A Couple of Thieves in the Night

I began today quite optimistically.  Little did I know that it would not be ending in quite the same way…

After a couple of lazy days on the beach, I was eager to explore the southernmost tip of Cambodia a little further than the confines of Sihanoukville had so far allowed.  With this in mind, Kotoe and I agreed that an adventure on two wheels was what we needed, so we made the decision to hire a motorcycle in order  to make the 26km journey out to Ream National Park.  It’s frighteningly easy to hire a motorcycle out here in Cambodia: you don’t need a license and you don’t even need to have ridden a motorcycle before.  Fortunately Kotoe had owned a scooter back in Japan and the 125cc motorbike, which we rented from the Diamond Guest House, was pretty similar in its operation.

Ream National Park is located just off Route 4, an undulating but straight road slicing its way through the Cambodian countryside.  When we pulled into the ranger station, we were met by a Jica (Japanese International Co-operation Agency) representative who happened to be from the same province in Japan as Kotoe.  This worked in our favour and we managed to get a $10 discount off the $30 price to charter our own private motorboat around the national park.  We relaxed on the deck of the boat as we were transported through dense mangrove swamps, several storks, some jumping shrimp, and a few fisherman, being the only other signs of life upon the calm, shallow waters.

The scenery along the river

The scenery along the river

 

Our relaxing river journey became a little less relaxing when we reached the end of the wide channel we’d been travelling on up until this point, and were about to turn into the smaller tributary leading back up to the pier.  It was still low tide and the water here was not deep enough to carry the weight of the boat and all four of its passengers.  Suffice to say, we ground to a halt.  Climbing out into the water, our driver tried in vain to shift the boat, but to no avail, so – not afraid to get our hands dirty – Kotoe and I volunteered our services.  I stepped out of the boat and my entire calf, knee, and half my thigh, disappeared into a river of dense clay-like mud.  It took a huge amount of effort to simply move my legs through said mud, let alone try to move the weight of the boat through it.  No wonder our driver was struggling!

Kotoe trying to free our boat from the mud

Kotoe trying to free our boat from the mud

 

Eventually, with the four of us (our driver, English-speaking guide, Kotoe,  and me) wading knee-deep through the muddy waters, pushing the boat forward with all our strength – and being watched by amused onlookers from another tourist boat on the river, to boot – we managed to move the boat into deeper waters.  The driver was quick to jump back in the boat, re-start the engine, and put his foot on the throttle, leaving Kotoe and I  clinging on to the side of the boat, our legs being dragged through the mud behind us.  Eventually I managed to muster up enough strength to clamber aboard in the style of a beached whale, my legs caked in inches of thick mud, reminiscent of those face packs they sell at Boots.

Shortly after we’d restarted our journey, the skies began to darken and large grey rain clouds floated into view.  Within minutes there were enormous droplets of cold rain pelting down upon the roof of the boat.  The only other tourist boat visible had lost its roof in the wind and the couple aboard were attempting to keep dry under the shelter of a very flimsy umbrella.  I guess they were starting to regret laughing at our muddy misfortune only minutes beforehand.

As soon as the boat docked, we jumped back on the motorbike and headed back towards Sihanoukville, the hard rain burning my face and making it difficult to see.

We drove to Victory Hill (above Victory beach) and drank some warming coffee at Na Na Restaurant.  Victory Hill (the original backpacker ghetto in Sihanoukville) looked very unattractive in the rain and there was no-one around, save for a tiny gathering of moto drivers parked at the end of the road.  Once we’d dried off a little, we headed over to The Snake House, an inventive little restaurant amidst a flourishing reptile house.  The glass-topped tables contain snakes, and the nearby pond houses a rather ferocious looking crocodile who cunningly surfaces as you approach.

A collection of creatures from The Snake House

A collection of creatures from The Snake House

 

If you don’t choose to eat here, there is a fee of $1 to see the snakes, which includes a free soft drink.  Among the snakes on display, there is a White Python, an Oriental Whipsnake, a Long-nosed Whipsnake, and an Indo-Chinese Ratsnake, as well as some turtles, a couple of forest geckos, and an odd-looking furry creature with huge eyes.  It’s certainly a unique dining experience, but for those more adventurous meat-eaters, the snakes are only for show and not for consumption!

Sunset at Victory Beach

Sunset at Victory Beach

 

After leaving The Snake House, we watched the sunset at Victory Beach and then headed back to the guesthouse.  In hindsight I wish we’d have returned the motorbike at this point, but as we still had half a tank of fuel we decided to hang on to the bike for the evening, and drive into downtown Sihanoukville to find a place to eat.  Unfortunately we took a wrong turn off the Three Lions Roundabout, and ended up driving down the road to Sokha beach, a road which was very poorly lit once we’d passed the enormous 5-star hotel complexes surrounding Sam At Lake.

At this point we were driving quite slowly as I was looking at the map in order to find a road that would lead us back into the centre of town.  Two (as far as I could gather) local Cambodian guys on a motorbike appeared to be attempting to pass us, but they were driving a little close for comfort.   Feeling a little uneasy with the situation, Kotoe attempted to speed up, but as she did so the guys drove past and a hand reached out to grab her bag from the basket on the front of our bike.  The bag was actually locked on to the basket (when you’re a seasoned traveller, you take these sort of precautions), so, whilst they’d failed to take possession of the bag, they did succeed in throwing our bike off balance and subsequently causing us both to fall clumsily on to the grass verge beside us.

Once we’d realised we weren’t hurt – other than what would probably turn out to be a few cuts and bruises – we got up, remounted the bike, and were about to start the engine and make our escape.  We thought that was it.  We were a bit shaken up, but we were back on the bike, the bag was still in the basket and the sooner we got out of there the sooner we could be on our way back to the safety of civilisation.

Oh no.  This time it wasn’t going to be that easy…

In the time it had taken us to pick ourselves up from the floor, dust ourselves down, and safely regain our positions aboard the motorcycle, the guys had turned their bike around, and one of them had returned to our bike on foot, subsequently making another grab for the bag.  Kotoe tried to hit the guy to throw him off balance so that we could drive away, but in – what seemed like – a split second, he had managed to wrench the bag, together with the basket it was still locked to, off the front of the bike.  He started to run down the road, where his accomplice was waiting for him on the motorbike.

Ok, so at this point we probably should have cut our losses and admitted defeat.  But adrenalin had now taken hold.

Instinctively we both leapt off our bike and let it fall to the ground, whilst we chased after the thief.  Clearly he hadn’t banked on us doing this, so I caught up with him pretty quickly (proof that – despite the fact that I haven’t run that fast since the 100 and 200 metre sprints I used to do at school – I still can if the situation requires it), and made a grab for the bag.  He tugged it from my grasp, and in that accelerated sense of time that you feel when fear and adrenalin are driving you, the next thing I remember was the sensation of a hard object crashing down upon my skull, as he belted me around the head with the metal basket that the bag was still attached to.

Once I had recovered from the shock of the impact and managed to steady myself again in order to continue the chase, the thief had jumped on the motorbike and the two of them had sped away.  Following much cursing and shouts of, “fucking wankers!” (which I doubt they understood but it made me feel better) and, “I cannot believe he came back for it!”, we jumped back on the bike, my head still pounding, and returned to the safety of our guesthouse.

Although the contents of her bag ($20, a camera, several memory sticks full of photos she was about to burn to CD, and a watch) were not insured, I tried to persuade Kotoe to go to the police station for three reasons:

  1. If – as was the case when I was mugged back home and my bag was stolen – the thieves were only after the money, the bag and the remainder of its contents, may be dumped, found, and handed in.
  2. If we had a crime reference number (if such things existed in Cambodia) and the rental company (whom we’d hired the bike from) were insured, we would not have to pay for a replacement basket and padlock ourselves.
  3. We’d picked up the thief’s shoes(which he’d lost whilst running away from me) and I was hanging on to the remote possibility that the police (or rather, a police dog) may be able to trace him from his footwear.

In reality, I was probably looking at the situation from a slightly (scratch that – very) idealistic viewpoint.  The chances of the bag being handed in were minimal, it’s very unlikely the rental company were insured (as no-one in Cambodia seems to have insurance) and I’d be very surprised if a policeman would be prepared to waste one of his dogs (if he has one) or his time on investigating an incident which is probably not altogether uncommon.

When we returned the bike and duly paid $8 for the damages (luckily I think they turned a blind eye to the scratches on the bike from when we’d abandoned it to give chase), we discovered that incidents similar the one we’d just experienced, are quite a common occurrence in this part of Cambodia (readers – you have been warned).  The  staff at the Diamond Guest House told us that there had been another two incidents within the last couple of days.  One of them involved a couple being pushed off the motorbike, and the motorbike itself was subsequently stolen!  It was at this point that it started to occur to me just how much worse the episode could have been: the thieves could have been in possession of a knife or a gun, and may not have thought twice about using it once we’d made the attempt to thwart their crime.   Yes, physically we’d been very lucky.  However, although Kotoe’s stolen possessions were not worth a huge amount financially, she’d lost hundreds of photographs; months of travel memories that she’d never be able to replace.

Having returned the bike we walked down to the beach and ordered two large mugs of cold Angkor beer at one of the nearby bars.  In light of the situation, Kotoe remained calm and positive. I, on the other hand, was seething with hate for the pair, furious that people like that can get away with such crimes, and such brutal treatment of other human beings.  Momentarily we laughed, recalling the way Kotoe had punched the guy and I had chased after him, and imagining how different the situation would have been if we were both martial arts experts.

But, as rumbles of thunder approached and flashes of lightning illuminated the sky, I quietly hoped that a thunderbolt would find its way to that shoeless, heartless, cowardly little man, running through the streets with Kotoe’s memories in his hand.

Footnotes

This article has been edited and re-written a little but was originally penned back in 2006 during my solo adventure around South-East Asia, and is taken from Kiara’s South East Asian Adventures, the blog I maintained at www.blogger.com.  Prices may have changed since publication of the original article and the guesthouses and restaurants mentioned may no longer exist, but the experiences described are still very real for me, and somewhat tainted what was otherwise a wonderful month in Cambodia.  Kotoe is a Japanese girl I met on my border crossing from Laos, and I couldn’t have asked for a better travel companion throughout my time spent in the country 🙂

Have you had any bad travel experiences similar to this one?  How did you deal with them?  What advice would you offer to other travellers to prevent them?

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