I woke up early as I had to get the van service down to the coastal city of Kampot, where my Cambodian friend, Koy, has recently opened a restaurant.
The trip is supposed to take 3 hours by car, and 5 if you go by bus, so this was a no-brainer. Or so I thought! I liked the convenience that the service picked you up at your hotel, but what they neglected to say was that it was aboard a motorcycle! Now, I don’t do motorcycles. I fell off one as a kid and have been afraid to get on one ever since—for good reason! Could just see him, me, my 25-lb backpack and a small suitcase negotiating the streets of Phenom Penh! So I followed him in a tuk tuk to the drop-off point to get the van. The vehicle was comfortable and there was space for 15 people. On board, however, there were only a young French couple, myself, the driver and his “sidekick.” We made the trip in a shade under two hours, probably because the driver hesitated a bit when the checkered flag was waved in Phenom Penh! Once we were out of the city traffic, he floored it and proceeded to honk this obnoxious sounding horn at everything– man or beast, big or small, monk or sinner– that dared to come within a 10-meter radius of the vehicle. It was so bizarre; I couldn’t help but laugh every time he blew it— something somewhere between a duck and an ambulance siren! He was relentless with slow-moving motorcycles! Whoever talked about the Asian “cool-heart” never encountered this guy on the road! I slowly fastened my seat belt (a miracle that there was one that functioned to begin with) as to not alarm the rather anxious French couple. Clearly their first experience with Southeast Asian driving habits! Not sure if she fell asleep, pretended to or simply passed out, but the French girl did not open her eyes until we made a pit stop about half way there! The guy looked somehow resigned to his fate that this may be the day he died. That we got there in less than the reported time was shocking in and of itself, especially in Cambodia, where any trip near or far usually takes much more time than scheduled. I recall asking the question about getting from point A to B on previous trips to this country and being met with shrugs, stares, and knowing laughter. The slowly improving road system has been so bad here, you just can never say how long a trip will take, especially when you factor in the weather—- you’re just grateful afterwards that you got there in one piece!
In no time at all, I found myself looking at the somewhat grim grin of the European manager of the guesthouse where I was staying. He gave me a five-minute run-down of the town and where he recommended that I eat and go. It struck me as odd that none of these places included anything even remotely connected to Cambodian culture. He seemed annoyed at times, like some particularly dour school master, when I stopped him to ask questions. He passed me a booklet about Kampot that he offered was very funny in spots. After later reading parts of it, I guess the “funny” parts were usually about unfathomable Cambodian customs and quaint cultural “peculiarities.” When I asked about the night market I passed on the way in, he rolled his eyes in a dismissive way, looked at me down his rather sharp nose and snored drily, “There is nothing there but clothes. Everything you needed is right along the main road.” Later on at the restaurant, Koy’s business partner confirmed that there is a divide between the European-run hotels and the general community. It’s pretty sad, really.
I called Koy and he came immediately to take me to eat at the restaurant. He designed it himself and it is really great— open space, yet with tables that are set up in a way that seem cozy and private. The music, as in most of these places, is live, lively and loud. Everyone knows of the restaurant already and there seemed to be good numbers coming in each night I was there. Still Koy is nervous; there is always a price for finding your dreams. The crew running the restaurant consists of his partner and most of Koy’s family dealing with everything from washing dishes to singing on stage! Nearly all of them are trying to make their way up from severe poverty as dirt-poor farmers, so everyone working there has an interest in making sure it is a success. If it isn’t, they will be back to facing an uncertain future. The food is excellent with specifically Khmer dishes and others that could easily be found in Thailand as there are similarities between the two cuisines. It is great to see Koy work the place, like Rick in “Casablanca.” He knows everyone, shady or pure, and they all seem to come there. He’s come a long way from that friendly security guard/ tuk tuk driver that I met back in 2007 or 08 at the hotel I stayed at during my first visit to Phenom Penh. He had, and still has, the right combination of charm and relentless drive that tells you he is going to do well. The one big drawback to the restaurant’s success at this point is the fact that the access road (about half a kilometer) is unpaved and is a rutted, muddy mess that even my intrepid tuktuk driver had all he could do to negotiate. I thought at one point I’d be getting out to push! But this is soon to be remedied when the rains let up enough to lay a foundation for a proper roadway.
With Koy busy so much, I have a lot of time to see Kampot itself. The first thing you notice is the promenade along the Kampong Bay River with its beautiful view of the town and the mountains behind. When the rains come, as they daily do here at this time of the year, the clouds squeeze, ooze, and flow through the mountains warning you to take cover. It is not difficult for you to find a peaceful place to contemplate life while witnessing this scene, or meet other people just enjoying the day or evening and the cool relief the river offers. Many just love to practice their English, so I go into teacher mode and enjoy the conversation. One evening, I met a couple of friends who, I think, are really interested in each other. This is something they tease each other about constantly with their good senses of humor and lively personalities. We spent an hour with this conversation, enjoying the banter back and forth between these two. She complained he has too many girlfriends, while he professed his “innocence,” but intentionally not very convincingly! The next day when I went to confirm my return reservation, he was the attendant at the shop! Small world…
And so it goes. I wandered up in the off-river world of Cambodian life which is quite different with its poverty and shops with meager products. You wonder how anyone makes a living at that. Many older structures that perhaps were more official buildings at some distant colonial time are now 12 times subdivided and filled with families of young children. I do make it to the night market, and yes it is mostly clothing, but you go for the atmosphere. I go here as much to escape the tourist area along the river as the Cambodians go to the river to find a bit of relief from the heat.
Saturday, the last day in Kampot, is a busy one. I met a tuk tuk driver along the promenade who tells me sometimes he makes $5 to $10 dollars a day, and sometimes none. He tells me there are too many tuk-tuks in Kampot, especially for this time of the year. So I hired him to take me on his best grand-slam two-hour tour of the town on both sides of the river.
He ended up being the perfect guide— he literally and figuratively knows where the “bodies are buried” in Kampot. We went to the small shallow pond across from the dilapidated Kampot Prison, where the Khmer Rouge killed and dumped over 300 town residents in the mid-70’s. The prison itself seems to me stark. He told me it has just small, bare rooms for the prisoners. Definitely not a place to visit! Next is a spot now sort of unofficially used as a sports field, but in the time of a former governor, this public land, and other lots, were sold off to investors at a 100% profit for the good governor himself. My guide is an activist in the making. Every place has its tale of corruption! We then went to the other side of the river and went on narrow country roads through basket-making villages and the Muslim fishing community to the Buddhist temple I believe is named Truy Koh. It has a nice view along the river and you can see some of the fishing boats making their way back to port. Behind the temple is a pepper factory. Kampot is famous for the grade of its pepper, and being a great lover of the spice, I buy moderate amounts of red, black and white to enjoy home. I love the fresher, cleaner, unprocessed taste.
We managed to get back to my hotel just as Koy was arriving to take me to feast on crabs at Kep, a town about 10-12 kilometers from Kampot. The ride is relatively quick. If I had the money, this would be a great place to invest. There is much being done to build up the infrastructure—- a new road, guesthouses, public accommodations. The town looks a little disheveled as it is beginning this make-over, but I’ll bet in 10 years time this will be a totally new area to rival Kampot. We stopped at the docks where a whole market is dedicated to the crab! You can buy them fresh from the sea and have them prepared and steamed as you wait. You can get whatever you need for a nice picnic and then go to one of the seaside pavilions to sit and enjoy the feast. This is exactly what we do! The air is clean and the weather breezy as we sit there talking and enjoying the view of the nearby islands.
On the way back Koy takes me to a national preserve that has rapids and a picturesque water fall. We saw the rapids, but the waterfall has been fenced off by the Chinese hydroelectric company that built the plant here. Much was initially promised in the way of cheap electricity for the local community. However, it seems that the company actually sells a lot of it to Vietnam, just a few kilometers down the road. During the three days I was in Kampot, blackouts plagued the city— a daily nuisance lasting from a few minutes to hours on end. Each night at the restaurant everything stopped as the electric would invariably be lost for long periods of time. Nearly every Cambodian I ever talked to had a historic and recent resentment for the Vietnamese, who are blamed for everything.
The next day, It seemed fitting somehow that as I was doing my final inspection before checking out, the electricity went off again. Got to the van, and there was the driver that took me down a few days before. Ah, when it rains, it pours. I talked to Koy one more time as he was waiting for a crew to come to grade the road. Not five minutes later, it rained in buckets and continued in a downpour all day long. The one gift of this, other than to make the farmers happy, was that the driver was forced to go slower than on the trip down! It took us a little over 3 hours to get back. This included a 15-minute pit stop, where I sampled Cambodian “ice milk.” And it tasted literally like iced milk with some chocolate syrup mixed in. Well, I’ll try anything twice.
We got back about 5:00 for my last night in Phenom Penh. Walked around the riverside part of the city one more time and then decided to have dinner. At the restaurant, I asked the waitress for the passcode for the Internet service. “Eight times four, and nine times four,” she replied without hesitation. I tried this a few different ways but no luck. I tried “8×4 9×4” and “eight times four nine times four,” and even “eight x four nine x four,” with no luck. I called her over again thinking I had gotten the numbers wrong. When I explained it to her, she sighed and reached over me and typed in “88889999.” So I said with surprised amusement, “Oh! You mean eight 4 times and nine 4 times!” To which she looked at me blankly and drily responded, “Yeah. Like I tell you.” Sometimes it is just better to accept that everything is Ok and just move on……….