Thursday, 9 July 2009

South Cambodia

There is a funeral going on outside our window. It is ten o’clock at night; an amplified voice penetrates the evening and is accompanied by frenetic, syncopated drumming. To this caterwaul add an Indian sounding piper playing a crazed melody that erratically cuts into the song. To one side of this devilish carnival there stands a small applauding crowd and a bald, hunch backed monk who taps away at a small coconut shaped drum with the precision of a metronome. To be fair, it feels and sounds nothing like a funeral. Whilst the dirge is melancholy in places, the drumming and the crowd is almost celebratory and we would not have known that this was an occasion of mourning it we had not asked what was going on. From our balcony we overlook the gathering, which is located down one of the small, labyrinth like alleyways in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. We have been in Vietnam for about a week now, which means I have some catching up to do. So let us rewind to Phnom Penh, and the journey into southern Cambodia where the beaches glisten in the evening sun, a barbeque of fresh fish and lobster costsabout U$2.00 and the beer at happy hour (2pm to 7pm) is considerably cheaper than a bottle of coca-cola.



Our journey from Phnom Penh was typical of most of our trips in Cambodia. The roads were good, the drivers sensible and the bus was new, air conditioned and punctual. The attention to the customers needs and desires went so far as to include a TV, which played karaoke songs such as Wham’s Careless Whispers and loved up numbers by Enrique Iglasias. Seldom have I been so happy about having an iPod with me. Personally I preferred the crazy departure from Laos where we were treated to Linkin Park featuring Jay Z at an eardrum shattering level. Jay Z cussed, Linkin Park hollered. It was far more agreeable, but then taste is subjective. Having clocked the entertainment on offer on the bus and consequently turned up my ipod to balance out the hapless couple that were Wham, reading proved difficult. Staring out the window greater Phnom Penh shot past. Again I was struck by how vast the city was, it sprawled. And then we were into rural Cambodia again. The countryside as we travelled South towards the coast was stunning and I would love to do this route again by ourselves, in our own transport. This would not be merely in an effort to escape Wham, (though of course this is motivation in itself ) but rather because the countryside is remarkable in it’s beauty and bus drivers are not always very understanding when you want to get out a camera, some filters and a tripod. As you get closer to the coast you ascend into a mountain range and then, suddenly, as you round a corner the sea sparkles between hills to the right. The sea is shades of dazzling green and blue capped with iridescent diamonds. The bus crosses over numerous rivers and then runs parallel to the coast before you enter the less picturesque town and bus station of Sihanoukville. The town itself seems quite industrial and to be fair, prosperous as Nipun observed; welders (naturally unafraid of arc eye and enthusiastically welding without masks) go about their business in pokey garages, tradesmen bustle and the new, busy market is a constant source of activity and movement.

On arrival at the bus station, over helpful hands made grabs at our bags in an attempt to chuck them onto tuk-tuks before a price could be negotiated. After a few minor and amiable fracases we got our bags on our backs and walked onto the main road. We have found that it is easier to negotiate a sensible, fair price for transport away from the station and it is certainly less stressful than being surrounded by a handful of eager drivers, cajoling and pushing each other in order to gain your favour. The attention in these situations can be a little overwhelming and stressful and my asperity has surprised me from time to time - after all these guys are just earning their daily living. But sometimes it can just be too much, the jovial joking side of me wilts and I get snappy. Then about half an hour later when I have calmed down I feel guilty and, I admit, like a complete prat for being such an irascible fiend.

At our guesthouse Nipun got chatting to the manager as she checked in. A couple of young British guys staying at the guest house were causing him some grief, aggressively asking him to remove a Vietnamese girl from their room (reading between the lines a call girl who for one reason or another who was going nowhere - go figure). Through gritted teeth he went on to tell Nipun how, when they had checked in, they had given him a sum of money for looking after. They told him it was US$800.00. When he counted it in front of them it was only $500.00. “And when they checked out, they would have accused me of stealing the money and I would have been responsible for paying them back” he concluded. In a similar incident he had been defrauded of about $500.00 last year, and held accountable for the loss. This time it was by an English guy who said he was off to the bank so he could settle his food and drink tab before leaving town. The man never came back. He had smuggled his luggage out and was off like a shot to Thailand. Needless to say the manager was somewhat contemptuous of the English. He eyeballed our passports and us we tried to convince him that we were nice people - really! But it is shameful that people with so much can steal from people with so little. I reckon that the manager of that hotel probably makes between $100 to $150 per month and is no position to pay back someone else’s bar bill.

We got changed and went down to the beach with as little delay as possible. Sihanouville is beautiful. We stayed next to Serendipity Beach which boasts soft, white sands and a sea (the Gulf of Thailand) that is warm and clear and dotted with vibrantly painted, wooden fishing boats. Paradise here is a shallow illusion though. On our walk along the beach on the first day I almost kicked a used syringe complete with hypodermic needle. One of the local ladies that offers massages on the beach shook her head in disgust and acted out a junky shooting up. Drugs, it seems are a big problem, both with the foreigners (surprise, surprise) and the local youth. Young kids of about ten also patrol the beach selling bracelets and trinkets and can get a little shirty when you refuse to buy anything from them. Sensibly the powers that be have forbidden any children from hawking goods after seven o’clock at night, a rule which we saw being enforced. We took a day trip the next day to three islands in the area which was well worth the money. We got to do some snorkelling, got burnt to a crisp and played some atrocious volleyball. That evening as we dined al fresco at a local Indian restaurant a huge commotion erupted across the dirt road at us. Locals leapt up, hollered, a table went flying. The table was then picked up and hurled repeatedly at the ground before a seven foot snake was triumphantly held up in the air. It was bad luck for the snake really, it was non-venomous. As Russell Hoban put it in the brilliant book Riddley Walker “Your turn now, my turn later.” Continuing this theme the next morning as we had breakfast CNN caught our attention. Something about Michael Jackson was going on and they were mentioning his upcoming concert. Ten minutes on and this was still going on until we clicked, he was dead.


Our next stop was the somnambulistic town of Kampot. Rather than catch the tourist bus we took a shared minivan. Not only was the journey an adventure but the process too proved memorable. The first driver we found took our luggage and put in the boot of his car and then told us that we had to wait for more passengers before we could leave. In the interim Nipun found a minivan that was leaving immediately and was also cheaper. Our first driver however would not return our luggage for love or money. He became petulant, aggressive and hostile, refusing to budge. So I tried to wrest his keys from his pocket whereupon his surliness increased. Threats of the police were the only thing that made him laugh. Eventually, after the threats of physical force had joined the empty threats of the police action he relented and sulkily returned our baggage and we were on our way. The shared minivan was shared with about two tons of mephitic barley, picked up from a depot in town before we set off. Bags of fifty kilograms were hoisted into the van until the rear view mirror was transmogrified into a useless accessory, six old ladies also on their way to Kampot were bundled into the remaining row of seats and then we on our very smelly way. As we continued down the coast towards Kampot the scenery got better and better, the rivers increase in size and swell into the ocean, littered with villages and smiling kids that wave from the side of the road. I really regret the fact that we spent so little time in South Cambodia.

Kampot seemed almost like it had been picked up out of Laos and dropped into Cambodia. It is a small, lethargic town, set by the river and populated with dilapidated but graceful French colonial buildings. The restaurants and riverside bars are fantastic and the town has a relaxed and cheerful feel to it. It’s old bridge is worth the visit to the town alone. The bridge was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years and has been rebuilt by throwing together a bewildering combination of materials. The main section of the bridge is covered by steel chequer plates that clank like a train track as motorbikes and tractors traverse it. Kampot prison is nearby, and alarmingly close to the guesthouses in town. The prison is as beautiful as a prison can be, after all it was built by the French and is painted in a soft saffron colour that catches the evening sun and glows with warmth. The inside, I have just read, is not so grand… “A surge in inmates in Kampot prison has led to severe overcrowding and mounting health problems, including malnutrition, prison and provincial health officials said Thursday. In particular, several prisoners suffer from tuberculosis, skin infections and hypertension, said Lim Kaing Eang, chief of Kampot's provincial health department.” There are two other reasons that Kampot enjoys some fame, one is for Kampot Pepper, some of the finest in the world (trust me on this one, we had a Kampot pepper sauce and it was practically enough to get me filling in an emigration request) and the second is the nearby Bokor National Park and Bokor Hill Station.


The main reason that we wanted to see Kampot was it’s proximity to Bokor Hill Station, a visit that cost us US$50.00 to do but which was worth every penny. Access to the Hill Station is now sporadic as the government builds a monstrosity of a new hotel nearby, from the drawing being displayed an anachronistic eyesore that hails back to the flamboyant but tacky hotel architecture of the seventies. The irony is that the environs are stunning and that the new hotel will be entirely unsympathetic to the landscape in which it will be set. Furthermore the impact on the Hill Station and its historic grandeur will be awful unless it is micromanaged, and this is unlikely to happen.

The original hotel was built atop Phnom Bokor by the French as a retreat from the heat and humidity of the main cities. At an altitude of over 1000 metres the hotel grounds overlook a vertical drop into the ocean below. The view can be mesmerising. I say “can be” because the hotel is so high up that clouds often sweep across the building and render them into an obscure fog. As you push along the road you suddenly see the hulking structure of the hotel or its outbuildings manifest before you, much like a ghost ship appearing from the mist. The overall effect is positively eerie, and then as suddenly as the clouds rolled in they are gone again. In the sun the Hill Station and the nearby cathedral glow amber in the sun, the walls being covered in an orange lichen. To add to the overall uneasiness the place inspires the walls are pocked with bullet holes from conflicts between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese.


It was time to ago again, the few days that we spent in Kampot with it’s rusted corrugated roofs and ubiquitous volleyball games was too short. But we only a few days left in Cambodia before the visas ran out and so we moved onto the seaside of Kep, forty minutes down the road. The first thing that strikes you about Kep are the Hindu statues that line the road as you drive into town. Indeed Kep seems to be populated by statues in a variety of styles and quality. As you stroll down the main beach for example, the alabaster white Naked Fisher Man’s wife stares at you from across the beach, eight feet high and ensconced upon the end of the pier. It is refreshing that there is so much sculpture in Kep though. Owing to the seaside town’s bourgeois heritage (it was a quintessential seaside resort, the French loved it and the former King had a palace here) the Khmer Rouge decimated the town and as you walk along the seafront the old ruins of burnt out houses and villas. As such the town has an undiscovered feel to it in places, particularly in the early mornings. Local rumour has it that some of the burnt old buildings house ghosts, and at this time of the day it is easy to imagine why.

The beach in Kep was not as picturesque or the sea as inviting as it was at Sihanoukville and the nearby islands. However the crab market more than makes up for this. At dawn each day the grainy shore in front of the market is filled with women wading into the water to check crab traps, they return with baskets stuffed to bursting point with crabs and lobster. These are put onto scales, chucked into baskets and off they are taken. The quantity of crab that tumbles from trap to baskets made our jaws drop. Is this sustainable? Who knows. There are thousands of crabs being fished, weighed, put on ice and dispatched. Some of this crab stays put though and is served up at the twenty or so quaint shacks that line the beach. We had a sea fish lunch one day, more crab than we could eat, bursting with flavour and fist sized prawns caught that morning. From memory it cost us about US$10.00, which for this neck of the woods is expensive. But the quality and freshness of the food, coupled with the view of the ocean and rounded off with a Kampot Pepper sauce was worth every penny. It was our last day in Kep and the following morning we had an early breakfast at the Star Hotel (which was housing the president at the time) before getting a tuk-tuk (that we had pre-arranged) to the relatively new Vietnamese border post at Ha Tien. After about half an hour of driving through verdant rice fields with the smell of fish drying out in the sun hanging thickly in the air, our tuk tuk driver handed us over to some motorbike drivers who got us across the border and into town.

We had heard that crossing into Vietnam could be a bureaucratic nightmare, made more difficult by antagonistic and rude officials. Nothing could have been further from the truth at Ha Tien and the process was entirely painless. We were into Vietnam and Cambodia, sadly, was behind us.

We loved Cambodia, the people were generally friendly and good fun, the culture rich and the landscape beautiful. Of course everywhere has its problems though. It was a land of those who had plenty and of others who had very little. We saw shocking injuries on men and women whose lives had been shattered by landmines, children working the streets late at night and then the plain old homeless and destitute. A recent survey by Transparency International ranked Cambodia as the 14th most corrupt country in the world. Nepotism is alive and well a select few seem sure to prosper. And yet on the other hand for a country where monetary currency was only re-introduced in 1979 (after the Khmer Rouge declared Year Zero and effectively abolished money in Cambodia) the Khmer people have come along a very long road in a very short time. I was apprehensive when I entered Cambodia because the history was so brutal, so bloody and so recent. And yet our time here revealed that this is just one small aspect of a land where people are getting on with their daily lives and making a go of it. Cambodia was wonderful.

It is about 3.00 AM now and the funeral is still going strong. We have gone from the live band to karaoke to Buddhist chants and now it is time to go to bed. What a time they have had tonight, we should have joined them!

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