Thursday, September 21, 2017

The non-partyer's guide to Sihanoukville

Aside from being often described as Cambodia’s “premier beach destination”, it is fair to say that Sihanoukville has something of a reputation. Most guides will at least mention tourist-focused police corruption, prostitution and drug dealing fuelled by both local and imported mafias. These issues have hit the headlines recently with the high-profile deportation of Russian businessman Sergei Polonsky, a sewerage issue on Serendipity Beach, and the cancellation of the (in)famous KaZanTip festival, which resulted in drive-by shootings and an incident involving a samurai sword. When I landed in Cambodia for an extended holiday in February I was 20 kilograms (45 pounds) overweight and drinking too much. I headed straight there.

I had found the Sihanoukville Fitness Resort (SFR) partly by accident while Googling constructive things to do while travelling. It had a lot of positive reviews online, was incredible value, and the slogan appealed: “Tired of being fat and ugly? Just be ugly!” A small part of me was also enticed by Sihanoukville’s reputation as a party town, and it was easy to pave my very rough itinerary with good intentions. Standing outside the resort’s front gate I realised I was also somewhat intimidated. I hadn’t stepped into a gym for longer than a session or two in years, and interning myself for a month with the kind of people who go to the gym even on holiday seemed like a recipe for some serious humiliation.

Housed in a pleasant compound-style block, the huge resort includes a large, well-equipped gym, covered yoga area, boxing ring and bag-room, volleyball, badminton and mini-basketball courts, and a kids’ playground – pretty much everything you could need to focus on your fitness and stay active. The basic schedule is a coached morning session followed by circuit training, stretching or a Swiss ball class, and in the evening some form of martial arts or alternative aerobics class. But the main reason I will keep coming back here is SFR’s owner, Pierre, and his wife, Alen. When I arrived on the first night I was a bit overwhelmed, and this wasn’t alleviated by the gruff, buff, shirtless Frenchman smoking an e-cigarette who asked me why I was there without looking at me and then, after a quick dismissive appraisal, answered his own question with: “Slimming.”

There’s a full program of yoga and meditation on offer at Vagabond Temple. Photo: FacebookThere’s a full program of yoga and meditation on offer at Vagabond Temple. Photo: Facebook

I needn’t have worried. Although we disagreed about everything imaginable (except that I was fat) it became quickly apparent that Pierre really knew his stuff. He is very patient and generous in explaining his comprehensive knowledge of fitness, nutrition and health science, garnered from 20 years study and experience in the industry, and will help set you up with a program or plan for when you leave. During my six-week stay I was warmly welcomed into their family, lost 12 kilograms (27 pounds) and didn’t touch a drop.

By July, after more travelling, I returned to Sihanoukville for the wet season, and decided to take something of a plunge by committing to the month long yoga retreat at Vagabond Yoga (with the exception of a few classes here and there I am pretty much a complete beginner). I could feel the positive, community-style vibe from the moment I arrived in late June, and it continued throughout my stay (I’m currently about halfway through the retreat).

"Tired of being fat and ugly? Just be ugly!” Sihanoukeville Fitness Resort will have you fit in no time. Photo: Facebook"Tired of being fat and ugly? Just be ugly!” Sihanoukeville Fitness Resort will have you fit in no time. Photo: Facebook

I struggled for the first few days, despite everyone involved being very genuine, but this passed suddenly on my third day and the practices that we had been doing seemed to come together. The day begins with two hours of Asana practice, Karmic yoga (small chores, from washing dishes to cleaning toilets, which help to build a sense of community and contextualise what we’re learning in terms of day-to-day life), a spirituality talk at noon, and more yoga (Hatha Flow, Yin, and Kundilini) in the afternoon followed by an evening meditation session.

I’ll be honest, not everything they offer at Vagabond Yoga is entirely for me – there are additional classes in detox, Reiki, crystal healing and reflexology available – but teachers Kobi and Pazit are very professional, and nothing is thrust upon you. The long-term health benefits of yoga and meditation are undeniable, and the vegan meals included in the package are a great way to take steps toward a better diet. A few people have quit smoking here, and I’ve gone from about five cups of coffee a day to one cup of tea, and I hope I will soon be drinking zero caffeine. I don’t want to give up meat, dairy, coffee or alcohol permanently, but my stay thus far has allowed me to take stock and scale back. And I feel fantastic. The most valuable thing I have learnt is the concept of physical yogic discipline (the Asanas or “poses” Westerners usually identify as “Yoga”) as training for the body to sit for long periods in meditation. Anyone who has tried meditation will know that physical discomfort is the biggest initial hurdle, and even after a brief period of practice I can feel my flexibility and posture improving.

Clyde Murray was a beginner when he arrived at Vagabond Temple Yoga retreat. Photo: SuppliedClyde Murray was a beginner when he arrived at Vagabond Temple Yoga retreat. Photo: Supplied

It was strange not being one of the many revellers at the all-night parties on the beach, but during my stays at the SFR and Vagabond I found not only my physique strengthening but also my will-power, concentration and appreciation of the many attractions Sihanoukville has to offer: the idyllic environs and islands off the coast, as well as the genuine warm-heartedness of the local Khmer who aren’t constantly in contact with intoxicated tourists. They are very different places, but I’d highly recommend both the SFR and Vagabond to anyone in Cambodia who wants to make some positive, inexpensive lifestyle changes – or if you just need a break from partying. After all, the bars will always be there, but you won’t.

Make it happen

Sihanoukville Fitness Resort
Boray Kamakor Street, Sihanoukville
There are two accommodation options at SFR: private bungalows or rooms in the main house. Everything is kept very clean and family-friendly, and bungalows are equipped with all the necessary facilities including a TV and hot water shower.

A stay in a bungalow costs US$350 for two weeks or $650 for one month, and a room in the main house is $260 for two weeks or $450 for one month. Prices include breakfast, free gym and fitness classes for two people.

Vagabond Yoga Temple
Sangat 3 Independence Beach
Dorms here are fairly basic, but the private rooms are spacious and comfortable, and well worth the extra money.

A day pass for the retreat centre costs $40, which includes three delicious healthy vegan meals. A seven-day yoga and meditation retreat costs $316 in a dorm or $389 for a private room, including a full daily retreat program and three healthy vegan meals a day.