It was October 2002 and the last day before Angela Vestergaard was to leave Sihanoukville, a beach town on the south coast of Cambodia, and continue her Asian trip, next stop Thailand.
As she prepared to leave, she stopped by the Mash Melting Pot, a restaurant on Weather Station Hill where she had become a regular customer. There she joked with the German owner about the patchy service in his restaurant, poor service to which she had become reluctantly accustomed:
“Why are paying your staff salaries when I do all their work myself?” she laughed. Ten minutes later Angela had talked herself into a job in the restaurant.
“It was meant as a joke, just me mouthing off…I hardly knew how to pull a draft beer, for goodness sake! But I took him up on his offer and I have never regretted that decision. I have been in Cambodia ever since and love it,” Angela said with a smile, comfortable now with her new life in southeast Asia.
But her story starts some months before taking the life-changing job.
Back in Herning
Back home in Herning in Denmark, Angela and her boyfriend lived a perfectly average life in their new apartment. After graduation she worked one year as an au pair with a family in Århus and did other small jobs.
Eventually, Angela and her boyfriend decided to continue their studies instead of working. Her dream was to become a psychologist. But first they wanted to take six months off travelling through Asia. Angela had been to the USA and Mexico before, but neither she nor her boyfriend had any experience of travel in Asia. So they excitedly planned a trip which would see them fly first to Moscow and continue East from there via the Trans Siberian Railway. The adventure-packed rail journey would begin the Asia sojourn taking them to China, then on from there to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, a route many young people had travelled before them.
Unfortunately before their journey was to begin August 2002, Angela and her boyfriend broke up.
Family problems that emerged also didn’t make Angela’s situation any easier, but her sister Annike and brother Jesper persuaded her to continue the planned trip alone. Prior to her departure from Copenhagen airport, she was crying, saying over and over again: “I don’t want to go!” But her brother Jesper, an experienced traveller insisted: “Come on Angela, just go! You will always regret it if you don’t!”
Reluctantly she boarded her flight, but later on arrival in dismal Moscow, she was ready to turn around again. But she was too proud and desperate to show that she would not give up so easily. Thus she continued to China and then to Vietnam. There she met and befriended an Australian girl and the pair travelled together through Vietnam and then on to Cambodia.
New life begins
And there the young Dane’s new life began, courtesy of her German employer.
During the first year working in the Sihanoukville restaurant, Angela made many new friends among them Ezza, a young British cook, and Chris an American who wanted to invest some money and take early retirement in Cambodia. Gradually the three of them realised that they shared a common dream of one day owning their own businesses. But sharing their ideas over months of casual discussions, they all shared the same conclusion that Sihanoukville was not the place to start anything new, since many others had already beaten them to it.
But Ezza eventually revealed that he knew about an old guesthouse in the provincial town of Kampot in the south east of Cambodia, a place he said was already run as a guesthouse by a Frenchman, but without much success.
So the trio bit the bullet and just after New Year 2004, they signed a 10-year contract to run and operate the guesthouse, later to be named the ‘Blissful Guesthouse’. In the following weeks, all three partners worked hard to renovate the house so that it would be ready to open by the beginning of March that same year.
Two weeks before the planned opening of the guesthouse, the trio took a motorbike trip to the Vietnamese border. Chris wanted to gauge the opportunity for the start-up and to know whether in the future the border might open and thus provide some more business for the new hotel.
At this point in her narrating her story to this reporter, Angela looked down, and explained in quiet voice:
“We should never have taken this trip, because on the way back to Kampot, Chris, who was driving 100 meters in front of Ezza and I, crashed his bike. We arrived on the scene just 10 seconds later and saw what had happened. Chris had bad wounds to one leg, so we realized immediately that we had to take him to the nearest hospital in Kampot. We quickly arranged for a van to bring him there.”
Now breathing deeply, Angela took a short break as she tried to control her emotions. After a while she continued her story, but now with tears in her eyes.
“I was sitting in the van with his head on my chest. I could see he was bleeding from a small wound in his skull. I was worried but prayed that everything would be all right, when suddenly he started to bleed from his ear.”
Weeping, Angela continued: “He died just 45 minutes after we arrived at the hospital.“
Chris was only 43 years old.
In the face of adversity
But despite the tragic loss of a good friend and partner, or maybe because of the adversity, Ezza and Angela found the strength to continue their dream. On March 8, 2004 they opened the Blissful Guesthouse for business.
“We opened with exactly 179.61 US dollars in cash, with the rent paid four months in advance. But we had nothing in reserve. I was lucky my child savings account was available to me, and I was able to put my modest savings into the company.”
But things looked bright despite their obvious fears of failure.
“On the first day of business, we had two of the nine rooms taken,” Angela smiled.
“Actually we had expected a very slow start in the coming low season, but the so-called ‘low season’ never came and we just grew more and more, day by day, and after the first year had an average occupancy of 63% – much more than we had ever expected.”
Nevertheless, fearful of cash drying up, Ezza went back to England a couple of months later in May to earn some money to help capitalise the guesthouse. But the money never came, and in early August Ezza sent word from England that he didn’t want to continue as a partner in the guesthouse.
Angela was now alone and the sole owner of the Blissful Guesthouse.
But just as she had done many times before when everything was seemingly against her, she didn’t give up and continued alone.
“Adversity became my strength,” she said and promptly introduced a more Danish style to the running of Blissful.
“We have nine basic rooms each with a bed, toilet and bathroom and all spotlessly clean,” Angela said proudly. “Then we have a restaurant, a small bar, a shop and a tourist office in one big room with a TV and a living room on the first floor.”
It is a very cheerful, friendly and relaxed atmosphere you will find if you drop by the determined young Dane’s domain, where guests are very friendly to one another and where the restaurant has a cosy Danish ambience despite its distance from her roots.
“It is also my living room”, Angela explains, “so it has to be cosy. My own room is just a place where I sleep and take a shower. The restaurant is where I can be found most of the time. And with only four or five staff, it is a 24-hours-a-day job to run a guesthouse – even if it is in a quiet backwater like Kampot.”
But Kampot won’t be quiet forever, Angela predicts.
She is right. The tourist numbers to Sihanoukville are already increasing, and slowly but surely they are coming here in increasing numbers. In fact, Kampot has a lot to offer…the charming, Cambodian rural lifestyle, beautiful rice paddies, colonial-style houses many of which are now in ruins, the limestone caves in Kampong Trach – the last hideout of the vile Khmer Rouge – and last but not least, the ‘ghost hotel’ on Bokor Hill Station built on the mountains in 1920 at a height of 1089 meters, and offering the most beautiful views across the whole of Cambodia.
The young accidental hotelier is philosophical about her fate and realistic in her ambitions.
“It is not my intention to get rich by doing this. If I can just make a living, survive and be well I will be happy,” she told me.
“I enjoy my time here with my dog Fatboy my best friend, and Tiger my cat. I like the people around me too, and I love how the Asian people respect one another and the way they behave among themselves and towards others.
“Of course the atmosphere here is quite different from Denmark, and in a few years or so, when I get tired of being a guesthouse owner, I hope I can continue to live somewhere else here in Asia. But absolutely not back in Denmark,” Angela smiled.
Back in the restaurant, where the Danebrog hangs together with the Cambodian flag and the most Danish item on the menu is a big cup of black coffee, there is also a small Buddhist alter on one wall near the bar. On this very Asian alter, there are two candles burning, accompanied by two fresh local beers, some fresh fruit and a photo of her departed friend Chris.
“I do not believe in such things, but we put up the photo of Chris at a small ceremony 115 days after his death and every single day since then, a bat flies in and takes some fruit from the alter!”
After a short pause and with a hint of a smile on her lips she says,
“Maybe I am not so alone after all.”