Traveling by sea between islands in any developing country carries with it a certain amount of risk. Whether it be the fast boats on the Mekong, the island hoppers in Indonesia, or the Koh Rong Sihanoukville double decker, overloaded, elevated center of gravity, ferry.
The trip across to Koh Rong had been an adventure even though uneventful. Two older obnoxious Americans, the stereo-typical kind, had very loudly pointed out the sub-standard safety of the vessel.
The high seas and accompanying large waves caused our ship to bobble in the water like an apple in a cask. Tipping did not seem like an unreasonable outcome.
But with that said it was still not something you needed to vocalized the entire two hour journey.
That however was on the way over; not the way back.
The way back started out fine. The boat was much bigger. It had two engines instead of one, seemed generally sturdier and more maintained than the first.
What it didn’t have was a cargo hold where all the backpacks could be stowed. The first one did and I think ultimately helped steady the boat.
The backpacks and other cargo were piled into a heap in the center of the boat reaching from floor to roof. Passengers were seated around the pyramid of luggage and on the roof deck.
Engines fired up and with a vomit of black smoke we were underway!
Back to Sihanoukville where I planned to spend the night and catch the bus in the morning to Kampot. I was going to have a barracuda dinner on the beach; watch the fireworks and sunset. Get an early night and leave Sihanoukvile for greener pastures.
At exactly the 55 minute mark of the 2 hour crossing there were some noises. Like crackling or sparks in repetition. There was no smoke but it didn’t seem like those kinds of sounds should be coming from the engine room.
Luckily there were two engines.
The sea was pretty rough today. Worse than before. On occasion waves were easily coming into and over the boat. All those sitting along the perimeter were wet.
Some were searching through day packs for something warm to cover up with. Most were only able to come up with a sarong that they wrapped around themselves to trap the escaping heat.
The temperature had probably dropped to 80 degrees! There really was not much risk of frostbite!
At 58 minutes one of the engines stopped working. At 58 and a half, the second one shut down in sympathy.
Crew members scrambled to the rear of the boat each holding a different tool. Cell phones began to ring; jingle bells, mission impossible, whoop there it is, or something like that…all sounding in one after the other.
We were stranded and the impact of this began to freak some out as attempts to start the engines failed time after time.
The boat began to rock uncontrollably and water constantly made its way into the interior with increasing volume. The pyramid of luggage began to sway in time with the ocean.
Those seated to the sides watched with one hand up in the air. Ready to break the fall of crushing cargo; as if a hand would do the trick.
Others, who had already began to freak, now began to moan. Eyes once bright and full of youth now became scared and meek. Any attempt to console was like an affront to their independence.
There was a fair bit of melodrama going on at this point.
The two fishing trawlers less than a hundred meters away seemed to offer little comfort.
After about an hour a rescue boat turned up. We could see it approaching. Rocking and bouncing across the water. Flopping from side to side and rolling with the waves. Initially the plan was to attempt a passenger transfer.
I was not going to be part of that attempt.
Eventually that plan was dropped and the rescue boat would tow us back. With the realization that back meant to the island, some of the more vocal groaners were visibly disturbed.
“I am never getting on another boat again” was heard more than once.
Several attempts were made to throw a tire with a rope tied around it, to the boat that was to tow us; but each attempt failed. The one guy on the rescue boat did manage to catch it once but when he untied the rope from the tire he held onto the tire and let the rope go.
He had successfully rescued a tire!
All that was accomplished was that he now had our tire and the rope floated in the sea between us both.
Eventually communication was established and the plan was resumed; this time with success.
For the next 3 hours we were towed towards the harbor in Sihanoukville, not Koh Rong. The air on board was lighter however the drama queens remained in high gear.
Docking was not a simple task but once the boat was all tied up and secure we deboarded and stepped foot on the pier.
No apologies were made…I didn’t really expect there to be any.
I boarded a bus. This now became the worst part of the trip. So many people boarded the bus that there was no room for bags underneath. That scenario sounds vaguely familiar.
All passengers were boarded and then sealed in by a wall of backpacks at the front of the aisle and against the only exit. The wall of luggage was from floor to roof again and we were sealed in tight.
The 30 minute journey seemed longer.
As you would expect the humidity quickly grew to the point of stifling. Peering out the sealed windows provided a modicum of relief. In the back of my mind the thought persisted that a crash or breakdown of any kind could easily turn into a nightmare.
Claustrophobia, stress, and heat do not mix well.
When we rounded the Golden Lions statue and arrived at the town of Serendipity, yes Serendipity, almost 6 hours after leaving Koh Rong; it was a relief.
Getting off that bus and walking the remaining kilometer was a pleasure.
Fresh air, space, land…I was really looking forward to that barracuda.
For photos of Cambodia click here.