Travel and the Unexpected
While I was in Cambodia a good friend died in Thailand. I was not able to return in time for his funeral. This story is dedicated to his memory and to his wife.
A few days before I arrived in Cambodia an unknown gunman shot and killed Kem Ley as he was having his mid-morning coffee in a mini-mart in central Phnom Penh.
I had not heard of this man – someone my driver later described as “a holy man” – before my arrival and I did not know that his body was lying in state at Wat Chan pagoda in Chroy Changvar on the eastern side of the Tonle Sap River while I was enjoying revisiting many sights of the capital almost eight years after my first visit to the Kingdom.
On my first night in the city, driving at sunset from the airport to the excellent A&P Hotel in BKK1 district (in the south of the city and favoured by expatriates, full of international schools, great restaurants, hotels, shopping malls and embassies), there seemed to be an never-ending parade of cars and motor bikes driving without headlights on the wrong side of the road, with every man and his chien (there is still a very strong French influence in the country) bleeping his horn at every intersection as if to say, “Hallo Hallo! Look out! I am coming through!” and in the dust and low light along the Russian Federation Boulevard, I clenched my teeth, my fists and shut my eyes and hoped my driver knew what he as doing …
My notes from my visit almost a decade ago say that “Phnom Penh has a population of almost two million people and about four million cars and motor bikes and five hundred thousand diesel-fume belching buses.”
I don’t think I saw a single bus – smoke-belching or otherwise – in my time in the city, but the cars and bikes and cycles are still there. In plenty. At major intersections there are traffic lights that count down the seconds until the next light change, but at other intersections it is a case of “Sauve qui peut!” or “Everyman for himself!”
My little hotel (http://www.arthurandpaul.com) – just ten rooms of various sizes and layouts and views in a superbly reconfigured 1930s colonial house – was decorated in tones of black, white and yellow, with exotic Jean Cocteau drawings as decorations in many rooms, and with a lovely naturist / nudist swimming pool and sun bed area. I had booked for four days and eventually stayed for seven days enjoying the hotel’s great food and service and swimming pool and sun. The local newspapers offered over breakfast gave daily updates on the funeral arrangements for Kem Ley and his tens of thousands of supporters.
In my ignorance and bliss I paced the length of Monivong Boulevard – later to be part of the route of Kem Ley’s funeral procession. This crowded and bustling street with cracked and broken footpaths and a squashed cockroach outside the Vintage Wine Cellars has many supermarkets and wine shops and furniture shops and lighting stores offering for sale the most garish chandeliers and purple velvet and gilt “thrones” or armchairs for the nouveaux riches. The horrific days of the Khmer Rouge are indeed a long way forgotten – or perhaps just pushed to the back of memories.
As with many Asian cities, Phnom Penh has developed “Bar Streets” and “Pub Streets” and other similarly themed streets. Street 130 has its Angry Birds Bar, lots of girlie bars, massage places and all the other services that are so essential to travellers … Around Street 51 there is the Heart of Darkness gay bar, Skirts and The Pub, Pontoon and Howie’s: again no shortage of a place to wet your whistle.
Bentleys, Boats and Bikes
In a desperately poor country with beggars on streets and political turmoil, perhaps the thrones I saw in the furniture shops and the Western bars and luxury restaurants and five star hotels appealed to those driving the surprisingly numerous Lexus luxury cars, with Rolls Royce or Bentleys also frequently seen. The traffic mixture otherwise consisted of Toyota Corollas (many new or not-so-new cars have strips of blue plastic stuck to doors under the door handle to protect the body work from accidental fingernail scratches – understandable in a new car but amusing when the rest of the car is battered and rusty), six-seater tuk-tuks, and the inevitable and unavoidable plethora of motorcycles and bicycles.
The bicycles and motorbikes daily perform an almost balletic pas de douzaines. Imagine two octopuses making love or giving each other a sensual massage: the drivers of divers vehicles swerved and swooped and paused and parted and intertwined their paths and – somehow – all escaped at the other end still facing the direction they were aiming for … and still upright on their two or more wheels … and without a signal BLEEP of a horn or a clenched fist.
There are plenty of taxis in Phnom Penh – but even more tuk tuks and motorbikes all touting for custom. If you are walking along the roads, there is a continual parade of smiling men and boys offering visitors a tuk tuk or a “Moto” ride. On one ride the driver commented that things were not very good as there were no tourists. No tourists mean no passengers and no passengers mean no money. My visit was during the rainy season and the cooler and dryer high season was over, but to my eye there still seemed to be lots of visitors. Perhaps in the high season there are just so many more.
I planned a cruise on Cambo Cruises to the so-called “Silk Island”, about ninety minutes’ sailing from Phnom Penh’s floating port near Street 104. (Most streets are pretty prosaically named – or numbered – but some are more grandly branded and pay tribute to Mao Tse Tung, former King Norodom Sihanouk, Charles de Gaulle and Yugoslavia’s General Tito.) In a torrential downpour on my way to Street 104 my driver went ever more slowly and I got to the quay just in time to wave the cruise boat goodbye.
The following day I arrived on time and joined the other three passengers – a total of four guests and six or seven crew – for an excellent on-board lunch with wines and fresh coffees served during the ninety-minute cruise down the Tonle Sap and into the Mekong, dodging cross-river ferries, fishing boats trailing long nets supported by empty plastic bottles, and finally pulling in to a dirt bank on the desperately poor island of 2000 people. Dancers arrayed in giants’ costumes or Chinese dragon outfits were performing in a couple of villages as we travelled by tuk tuk to the collective silk farm for an excellent and informative tour that ended – surprise! – in the gift shop.
My days passed easily and slowly and quietly. Fifty or sixty laps of the A&P pool, breakfast of croissants, baguettes, eggs benedict, fresh coffee, newly-squeezed jus d’orange, yoghurt, muesli … and another fifty laps of the pool to burn it all off, tuk tuks here and there, many kilometres of walking, a glass or two of slow chilled Petit Bourgeois by the pool, a lunch or two at the lovely old FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) overlooking the superb Sisowath Quay and the river, a visit to the superb National Museum (whose roof was apparently restored some years ago by the Australian Government, and which was featuring a rather uninteresting exhibition of Cambodian art also sponsored by the Australian government) and then it was time to venture further afield.
Ann R, a friend who recently visited me in Chiang Mai, had spoken highly of Kampot – the pepper capital of Cambodia, and I had planned to go there to see the colonial architecture and pepper plantations … but stayed for a few more days naked by the pool in Phnom Penh, before flying to Siem Reap.
Again, my notes from years ago:
Siem Reap is a bit of a hippy town with its Pub Street and its Barber Street. One day a pickup truck passed me, with a trio of chubby pigs lying on their backs, with pump thighs wobbling in excited anticipation of becoming spare ribs and sweet and sour pork later that evening.
Phare – the Cambodian Circus
The town is still a very touristy place but it has a quiet colonial charm. It is a small place and everything is in easy walking distance of everything else – except for Phare – the Cambodian Circus.
My guest house booked me an excellent seat for the circus – but there was not an elephant or a lion in sight after a very long tuk tuk ride to the venue. Like many other commercial operations in Cambodia, the “circus” is designed as a youth training or rehabilitation or creative workshop to give old skills to new people or to give underprivileged people a chance for a better life. In another area of youth training, men and women who have been victims of human trafficking and exploitation are offered new leases of life by working in many Cambodian restaurants.
Phare (pharecircus.org) started in 2013 and offers high octane shows nightly in its little 300-seat “Big Top” tent. The night I attended there were seven performers and four excellent musicians. The hour-long show was hugely entertaining with acrobatic and dance skills demonstrated, feats of strength, comedy and pathos all woven into a non-stop performance that had the athletes dripping in sweat – and the audience dripping with tears of joy.
Les Artisans d’Angkor is another huge success story, as it was created to help rural people find work near their villages and since it started has provided employment
to over 1300 people including almost one thousand artisans who are preserving age-old skills of stone and wood carving, silk weaving and painting, lacquer work, and metal work.
The Siem Reap centre is a fascinating series of active workshops – and yes – there is the inevitable gift shop, but the products on sale are of excellent quality – and any purchases help preserve traditions. For more see www.artisansdangkor.com
It was in Siem Reap that my driver told me how revered Kem Ley was and how he (driver) hoped to be able to go to Phnom Penh to attend his (Kem Ley’s) funeral, as he (driver) bumped and ground his way along deeply pot-holed roads to my small guest house in the suburbs, around 500 metres from the royal palace.
Kem Ley was a political activist who criticised the government of PM Hung Sen – president of Cambodia People’s Party and whose signs and billboards are everywhere. There is not much of a presence of any opposition party. His funeral procession was held the day before I returned to Phnom Penh. Apparently no radio or television stations broadcast any coverage of the event – a surprising political statement as the procession was followed by huge crowds. A local paper debated whether there were tens of thousands or more – but finally settled on the cautious phrase, “There were many followers in the procession.” The Bangkok Post was a little more forthright stating that there were hundreds of thousands of participants. Photographs in local and international papers suggested that the Bangkok Post got it right.
Whatever the politics of the country, today’s Cambodia is a long way from the country I visited eight or so years ago. In both cities I visited there is a new optimism expressed in a huge building growth – apartment buildings, shopping malls, high-rise (eight or ten stories) office buildings, but still there is crushing poverty with people sleeping rough in the streets, beggars at many traffic lights and razor wire strung along tall walls to stop those who have NOT from coming into the homes of those who HAVE.
I am glad I was able to return to the country and perhaps the few dollars I paid to hotels and tuk tuk drivers and restaurants and craftsmen will help redress imbalances just a little. And I hope that Kem Ley’s assassination will pave the way for the political reforms that are apparently so necessary.
- Journey: July 2016
- Text and photographs (excl Kem Ley) © Christopher Hall 2016
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