Cursed out in paradise

Fresh fish head - Otres Beach, Cambodia
Fish head at Otres Beach | Photo by Lauren Girardin

When we crossed from Laos into Cambodia, Todd and I met a German traveler headed in the opposite direction. This is always a gift, someone who’s been where you want to go, and suffered so you don’t have to. Over a lunch of we-hope-it-was-chicken soup (no, we never learn) and pumpkin tapioca pudding at the local market, he gave us a spot-on guesthouse tip for Kratie and advised us to run to Otres Beach once we’d topped out on Khmer culture.

We’d heard a bit about Otres – a powerless, hot water-less, internet-less strip of thatch bungalows nestled in the white sand. But, since our information was mostly hearsay, we were hesitant to commit to a long bus ride not knowing if the isolated, underdeveloped beach had since been discovered and overrun. Our German advisor assured us that we’d be in laid-back bliss in Otres, and unlike most beach destinations, the food wouldn’t totally suck. We were sold.

Tuk tuk waits at Star Bar Bungalows - Otres Beach, Cambodia
Tuk tuk waits at beach bungalows | Photo by Lauren Girardin

When you arrive by bus after dark, all advantage goes to the tuk tuk drivers. So of course, night is when we hit Sihanoukville, the big port town down the coast from Otres. We get a fair tuk tuk price only after some screaming, mostly by the losing bidders at the winning driver. The tension reminds me that people who live and work in beach towns are not as relaxed as those who visit. Before taking us out to Otres – a long, dark journey – our driver, “Jed,” has us use his cell phone to call the only hotel for which we have a phone number. With no answer, we agree to crash in Sihanoukville for the night. Who knows, maybe we’ll like this town enough to stick around.

Resigned to a hotel far from the water, we head out for Sihanoukville’s guidebook-lauded Ochheuteal Beach for a seafood grill dinner. We don’t get the fuss. Food stalls litter the beach with plastic chairs, papasans, and wobbly tables to within feet of the breaking waves. Instead of gazing at stars over the Gulf of Thailand, we’re besieged by tacky strings of lights, neon signs, and floodlights. Instead of the sound of the surf, we’re tortured by a Jimmy Buffett cover band playing at one of the luxury hotels. Instead of the scent of the briny sea breeze, gasoline fumes from a lazy man’s wood fires mingle with the odor of grilling fish, some not as fresh as it should be. The seafood is served with your choice of greasy cold french chips or potato jackets. While we curse the British tourists’ negative influence on side dishes, we begin to plan our escape to Otres tomorrow morning.

With seemingly more tuk tuk and moto drivers than tourists in Sihanoukville (and in Cambodia, heck, in most of Southeast Asia), the $3 ride out to Otres alone is probably a good day’s fare for our reliable driver, Jed. The way to Otres is a mockery of a road, paved with boulders, ineptitude, graft, and perma-puddles. Even though there’s plenty of open land, until we hit Otres itself, much of the road is lined with shanty-style shacks.

Tbone wrapped in a green hammock - Otres Beach, Cambodia
Wrapped in a green hammock | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Even though they’re dinky in an sloppy rather than charmingly rustic kind of way, most of Otres’ bungalows are surprisingly overpriced and full. Nonetheless, our driver is committed to finding us a bed, even asking another tuk tuk driver if he took anyone out of town this morning. After promising to stay for four days at the nicest digs on the beach, we negotiate one day free. With a clean beach, shining sun, blue sky, and our SPF set to 45, we’re equipped to spend the next three days barefoot and relaxed.

The next day, we stop for lunch at La Casa, the restaurant next door to our bungalow place. Looking over the menu, Todd and I mutter the usual “Do you see something you want?” conversation of travelers who’ve eaten almost nothing but restaurant food for six months. Suddenly, a hairy hand snatches away the menu and we’re told something involving “mi casa” and “vámonos.” Even with my deplorable burrito-ordering Spanish, I know this probably means, “Get out of my house.”

I look at a Speedo-wearing man, whose skin is as brown, shiny, and wrinkled as a butter-basted, oven-roasted chicken. In the midst of all this beach-bound tranquility, the man’s wide-eyed malice is so curious; I can’t help but ask, with a smile on my face, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. You want us to leave?”

With a sip of his cocktail, the man growls, “You estúpido! This is my place, La Casa is mi casa! Get out! Now!!”

My incredulity over this improbably insolent attitude keeps me rooted. Even as Todd starts pulling me out by my elbow, I’m still at it. “Really?! You’re kicking us out? But all we wanted was to get lunch. I really don’t understand why you want us to leave.”

Tourists Jazzercise at sunset - Otres Beach, Cambodia
Drool-worthy fish tacos as Cantina | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As we head out, followed by a slew of Spanish curses that are incredibly slurred considering it’s not yet noon, I glance around the mostly empty restaurant. As is almost always the case in beach towns, there are always more restaurant seats than bodies to fill them. The only other people at La Casa are more deeply tanned, Speedo-slung, middle aged Euro men, looking a lot like our ungracious host. And their much younger Asian girlfriends. Well then.

Still, while Todd and I walk down the beach to another restaurant, we can’t help but gasp, “I can’t believe he…!” and “Did he really just…?” at each other. We try to recall if we did or said anything in our 30 seconds in the restaurant that could have so offended, but come up short of anything that would justify a pre-lunch curse-out.

Later, Todd gets some Otres gossip from Hurley, the owner of Cantina, where you can get sublime fish tacos with fresh made tortillas, sans bibulous attitude. Hurley’s not surprised at what happened to us at La Casa. It turns out that the ornery Spaniard is Ramon, one of Otres’ more troubled expats. Last year, Ramon leased land further down the beach and set to building bungalows. He soon was visited by a local tough who told him, “This part of the beach is not for building by you. It is for cow grazing. No construction. If you build anything, it will burn.”

Ramon built anyway, his buildings burned as promised, and cows were brought in to graze among the ashes. Gangs generally don’t make empty threats. That’s right, mellow Otres Beach has a gang – a pyromaniacal cowboy gang.

Ramon – who seems to be not just cantankerous, but also vengeful – is rumored to have later run down one of the gang’s cows with his car. Now, this back story may not explain why Ramon kicked us out of his restaurant, but it does makes us less concerned that we deserved it. There’s something odd in Otres, here on the fringe of Cambodia.

Photos from Sihanoukville and Otres Beach, Cambodia

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.