Archive for May, 2007

Phnom Penh Part Deux

Friday, May 11th, 2007

After a pleasant time down by the coast, I headed back to Phnom Penh, as most roads in Cambodia lead through it.

On a rainy afternoon I went down to Tuol Sleng (S-21) to burst my bubble of the last few days. S-21, once a high school, was used as a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge, and was the last stop for many lives before being sent to the killing fields. It is now a genocide museum.

As imposing and grey as most high schools around the world, it consists of several large cement buildings around a courtyard. Many of the rooms are open to visitors and showcase metal beds, torture devices, cramped cells, restraints.. Prisoners would be electrically shocked for so much as peeing or moving in their sleep without permission. It is a dark place, and haunting for visitors. Less so for Cambodians, it seems; locals play volleyball in the courtyard, and seem to be leaving the past behind them with vengeance. I can’t blame them.

A monthly party happens in Phnom Penh at Elsewhere, a grand palace of a bar, with courtyard, swimming pool and hundreds of ex-pats, visitors and a sprinkling of Cambodians alike drinking and dancing the night away. I went here that night, leaving behind the horrors of the museum, and enjoyed the new Cambodia, chatting with Amy, an Australian girl I’d met in Sihanoukville. It is always funny to come to these places, as once you’re inside the grounds, you could be just about anywhere. It certainly felt like miles from the crumbling buildings down the street.

The next day Douglas and I took a trip up to Silk Island to have a swim in the Mekong. Oasis 2. A 30 minute motorbike and ferry ride away, we were met with farmland, cows, mud (read: wipeout, burn, ouch), and locally produced silk scarves; another retreat from bustling Phnom Penh.

It is funny describe it as bustling, since when I first landed in the capital it certainly seemed like a quaint yet busy city, but nothing like the Bangkok I had just come from. Now, after seeing more rural parts of this country (read: the rest of the country), I couldn’t help but notice the lights at night, the back-lit fluorescent signs — not the hand-painted ones seen all around Cambodia, the traffic, the chaos. It is most definitely the capital, with all the grit and excitement any proper main city should have. I was happy to be back with new eyes.

And I was happy to leave very soon thereafter, heading up to the northeast.

Cambodia’s Coast: Sihanoukville, Kampot, Kep

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Leaving the intense heat of the past few days up north, I headed south to the coast for some beach bumming. Why was I not surprised, then, after a day’s journey on two buses, that providence brought heavy rains as I rolled into Sihanoukville, ending the drought of the last few weeks. No matter, I was determined to have a good time.

This coastal town was founded some forty years ago as Cambodia’s only deep-sea port, and quickly became a vacation spot until it was damaged during the Vietnam War and in more recent years remained largely unvisited due to poor security. The city itself sprawls across a strip a few kilometers long, connecting the three main beach areas.

I am told that the original backpacker area, Victory Hill, has been overrun in the past six months by French bar owners, opening girly bars, turning the otherwise charming strip into a Lamai (on Ko Samui) analogue. Indeed, the popular dirt road strip looked to be gearing up its sleaze as dusk approached. I did have pretty good Indian food there, though, so it was worth visiting for that 😉

Rather, I ended up spending five nights on the other side of town, up the road from Ochheuteal Beach (dubbed Serendipity Beach), at a fun guest house, with bar, restaurant and hammocks, perfect for enjoying rainy nights. You would think that torrential rains, power outages and my breaking of the sink in my bungalow (doing laundry, sending the whole barely-mounted unit shattering on the floor) would have soured my beach excursion. On the contrary, I found the rain super refreshing and discovered the joys of beer in a candlelit bar. Not to mention the thunderstorms, which were incredibly entertaining, lighting up the skies, brightening the beach for brief instants at a time.

The one day the skies remained clear I went SCUBA diving, with the hopes of seeing incredible coral life, like in Thailand. Sadly, most of the underwater population has been overfished (to wit, when asked about sea turtles, I am told a local laughed and replied “yeah, we had them about ten years ago; then we ate them all”), and much of the coral in the area dynamited (when not sold by the side of the road.) So, I explored what I could in the couple of diveable spots a couple hours off the coast; in the end, a few funky sea worms, hermit crabs, scorpion fish and very large angelfish made the excursion worthwhile.

After a leisurely five days in Sihanoukville, I took a share taxi to neighboring Kampot, capital of the eponymous province, and major producer of pepper and durian — surely a winning taste combination.

A dusty town with a French-colonial center and waterfront, it is a main trading post in this lush agricultural land. Wetter than Battambang, the surrounding areas are verdant, fresh rains pooling in rice fields stretching to the horizon.

The main attraction in the area is Bokor, Cambodia’s largest national park. Riding in the back of a pickup truck, the hour-and-a-half drive up the broken, bombed out road was painful, but the trip was worth every bruise on my butt. High up in the hills is Bokor Hill Station, the ruins of a French-built town from the 1920s, featuring a huge old hotel and casino. As is the case with most attractions in this country, the whole place is a dilapidated shell of what it once was, in this case an impressive, grand resort. The french even built a traditional European-style church in this hill-side town, no doubt hoping to carve out some religious or plainly bucolic connection to the old country. Though in tatters, the buildings give an incredible view of the foggy mountain, cloud formations changing quickly; one can even see the Vietnamese island if Phu Quoc just a few miles off shore.

After a couple of nights (and excellent Sri Lankan food) in Kampot, I was off to the small town of Kep. With a population of around 4000, it hugs the coastline, and was once a prime vacation destination; King Sihanouk even has a seaside villa there, which today goes unused. In fact, throughout the town are, surprise surprise, empty shells of old villas, ranging from colonial to modernist, their pockmarked concrete walls now home to squatters, bright laundry anachronistically drying in the doorways. Sitting amidst overgrowing plant life, they neighbor seaside shacks selling fresh seafood, a few boats, and the occasional cow grazing what it can find in the garbage strewn along the underused oceanview promenade.

Many people go to nearby Rabbit Island for the afternoon or to spend the night, but I was unable to find people to split the cost of the boat trip, which is quite expensive considering the distance. Instead, I made due with Kep’s inferior beaches, with once-imported sand now brown and unappealing. Not the best day at the beach, but I wasn’t one to complain.

Unpowered, hotels usually run their own generators at night, which adds to the charm of the area, not to mention the bill. This, plus the fact that just about everything is trucked in from neighboring Kampot, makes Kep a relatively expensive place to visit, which helps seal the sense of being a well-to-do visitor to a Cambodian riviera. Despite what it lacks, this rural town actually offers a lot of class and excellent food in a couple of choice locations. Undoubtedly this town will thrive again in the near future, as a romantic and probably elite destination. Much like the rest of the country, it has to catch up to what it once was before it was ravaged by revolution and war.

After a day of rolling around the town and surrounding farmland, it was time to head back to the capital before heading northeast.

Conveying the Moment

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Being a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and having seen every episode of A Cook’s Tour (and subsequent No Reservations), I recently picked up a copy of his print travelogue of the same name.

Bourdain, much to my enjoyment and dismay, captures so much of what I’ve observed and most likely failed to describe while traveling in Asia. His Vietnam chapters eloquently describe the tastes, smells, sounds, sights of the region; and though I haven’t yet arrived in Vietnam, much of his essays could describe Cambodia verbatim.

So, I am dismayed because trying to write well, attempting to weave all that I’ve seen — the smallest of details, those that constitute the real memories — has been difficult, especially under time constraints at internet cafés. Use a pen and paper, silly! you say.. well, yes I am silly. And I’m simply more used to typing. What a generation. I am a converse parody of my own father, who has been typing everything from books to screenplays to letters on a typewriter for as long as I can remember, signing the latter and adding postscripts in pen. [I won’t be surprised when my children, decades from now, will laugh at my touch-typing while they control their computers with their minds.]

I guess for now, all I can offer are rough sketches of my experiences, both written and in picture form. Perhaps I will write better, longer essays later; I will certainly make proper photos of the rough pictures I’ve posted so far.

Tony, I apologize in advance if I inadvertently plagiarize your writing.


Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

“The shared taxi took about two hours, and was the first air-conditioning I’ve felt in months of travel.. it was so nice!” gushed Chloe, an amiable Canadian, over beers in Siem Reap. Two hours? I was scheduled to do the same trip in reverse, heading to Battambang by slow-boat, and was beginning to reconsider the much longer ride ahead.

Early the next morning a dozen of us squeezed into a minivan, me butt barely fitting on a red fold-up kiddie chair in the door-well. Bleary eyed, we were deposited at the local ‘port’, a muddy path on the banks of Tonglé Sap Lake, where we settled, again sardine-like, into a small boat. The ride, estimated at 4-6 hours, would take nine, seeing as it is dry season and the water levels are visibly low — we rode quite a ways some ten feet below land in the afternoon. Occasionally we would stop to get unstuck from the mud, or to change the rotor blades on the engine.

Despite the lack of sleep and generally uncomfortable seating, the trip was beautiful and revealed a side of Cambodian life otherwise hidden. Following the lake’s coastline, we entered one of the small tributaries, forking into the Stung Sangker river that runs through the province. Battambang is supposedly Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ (and evidently sister city to agricultural Stockton, CA). Cutting through farmland, we would pass floating villages, with houses and shops on the water, far below temples and other buildings on stilts. I imagine that during the rainy season these are all more or less level, but nearly scraping the bottom it felt more like a Disneyland ride, model buildings off in the distance, animatronic life repeating itself.

Villages gave way to the far ends of rice fields, cows and chickens leisurely tending the weeds near the water, and the occasional uncaged pig. The most heartwarming sight was watching the children splashing in the river, each and every one turning to smile and wave at us passengers.

Finally arriving in Battambang in the afternoon, I settled into a hotel, whose rooftop restaurant offered views of a large city darkened at night. Despite its size and daytime life, this place is very quiet at night; a wooden riverside bar, the busiest place aside from Khmer discotheques, had maybe ten people when I went. Having grown up in a large city, it was actually quite nice to ride on the back of a moto through lengthy, unlit streets, a serene feeling I have during the occasional power outages in SF.

The following day I hired a motodup to take me to a couple of the sights outside the city limits. Rolling through the rural backroads, kicking up dust, we rode past dried up rice fields, all parched and brown, puckering for the rainy season to start. Our first order of business was a ride on the infamous bamboo train, an enterprising solution to the problem of antiquated and unreliable train service. When hired, the operators place a pair of train axles on the tracks, followed by a bamboo flatbed, topped off with a small gasoline engine, whose torque is engaged using a rubber band and large stick contraption. Brilliant. I’d almost expected to ride a see-saw powered train, as I remember from my childhood Lucky Luke books, but this would undoubtedly provide more thrills. Paying an exorbitant tourist price, we fit our moto on the train and took off, speeding down tracks built by the French ages ago with all the thrilling unreliability of the back car of a carnival roller-coaster. This was some of the best money I’ve spent yet, and my only regret is setting my camera to a high shutter speed and screwing up what could have been excellent photos.

We continued on dirt roads, past schools, fields, bicyclists, pausing at a temple that is home to thousands of fruitbats, and on to Wat Phnom Sampeau, a temple sitting high on a hill above killing caves once employed by the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners would be brought to mouth of the caves, where the KM bludgeoned them before tossing their bodies down the tall vertical drop; there is rumor that the KM also ate their victims’ organs for strength. At the foot of the temple remains a large gun once used by the government in its fight against the Khmer Rouge. My understanding of the place’s history is spotty, but the juxtaposition of execution site, war artillery, commemorative placards and newly erected Buddha statue and temple summed up a spirit pervasive throughout Cambodia; one foot in the past, sometimes glorious, often gruesome, one foot progressing forward as best as possible.

A couple of evening beers, and I was off to bed, having to wake up early to head down to the coast.