cambodian fare, spicy but not overly so, and delicious. A dessert of home made mango ice cream over diced local fruit cooled our mouths and was a fitting end to a spectacular morning.
We said our goodbyes to the students at the school, boarded our two vans and headed back towards town and our ship, stopping at a local beach for about half an hour. I took a short walk along the shore, dipping my feet into the water and finding it quite warm and inviting, and wound up joining others from my group under a big shady tree, and had a bottle of Angkor, enjoying the beach, each of us quiet in reflective thought about what we had experienced at Don Bosco.
Next up, Sea Day #2.