To say I had mixed feelings about this debauchery filled hell hole, is an understatement…
Sihanoukville is a port city in the south of Cambodia but is known by tourists and backpackers alike as a cheesy, beachy, party town. It is also the gateway to the party island of Ko Rong, and the more chilled out Ko Rong Samloem.
I had arrived in this town one morning in April after meeting my French buddy, Fabien (who I had met a couple months previous in Chiang Mai) in Siem Reap who told me he was heading down to Sihanoukville to head out to Ko Rong for a couple days of partying so I decided to tag along and have some pure unadulterated fun. It was a crazy few days indeed, but that, my friends, is a story for another time.
(a baby gives me the hundred yard stare as I walk in Tumnuk Rolok)
To cut it short, upon arriving in Sihanoukville I realised that a bottle of insect repellent had leaked in my bag and destoyed the strip on the back of my ATM card… Fuck! No access to cash! (I may be here a while).
So, there I was back in Sihanoukville, actually, should I say “STUCK” in Sihanoukville after Ko Rong, with a massive hangover, hardly any money, and staying in a really REALLY tacky hostel called… “Insert hostel name here as I’d rather not mention it, because I’m not a cunt”. It was cheap, had a pool and was a good drive away from the main part of the city so I figured it would be fine for me for the moment while I got everything sorted with my bank.
I was wrong.
I discovered very quickly that it was because the hostel was cheap and had a pool, it didn’t matter how far from the town or the beaches it was, it was still full of late teen/early twenties party heads. Also, my bank turned out to be absolute IDIOTS when it came to trying to get a new card out to me. (I should have guessed that one. It eventually took them 3 god damn months to get a new card out to me. “Yeah, bend over there Mr. O’Neill. How do ya like that?”)
But I digress…
(ladies de-tangle some fishing net as I stroll through the village)
After a day or two of being solo again, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing in this hostel that smelled like cheap cologne and even cheaper sex, I met an older guy from Canada who was out in Cambodia having a boat built for him by the locals down near the port. I found this pretty interesting so I asked him could I accompany him the next time he was heading down to check out the progress on his boat. This was by far the smartest thing I have asked someone on my travels thus far, because the following few days turned out to be some of the best I have ever had in my 33 years on this little rock we inhabit.
(Men scrape the paint off boats to make way for new paint jobs)
On the first day that we drove to Tumnuk Rolok village, I was absolutely speechless. I had no idea that there was a place like this just 30 mins drive from the disgusting Serendipidy Beach where all the young flashpackers go to get fucked up, and try to “pull”. I didn’t even have my camera with me that day as Rob (the Canadian) just grabbed me outside the hostel and said “I’m going now”. I had no time to grab my gear. We drove down the dirt roads, past the main Sihanoukville Autonomous Port to Tumnuk Rolok fishing village.
Boats, boats, and more wooden boats. Some beautiful, some unfinished and being painted, some dead, and lots just sitting there, half destroyed and withering into the ocean. We spoke a little to the men working on Rob’s boat and checked out a few half finished boats, getting up on deck and checking out the craftsmanship (which was fantastic by the way) before jumping on the bike and driving back towards the hostel.
That evening I could not stop thinking about the fact that I didn’t have my gear with me, and with running low on cash and having no bank card, I didn’t want to rent a bike before receiving my new card. So I asked Rob if he would be up for driving down there again tomorrow, but this time for a proper walk around the whole village so I can photograph the absolute shit out of the place. Rob (being quite the gentleman) said he was definitely up for that so that was that. Legend.
Plans made, and I was excited.
(My favourite shot of the day. I was trying to capture the girl drawing in her pad when she spotted me and covered her face. The girl in the stripes spun around to see what was going on and… Hey presto!)
The next day around midday, we made our way down to the fishing village again, only this time I had my camera (and a bag full of beers and ice to give to the workers). As soon as we got there I jumped straight off the back of the bike and couldn’t contain my excitement. I ran straight up to a group of Khmer guys who were sitting around eating and having drinks, said hello, and handed out a few beers. (which we all found hilarious as they had shit loads of beer already but, hey).
A bit of spicy harbour food and a couple beers and that was me done with sitting down. I needed to walk, meet the people, and (for want of a better phrase) SHOOT THEM ALL!
(Another shot where I was trying to capture the baby in her mother’s arms and this kid kept jumping in front of the lens. Great fun!)
We wandered down an extremely narrow path filled with corrogated iron shacks and plastic trash everywhere. Dirty, yet smiling children running around playing, swinging out of us westeners, not wanting anything from us, but instead just curious as hell as to what we were doing there in their little village, far from the usual tourist spots
On we wandered and the more I engaged with the people, the better the photographs became. I was in heaven, and did the best I could to try and capture my experience of this wonderful area.
(This woman was awesome. I popped off a couple shots of her outside her little store. This was my favourite)
Also, I have forgot to mention that this was just before Khmer new year and people were starting to celebrate already. Khmer new year is the same deal as Songkran in Thailand… WATER FIGHTS! So, as you can imagine, the next few days were amazingly fun. Driving and walking around, drinking, eating and dancing with locals. (also, trying extremely hard to not get my equipment destroyed by the ridiculous amounts of water being thrown every which way you can imagine).
(Kids playing a game I decided to call “Flip”. Smiles all ’round)
As you can see from my work here, I didn’t shoot much around all the water fights or boats, it was the people of the area during the previous couple days shooting that made this set of photographs what they are for me. It’s probably a cliché at this stage but”wow”, it really was an eye opening experience. Being around these people who had next to nothing to their names, children bare foot playing in trash and then seeing how happy they all seemed, how ridiculously kind and generous they were and how welcoming they were to these two random white guys from god knows where and up to god knows what. That really stopped me in my tracks.
(This guy was oh so cool and called out to some children when he saw me trying to photograph him)
When compared to back home in Ireland, (where we’re also generally considered a welcoming, generous bunch of alcoholics) these people were saints. Not one dirty look, not one snigger or joke made at our expense. Just pure curiousity and love for everyone around them.
(Some kids playing in what I guess you could call a laneway)
Now maybe I am romanticising this a little, and maybe the people were more happy and welcoming than usual with it being Khmer new year and all, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that up until that point, I had never experienced kindness like I did in that village. I will forever keep that feeling I had during those few days in my heart and I am proud to have (to the best of my ability) captured my time there, in what I think, are some pretty good images.
(A woman rests on some logs and gives me an amazing look when I go to take her picture)
It is a terrible thing that these villagers live in such dirty conditions, for sure, but that was not my experience of this place. I hope to visit again some time in the future and maybe bump into some heads that I had danced and drank with the first time around.
(No-one cares about the camera when there’s ice cream around!)
I hope you enjoy my selection of favourites from these few days.
For anyone thinking of travelling to Sihanoukville and would like to see some real life, without a truck load of screaming tourists around, having sex in the bunk above you, and vomiting on every corner, I would seriously recommend visiting Tumnuk Rolok Village.
It’s the realness…