Two Backpacks

Serendipity Bay

Chapter 15 - Serendipity Bay, Cambodia

            After a tiring but incredible few days at Angkor Wat, Ron and I decide to spend a few days at the beach.

            We take a bus south to Sihanoukville, a dusty port town where stray dogs root through the rubbish that litters the streets, and kids play barefoot in stagnant pools of filthy water.

            I’ve booked a hostel for a night, thinking it will give us time to recover from the eight-hour bus journey, and then find somewhere to stay near to the beach.

            Our hostel in Sihanoukville, the Kangaroo Bar, is already busy when we arrive at dusk. Standing on the street outside the building, we look with dismay at our accommodation. With bright red flashing neon signs above the door and in the windows, we’re in no doubt where we’re about to spend the night!

            ‘It’s a hostess bar! It didn’t look like this on the internet page! Honestly, it didn’t, Ron!’ I’m dismayed to see a slight smile on his face.

            ‘It’s not funny!’ I rant, knowing only too well that with no internet to discover if there’s anywhere else available, we have no choice but to stay for the night.

            Ron pushes open the door, and we walk over to a young man lazing behind the bar.

            ‘Sandi Beaumont and Ron Scott. We have a reservation,’ I tell him, hoping maybe there’s been a mistake and the Kangaroo hostel I thought I’d booked is somewhere else in town.

            ‘Yes, I have your booking. Passports?’ The young man holds out his hand for our documents.

            He flicks through the pages and notes our details in a dogeared ledger. Satisfied he has all the information needed, he returns our passports and pulls a key from beneath the counter. I hand over payment for our night’s accommodation, the equivalent of six Australian dollars.

            ‘Room seven. Top of the stairs at the end of the hall,’ he instructs, passing the key to Ron.

            We shoulder our packs and make for the stairs. Around us, scantily clad women, some of whom look no more than children, sway between the plastic tables and chairs, serving customers.

            ‘It might not be so bad,’ Ron states, knowing I’m ready to run for the street.

            Reluctantly, we make our way up the stone stairs at the back of the bar to the first floor. Our room is at the end of a dimly lit hall.

            ‘It’s too late to find anywhere else tonight,’ I say as I look around our sparsely furnished room. ‘We’ll just have to use our sleeping bags and hope we don’t pick up any unwanted bugs,’ I add, pulling back the sheet to reveal a grubby mattress.

            Our sleep is disturbed throughout the night by groans, screams and constant chatter as women entertain their customers in the rooms adjacent to ours.

            We’re up at six, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Downstairs, there are no breakfast tables, no staff, only a note on the front door saying ‘EXIT’ with a key below to let ourselves out!

            ‘Pity we had to pay on arrival. Let’s get out of here,’ Ron urges as sunlight peeks through the drawn curtains.

            ‘C’mon. The beach is only a short drive away. I’m sure we can get a tuk-tuk outside.’ I’m out of the door before Ron can reply.

            Finding transport is easy, and we’re soon on our way, bumping over the uneven dirt road toward the coast, fifteen minutes away. The tuk-tuk driver drops us at a turning spot, indicating the way to the beach.

            Ron and I shoulder our bags and walk down the path towards the sea. I stop where the track meets the sand and take off my shoes, revelling in being free from our heavy walking boots for a while.

            Before us lies Serendipity Bay, a horseshoe of golden sand edged by clear blue water. To our right is a hotchpotch of small hotels, some with bamboo huts, others with basic rooms.

            ‘Let’s walk and pick one we like the look of,’ I suggest to Ron.

            We choose Tranquillity Guest House, drawn by its restaurant located so close to the water the waves brush against the deck at high tide. When we check in, we find our hosts, Brian and his wife Wendy, are also from the United Kingdom.

            Our room is basic but comfortable. After a late breakfast, a refreshing shower, and four hours of sleep, Ron and I take a stroll. Barefoot we walk along the shoreline, the gentle waves licking at our ankles.

            Later, small bars begin to set up on the beach as the sun sinks lower in the sky. Waiters try to persuade us to sit at their tables as we pass. One young man is very persistent, and we accept his offer of a table at the water’s edge.

            By the time our cold beers arrive, the sun is already setting, the sky turning a deep shade of orange tinged with red as the sun slips slowly below the horizon. It’s idyllic. I feel more content than I have in years.

            Reaching across the table, I take Ron’s hand.

            ‘I could stay here forever. It’s so peaceful, so beautiful,’ I say as the last of the sun’s rays disappear.

            Lights from houses dotted around the bay twinkle as night falls; stars crowd the dark void overhead.

            We order more beer and sit in companionable silence; the only sound the slow swoosh of gentle waves as they rush across the sand.

            The beer and lack of sleep the night before finally catch up with us. Reluctantly, we return to the guest house.

            The following morning, after a wonderful full English breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, toast and coffee, Ron and I decide to explore and check out the other guest houses that line the bay. We discover The Cove is for sale. Perched on the hillside above the bay, it has twelve bamboo huts, a kitchen and a restaurant.

            ‘Do you think we can have a look around?’ I ask. ‘Is anyone about?’

            Ron doesn’t answer; he’s already climbing the steps that weave through the overgrown garden.

            ‘The view’s amazing from up here!’ he calls once he’s reached the top of the site. ‘There’s a great spot for sunbathing and perhaps a bar.’

            The steps are steep, and climbing to the terrace takes me a little longer. We sit and look out at the view over the bay. Ron’s right; it is a great spot.

            ‘Do you think it’s fate?’ I ask. ‘Finding this place.’ I pause for a few seconds trying to put my feelings into words before continuing. ‘I felt happy and content yesterday, sitting on the beach and watching the sunset. Now we’ve found this place. It feels like it’s meant to be.’

            ‘I know what you mean. It’s beautiful here. I can picture us both running this place. I wonder how much it would cost to buy?’ Ron voices my own thoughts.

            ‘I’m sure Brian back at Tranquillity would know who owns the place and could give us an idea of the asking price. Come on, let’s head back and find out,’ I suggest.

            As we thought, Brian knows the owner.

            ‘A Chinese Cambodian owns the Cove. He’s something to do with the military here,’ Brian tells us. ‘If you like, I can call him and try to arrange a meeting. He speaks English.’

            ‘It’s all happening a bit quick!’ Ron states. ‘We don’t even know how much the place is worth.’

            ‘Or what sort of shape the buildings are in,’ I add before taking another sip of beer.

            ‘I’ll get the computer. We should start a spreadsheet. Brian can help with costs. It’ll give us a better idea of what we’d be letting ourselves in for.’

            While Ron’s gone, I try to order my thoughts. I’ve been in this situation before, drawn by the romance of sailing the seas and making money taking travellers to visit the Komodo dragons. Memories of living in Indonesia and the ill-fated purchase of a boat come flooding back.

            It’s beautiful here, and I can imagine Ron and me running a guest house. But we’re only a few months into our trip, and already we’re considering buying a property in a country we know nothing about! I need to remember what happened in Indonesia! We need to talk to people, find out how easy it is to get a visa and how difficult it is to run a business in Cambodia.

            Ron returns with our computer, and we formulate a spreadsheet of costs associated with purchasing and running a guest house.

            A little later, Brian joins us, having arranged an appointment for us to meet the owner of The Cove at ten the following morning. For the next two hours, Ron and I work on our spreadsheet with invaluable help from Brian, who gives us ballpark figures for staff, food and legal costs.

            ‘It looks like we’ll be able to afford the day-to-day running of the place, but what we don’t know yet are the cost of refurbishment and the owners’ asking price,’ Ron says once we finish.

            We call it a night and head for our room, thanking Brian for his help.

            ‘What do you think our maximum price should be?’ I ask once we’re both in bed.

            ‘From the information Brian gave us, I reckon no more than fifty thousand,’ Ron replies. ‘But if we can get it for less, it will give us more money to spruce the place up.’

            With the light off and Ron already slipping into sleep, I listen to the whirring of the overhead fan and try to calm the doubts that refuse to go away.

            Purchasing that boat was done on a whim, and look at the trouble it brought me. This has the same feeling. The idea of owning a property here seems great, but what happens when the problems begin? How will we deal with them, especially when we don’t speak the language? We can’t go running to Brian every time we need help.

            Ron and I are waiting at The Cove when the owner arrives. I can’t understand his name, even after he repeats it twice. Although he speaks English, his accent is so thick it’s difficult to understand what he’s saying. He shows us through the site. One casual remark the owner makes as we wander through the site worries me.

            Once we’ve seen inside the huts and inspected the kitchen and owners’ quarters, we sit to discuss the price.

            ‘When we were walking around, you said there is no direct water on the site, that it has to come from the neighbouring property. Is that right?’ I ask.

            ‘Right!’ confirms our Chinese owner.

            ‘I don’t like relying on someone else’s goodwill for our water,’ I whisper to Ron, already knowing I don’t trust the man sitting across from us.

            Ron senses my reservations and takes over the negotiations.

            ‘So, how much are you asking for the property?’ Ron asks.

            The owner scribbles a figure onto a scrap piece of paper that he pulls from his shirt pocket and pushes the paper towards us. Ron picks it up and shows me what’s written on the note. The asking figure is equivalent to seventy thousand Australian dollars. It’s way too much.

            Ron looks at me before turning his attention back to the owner.

            ‘There’s no water on the site. If you agree to pay for drilling a water well on the property, we are prepared to offer thirty-five thousand,’ Ron counters.

            The man shakes his head vigorously. ‘No! No! This price!’ he insists, pointing to his scrap of paper again.

            ‘Then we’re not interested,’ states Ron. ‘There’s a lot of work to do to make those buildings habitable again. We leave for Vietnam tomorrow. You have until seven o’clock in the morning to get back to us.’

            We return to Tranquillity Guest House, where Brian’s waiting for us.

            ‘How did it go? Are you going to be our neighbours?’ he asks as he brings three beers across to our table.

            Ron recounts the conversation and also tells Brian the asking price.

            ‘He’s asking way above the going price!’ exclaims Brian. ‘You did the right thing walking away.’

            More customers arrive, and Brian leaves to serve them.

            ‘I know it’s the right thing to do, but I’m still disappointed.’ I tell Ron.

            ‘You’re right, but it’s a lot of money for a property with no water supply, and I’m not sure I trust the guy any further than I could throw him!’ Ron guzzles the remainder of his beer and orders two more.

            ‘We’re off tomorrow. If it’s meant to be, we’ll hear from him,’ Ron says, voicing my own sentiments.

            The following morning we’re up early to check our emails, but there’s nothing from The Cove’s owner.

            We bid Brian and Wendy farewell and take a tuk-tuk to the Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville. Obtaining our visas is simple. Another tuk-tuk ride to the bus station, and we’re able to purchase tickets to Ho Chi Minh City on a bus leaving in twenty minutes.

            With an hour’s stopover in Phnom Penh, Ron and I head to an internet kiosk to check our emails again and find a message from The Cove’s owner, agreeing to our price and terms.

            ‘He sent the message three hours after our deadline! I can’t believe it! What do we do? Do we go back?’ I’m confused. If the owner had agreed yesterday, we’d be trying to get to grips with organising the purchase of the property, but he hadn’t, and we’re now on our way to Vietnam.

             ‘I’m not going back,’ Ron states. ‘He had his chance. Buying something in a country where we don’t know the laws is too risky. We’d need at least six months to research everything before we committed to something like that.’

            Ron’s right.

            ‘I’ll send him a message saying we’re already on our way and not returning to Cambodia,’ I tell Ron as my fingers fly over the computer keyboard.

            Ron nods his agreement. I press the send button. An immense sense of relief sweeps over me. I know we’ve made the right decision to continue our journey.