This year I travelled through Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, Kampot, and Kampong Cham, Cambodia during the festive three-day Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmei). As with many cultures around the world, holiday preparations begin a few days in advance. Family and friends visit and wish each other good fortune and health. Every household, restaurant, and store has an offering table covered with fruit, drinks, flowers, snacks, and incense. Traditionally, on the eve of the holiday, people eat lavish meals and burn incense and candles to welcome a new god and say farewell to the old god. Families take food to monks on the first day, children give money or clothing to their parents on the second day, and everyone takes rice offerings to their respective temples. On the third day and night, it is common to go to the temple to douse and bathe Buddha statues and each other; gifts,along with the fragrant water, are also offered to these Buddhas. Many Khmer return to their home provinces to celebrate and it is common for family and friends to gather and play traditional Khmer games.
I found that Cambodia was fairly tranquil during this period, since most businesses and markets are closed for nearly a week (and sometimes even beyond). On my way to Kampot I experienced first-hand, from the front seat I shared with a driver and two other passengers, the phenomenon of jam-packed vans full of homeward-bound travellers who are squashed into the seats, riding on the roof, or literally hanging out the open back doors.
Cambodia’s landscape is beautiful, there are many magnificent temples and monuments to visit, and the people are warm and welcoming but it is still a country in the throes of development and recovery from the Khmer Rouge atrocities of the 1970s to 1990s (1999 is officially considered the end of the Khmer Rouge despite the fact that Pol Pot ruled and committed genocide in his country from 1975-1979). In fact, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world which means life is difficult for the majority of Khmer. It can be emotionally difficult for a traveller to witness the level of poverty in this country. Yet tourism and the many foreign expats who live and work here give the country a much-needed boost.
I believe that the money a tourist spends is very important at the individual community level in Cambodia. I can only hope that international aid allocates funding to local NGOs to help empower them to raise their own money and become self-sufficient. This seems to be the best way to help struggling and impoverished countries dig their way out from under. Sustainability should be the goal of any NGO, but apparently this is not always the case at the local level, where it counts. But there is an alternative – the social enterprise. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance:
Three characteristics distinguish a social enterprise from other types of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies:
- It directly addresses an intractable social need and serves the common good, either through its products and services or through the number of disadvantaged people it employs.
- Its commercial activity is a strong revenue driver, whether a significant earned income stream within a nonprofit’s mixed revenue portfolio, or a for profit enterprise.
- The common good is its primary purpose, literally “baked into” the organization’s DNA, and trumping all others.
One example of a social enterprise that you can find in a number of places including the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports, is the long-established Artisans d’Angkor. Initially, it was was created with the assistance of the European Union. Its goal is to revive and promote into Cambodian craft by providing training to young people thereby improving their lives.
With all this said….
More than two years have passed since I was last Phnom Penh (PP) and it appears that little there has changed. Yes, prices have gone up, so I spent $5 more for the guesthouse I stayed in last time, and perhaps $0.50 -$1.00 more for other things. Wifi is everywhere – no more internet cafe for me. There are new high-rises and corporate buildings and more roads are paved. Despite the many motor bikes, tuk tuks, and bicycles on the streets, cars and trucks are now ubiquitous; there was actually traffic congestion when I left for Koh Kong at 8 a.m. and when I returned to PP after the holiday, midday traffic throughout the city was almost at a standstill.
Despite being the capital city of Cambodia, PP has a frontier feel to it – it has a sense of both old and new. The streets are numbered but not necessarily in order, despite the fact that its roads are arranged predominantly in a grid system. Some buildings on streets lack numbers and others have the same number just half a block away (street names/numbers tend to jump about). PP is grungy in some areas, with just a few unpaved roads. Garbage abounds (in fact there is more on the street than two years ago; apparently, garbage pick-up is now the responsibility of a private company and they are not doing a very good job). The smaller markets are dark, maze-like, and teeming with life. Throngs of people sit on chairs, tables, or on the ground, and sell their produce at markets like the wet market near my hotel. The food literally spills onto the street and buyers and insects alike swarm the stalls. And yet… there are stylish hotels, shops, and restos just around the corner from these grittier areas. Corruption is still rampant in Cambodia as I’ve written in my post on Phnom Penh in 2012. Fortunately, there are many organisations trying to help eliminate this.
I spent one day with a friend of a friend in PP; she picked me up and gave me a private tour of the city, taking me to some places I had seen before and many others (like Diamond Island, which appeared deserted but, I was told, livens up at night), I had not seen nor would have, had I not met her.
PP is rougher around the edges than neighbouring countries/cities. Vietnam, Laos, China, and elsewhere have also all experienced ugly histories in the recent past. Yet here, like in Laos and Vietnam, people are resolute and are attempting to bounce back. Almost everyone is friendly. They try to eke out their living, although life is not easy. PP is a diamond in the rough. Compared to two years ago, there appears to now be an even richer appreciation, among the people of this city, of its cultural heritage. There is the contemporary dance theatre – New Cambodian Artists – that incorporates traditional aspects into its performances, and Java Arts, which exhibits contemporary visual arts. Theirs is a strong and complex culture that has experienced so much sorrow and yet has survived. It seems that PP is in transition (and has been for a number of years). I enjoy PP very much because it is so multifaceted; the people, for the most part, are amiable and admirable. The city has an intense pace yet is completely laid-back, is both contemporary and traditional, rural and urban.
- Fancy Guesthouse: This is a family-run and very simple guesthouse that is central to everything. The price has gone up since I last stayed here but I blame myself for writing such a rave review on Trip Advisor!
- Tattoo Guesthouse: This is another family-run, simple guesthouse, for those on a tight budget. It is farther away from the centre of town but the prices can’t be beat and the staff are known to be helpful and friendly.
Places to Eat:
- Romdeng (74 Street 174) part of Friends International
- Friends ( 215 Street 13) part of Friends International
- K’nyay (Suramarit Blvd between Sothearos Blvd. and Street 19)
- Malis (136 Norodom Blvd.)
- Sugar Palm (19 Street 240)
Street Food (everywhere):
- Kuy teav: A noodle soup with pork or beef, and rice vermicelli. It is topped with fried shallots, green onions, greens, and bean sprouts.
- Bai sach chrouk: This is a typical pork and rice dish eaten for breakfast. The pork – sometimes marinated in garlic or coconut milk – is grilled slowly over charcoal. Fried scallion and/or green tomatoes and/or fresh cucumbers and/or a fried egg are served on top, along with a small plate of spicy pickled cucumbers and carrots. The typical way to eat it is with a spoonful of each, at the same time. The best place I have found is at the corner of streets 15 and 136.
- Nom plae ai: These little glutinous(?) rice dumplings are filled with liquid caramelized palm sugar and covered with fresh coconut shavings. Simply delicious.
- Cheik chien : Deep fried bananas that are utterly scrumptious. You often see them flattened and dipped in a batter with black sesame seeds.
Tip: As I mention above, there are many NGOs and social enterprises. Check online and in the guide books and support those that have cafes and restaurants, or goods to sell; your money can go a long way to help the people of this country.
Tatai River (Koh Kong)
Koh Kong is the southwestern-most province of Cambodia, with a long, mostly undeveloped, coastline. The Cardamom mountains and rain forests cover this province, which makes the interior largely inaccessible. The main town is also named Koh Kong and is situated near the Thai border. It is small, with not much to attract people to it, but there are white sand beaches and opportunities for jungle treks nearby. I did not stay in Koh Kong. Instead, by chance and, as it happens, good fortune, I ended up at a costlier guesthouse than my allotted budget should have allowed, that was aptly named Tatai Riverfront Resort (note: do not consider staying at the Neptune Lodge– you can see my review on Trip Advisor under the title “First Bad Review.”). After one night at this lodge I was hooked. The staff was wonderful, the food excellent, and the world there, peaceful.
The Tatai River is clear and warm. The tidal waterway is a few hundred metres wide in most places and can go as deep as 20 metres. Where I stayed, the water is shallow with a very calm current and there was an island 30 metres or so away. The river alternates between salt and fresh water through the course of each day and season. Among the mangroves are little inlets which lead to the Cardamom mountains.
Koh Kong province is less developed than much of the rest of the country. I had the opportunity to visit the Tatai waterfall, where the water is very clear since the source is the Cardamom mountains. At night, fireflies gravitate to the star fruit (caramboia) trees in this area along the river to eat and do their thing – glow in the dark. It was the most beautiful sight as they flashed on and off, almost in unison. It actually felt as if I was watching a Disney movie, though Disney artists may well have gotten their glittery ideas from male fireflies who, according to the Huffington Post:
“show off” for the ladies of their own species. There are more than 2,000 species of firefly. A male firefly will light up its abdomen at a particular rate or wavelength, and when a female firefly sees a male from her own species shining in that particular way, she’ll respond with her own light. Hence baby fireflies are conceived.
Another reason fireflies glow (and this one not quite as romantic) is to lure prey. Some females will glow to lure a male to her and then — chomp! — he becomes dinner.
There was swimming and kayaking on the river, as well as jungle trekking opportunities. Each night at dusk, the sound and sight of fish leaping up out of the water entertained me. The din of frogs and cicadas was the first of many lovely sounds I heard at night. In the morning I woke up to the calls of birds, roosters, and geckos. Paradise, perhaps? Without mosquitoes, yes!
Kampot sits on the banks of the broad Preak Kampong Bay River and is surrounded by fishing villages, salt flats (once rice paddies), mountains, and tropical forests. Kampot pepper farms also skirt the town; this was once one of the biggest pepper-growing regions in the world, until the Khmer Rouge arrived. The pepper business is slowly rebuilding itself. Kampot is also the durian capital of Cambodia – a fruit many people are turned off by because of it’s turpentine smell. But oh! How heavenly the taste is – best described as a combination of banana and mango with the consistency of pastry cream.
Kampot is a fairly quiet city – especially during the Khmer New Year – with many run-down French colonial-era buildings, and a charm I cannot explain. There are a few bridges that cross the river including “The Old Bridge,” which is actually built of multiple styles/sections and has a very rusty, hole-y, metal road, so only motor bikes, cyclists, and pedestrians are allowed to cross it. I was told that it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and when it was rebuilt, well…. the varying styles came into play for some odd reason. Kampot is a good place to walk, go for coffee, wander through the market (an ordinary, cramped, indoor place for the locals to buy anything from clothing and food, to household goods, beauty products, and more – these markets, like all I have experienced in this part of the world, are an onslaught to the senses), or simply hang out by the river. On the surface, Kampot feels like a place one quickly stops through on the way to elsewhere, but after a few days you realise that it is somewhere you can really relax. The main thing that disquieted me about it was that people are not as friendly here as in other places I have visited in Cambodia. I do not know why this is and if any of you know (or have experienced this impression) – please comment.
Kampot seems to have an inordinate number of foreign expats – particularly males, many who appeared to be in a stoned haze. Yet I did meet two lovely expat women – one teaches art at the Epic Arts Centre and the other is a psychiatrist and administrator at the Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital for Children. It was good to meet these two women since my feelings about the expats I saw hanging out were not positive.
I spent three days in Kampot. I wandered the area, taking photographs of some of the architectural “ruins;” wandering the outskirts of the city, along the railway and through countryside (warding off the notorious dog packs that initially made me freeze, until I found the courage to ignore them and just keep walking with conviction); visited the market, and more.
On one of these days I went up the winding, foggy road in Bokor Mountain National Park by motorbike, with a fellow traveller staying at my guesthouse. We wanted to see the new casino/hotel and the c1920 French ruins. Bokor Hill Station is a vestige of the past. It was originally built by the French, as a holiday resort, but was abandoned in the 1940s during the Indochine War. This building still stands empty (with many Khmer picnicking on the grounds and children running about inside). Solimex Group, the largest Cambodian real estate company, built the new casino and hotel nearby and is in the process of constructing luxury housing as well. They have also cleaned the exterior and interior of Bokor Hill Station so this once completely abandoned place no longer shows signs of the lichen and moss that covered it not long ago. I have read Somilex is planning to turn this building into a museum but that remains to be seen.
Kampot, The Old Bokor Hill Casino (Photograph courtesy of Nicolas Pascarel)
On this same road there is an abandoned, lichen covered, Romanesque-style Catholic church with its rusty cross standing tall. The inside is covered with both Khmer and English graffiti and religious artifacts have been added recently. Bullet holes are also visible (the story goes that the Vietnamese fought with the Khmer Rouge at this spot).
The road up/down the mountain gives you a chance to see the grand vista of the plateau and the Gulf of Thailand below. This park is a popular place among the Khmer, who often visit during the New Year to picnic, go to the temple at the top, to give their offerings, and listen to Buddhist sermons, and to just get away from the high temperatures and breathe cooler, moving air.
One morning I visited the salt flats just outside of Kampot but was not lucky enough to see anyone at work, since it was the holiday season. The flats were completely devoid of people and quite serene.
What I particularly liked about Kampot – what turned me on the most – was the run-down facade of the city‘s colonial architecture left by the French. The photos below say it all. This city of many decaying, formerly grand, buildings gives visitors a small window into what once must have been a flourishing colonial power. Kampot was one of the last regions for Khmer Rouge forces to take over because the Bokor Mountain stood in its way. And as it so happens, the Khmer Rouge did not leave Kampot until the late 1990s, after the rest of the country had already moved on.
- Auberge du Soleil: This is a new guesthouse, only open a couple of months, and run by a Swiss man who is in the process of turning the place around. He hopes it will be up to snuff by the next high season. He is very accommodating and is really trying to keep his handful of guesthouse clients, happy, as he does his resto/bar clients. At the moment he is juggling a lot but if his vision comes to fruition it will be a fantastic place.
- Les Manguiers: I did not stay here because I wanted to be in the town of Kampot but this place was recommended and is not far outside the town.
Places to Eat:
- Auberge du Soleil (at the corner of streets 728 and 710)
- Sisters II Bakery and Cafe (Street 726 near 2000 Roundabout )
- Epic Arts Centre (at the corner of streets 731 and 724)
- Ta Oav (JUST south of the New Bridge)
- Street Food – everywhere
Epic Arts Dance Videos:
Kampong Cham is a relatively small place that most visitors to this country tend to overlook. It is a fairly well-kept, tranquil town with few large, new, buildings. It houses a couple of markets, a few hotels, a small derelict fairground, and some restos, food stalls, and stands along the Mekong where locals gather in droves at night. There are many French colonial buildings and is a lovely place to explore as is the surrounding area. It is a large Buddhist centre as well as a Muslim one (the largest Muslim community in Cambodia lives here and the word “Cham” is the name of Cambodia’s Muslim minority group).
What I did in my 1.5 days in Kampong Cham:
- Wandered the streets enjoying the town in 37C heat that finally got to me after three weeks of similar temperatures.
- Traversed the Bamboo Bridge and explored Koh Paen Island: The bridge crosses the Mekong river to an island where there are many small Cham and Khmer villages with houses, typical of Cambodian countryside architecture, mounted on stilts. Crossing the bridge is thrilling because it gives the impression of being rickety and wobbly yet is sturdy enough to endure throngs of people, tuk tuks, and large motor vehicles. I can only imagine the rush of experience going over the bridge by bicycle… Every year this bridge is washed away during the rainy season and is rebuilt during the dry one.
- Nokor Wat: Remnants of this 11th century temple has Angkorian-like architecture. The more recent shrine is a Theravada Buddhist pagoda that is squeezed in between the oldest shrines. The original killing field in this area was between Phnom Proh and Phnom Sray (see below), just beyond Nokor Wat. Monks collected the bones after the Khmer Rouge regime and placed them in a building here. I read that there are wall paintings depicting torture and executions and, on another series of walls, scenes of the afterlife. Unfortunately I could not get into this building. There were no monks around and I barely saw a soul while I was there.
- Phnom Pros and Phnom Sray: The names of these two temples translate to: “Man Hill’” and “Woman Hill.” Each has a pagoda and panoramic views of the countryside. Phnom Pros is filled with monkeys who, unfortunately, eat much of the garbage left by visitors. There is a memorial site for the victims of the Pol Pot regime, at Phnom Sray. A legend was recounted to me : A man and a woman were in a competition to build the tallest mountain at night before sunrise. They were doing this because, as is the Khmer custom, men must ask the parents for the hand in marriage of the woman he loves. Apparently one particular man wanted to challenge this tradition so suggested that he gather a team of men to build a mountain. The woman gathered together to build another. Whichever team built the tallest mountain would win. If the men won, he would not have to ask her parents for their daughter; if he lost, he would. While they worked into the night, the women built a fire with flames high enough for the men to see. Since these flames reached the sky the men thought it was sunrise and put their tools down to rest. While they stopped working the women continued working and won the competition. To this day, a man must still ask a woman’s parents for permission to marry her.
Except for the dogs that tend to know I am afraid of them (I was bitten by one in Laos), Kampong Cham is full of charm with seemingly very happy people who neither hassle nor ignore you. It was a very good way to end my travels in Cambodia.
- Leap Mong Kol Hotel (Kampuchea Krom Street. Very basic rooms and off the radar because it is “out of town” which means it is all of five minutes to the centre. Staff do not speak English.
Places to Eat:
- Street Food everywhere
- Smile Cafe (along the Mekong – this resto is run by a local NGO, Buddhism and Society Development Association (BSDA), and is “a training restaurant for orphans and vulnerable youth”)
- Samaki Restaurant (right next to the Mekong and opened up by two graduates of the Smile Program. This resto supports local vocational training.